Adventure Loving Man—Cliff Robertson
“A man must be prepared, never in doubt,” says Cliff Robertson, one of the newest, most fascinating young actors to join the ranks of Hollywood’s I very eligible bachelors.
Cliff’s insistence on being prepared i applies to all phases of his life—especially marriage. Intelligent, unaffected, and good-looking in a rugged way, this thirty-one-year-old has never been married. Nor is he currently in love. Cliff feels that he should remain single a while longer, until he is qualified to meet the many responsibilities of marriage and family life.
Now under contract to Columbia Pictures, with just two movies to his credit, “Picnic” and “Autumn Leaves,” Cliff has caused many eyes, in Hollywood and throughout the country, to look his way with great interest. And, not only is he worth watching, but there is much about this adventurous fellow worth knowing.
Calling Cliff adventurous is putting it mildly. During his young life, he has seen most of the world, a great deal of war action, and at various times has been a lobster fisherman, newspaperman, newscaster, seaman, waiter, stevedore, bodyguard and private detective!
Although he was born and raised in La Jolla, California, it might as well have been a million miles, rather than a hundred, from Hollywood for all it helped toward getting him into show business. His parents had been Texas ranchers, and they died before Cliff was two years old. After that, he was brought up by his beloved grandmother.
“She is a remarkable woman,” Cliff says appreciatively. “She’d already raised her own family, but she came out from Denver and took up nursing to bring up two other grandchildren, too, when their mother died of tuberculosis. Grandma gave us a houseful of happiness, and she’ll always be in my heart.”
During his school days, Cliff alternated between wanting to become a flier and a sailor. It was to be a long, eventful time before he finally decided on acting. “I was in high school plays,” he says, “because I was always interested in dramatics. But I’d never have been allowed to think of acting as a future. Grandma was conventional,” he grins. “She felt it was fine just as a hobby.” Nevertheless, she was pleased and proud about Cliff’s being president of the high school dramatic club for three years, as she was about all his efforts to get ahead.
Always a restless youngster, Cliff recalls, “I couldn’t wait to see more of the world. I wasn’t rebellious—merely independent.” At the end of his junior year, he asserted his independence and decided to hitchhike to Dallas to try out for the summer theatre there.
“When I told Grandma my plan,” says Cliff, “she surprised me by replying, ‘Well, Clifford, you use your own good judgment’! Her trust was the best gift she could have given me. A woman should let a boy try to become a man.”
Cliff had earned enough money working after school to pay for his busfare to Dallas, plus twenty dollars extra “to last until I talked myself into a job at the theatre.” At least, that’s the way he had planned it. However, he recalls ruefully, “When the bus stopped in a little town in New Mexico, I lost my money gambling. They shouldn’t let kids gamble, but they do in some places.” As if this weren’t bad enough, Cliff then proceeded to cash in the remainder of his bus ticket—to gamble some more. “I promptly lost the rest of my money,” he confesses, “except for twenty cents I’d saved for food.”
The first thing to do, he told himself, was to be practical. But, with just twenty cents—how? “I knew that carrots were healthy and very cheap, so I bought a big bunch to survive on. Then I headed for the freight yard to camp out until I figured how to get out of the mess.”
Of course, he was too independent—and proud—to ask his grandmother to “bail him out.” Then he thought of a friend, Emmett Blake, who worked on a newspaper in Maryland. “I sent him a collect wire, asking for a loan of twelve dollars,” Cliff says. “Those were the longest two and a half days I’ve ever lived. I still can’t look at raw carrots!”
Cliff haunted the Western Union office, waiting for a reply from Emmett Blake, all the while nibbling on his dwindling supply of carrots. When the money came, he proceeded on his way to Dallas.
There, he recalls, “I hung around the little theatre until they couldn’t say no. They were doing Shakespeare, and I made the fastest changes in my life, playing three supporting roles, when they put on ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ I’ve been able to hurry ever since,” he grins.
By the end of the summer, Cliff had earned enough to return home by train. In order to see more of the country, he routed his way via Colorado and San Francisco. Once again, he contracted gambling fever. “You’d think I’d have learned my lesson,” he smiles, “but I hadn’t. I threw away my cash in a slot machine and had to send another wire to Emmett from Denver, asking him to send me ten dollars.”
While waiting for Emmett to rescue him a second time, Cliff didn’t want to waste time. Recalling Richard Halliburton’s exciting travel tales, which he had read with great envy, it occurred to Cliff that climbing Pikes Peak would be a wonderful adventure. It was an adventure, but terrifying is a better word for it.
“I hitchhiked directly to the foot of the mountain,” he relates. “It was pretty cool when I got there at six that evening, and I was wearing only a cloth jacket. But I sat down in a hot-dog stand for an hour and warmed up. It was twenty-eight miles up the mountain by auto, and nine by cable car or the trail. It was dark at seven, when I started up through the woods. At 2 a.m. I was still climbing, but not at a brisk space. It was icy, almost freezing, and I remember stumbling side-wards and nearly falling over a cliff. When I pulled myself together I began climbing again. At 5:30 a.m. the sun rose over the Rockies; that was a magnificent sight. I’ve never in my life been so miserable from the cold, but the tremendous thrill made it worthwhile.
“There was one last steep grade before I reached the top at 7 a.m.,” Cliff goes on. “I hadn’t eaten the day before, and everyone was merrily stuffing themselves in the coffee shop—the smell was marvelous. I had fifteen cents in my pocket, and when I found coffee and a doughnut cost twenty-five cents, I spent my last fifteen cents for the coffee alone. One good reason helped me to get by on it,” Cliff adds. “I wanted to climb that mountain.”
When he returned to Denver, still not having had anything to eat, the money from Emmett hadn’t arrived. Cold and hungry, he tramped the streets all day, then he went into the railroad station to get warm. “I was so bushed,” Cliff recalls, “I crawled into an empty baggage car in the freight yard to sleep. I woke up suddenly with awful hunger cramps.I yelled for help, but there was no answer.”
Finally, the next day, the money arrived, and Cliff continued on his trip as planned. In San Francisco, he spent a whole day on the waterfront in wide-eyed fascination. Then, since he had a week left before school started, he decided to “look around Hollywood.”
Just the sight of the movie studios intrigued him, and he spent a long time staring at each and every one of them. “I don’t recall seeing any important stars,” Cliff says.
During his senior year in high school, Cliff was accepted to Antioch College, in Ohio. “I wanted to go there because my friend Emmett had liked it.” To earn money for his fare and some new clothes, he became a lobster fisherman. “I had a little boat,” he explains, “and every day at 4 a.m. I’d go out and set my lobster traps. After school, I sold the lobsters.”
Towever, once graduation day had passed, the restless desire to travel once again took hold of Cliff and he decided to postpone college for a year. Another friend, Bill Meanly, agreed to be his traveling buddy.
‘When I said I was going to sea,” Cliff recalls, “the other guys thought I was whacky. They wondered who I knew to fix it. I got a big laundry bag, which seemed like a sea bag to me. You have to be brave when you claim you’re going to do a thing. I didn’t even know how you got a job on a boat,” he grins, “but I was afraid to chicken out.
When Bill came to pick me up in his car, I said goodbye to Grandma and Bill and Norma, my cousins who were like my brother and sister. I had to keep asking myself, ‘Am I actually doing this?’
We drove to San Francisco like the wind. When we got there we didn’t know the procedure, but we soon learned we needed papers. I was too young, so I had to write home for permission. Next we had to join the union. Then they put us on a list, and we’d check daily at Sailors’ Hall.
After six weeks of this, Bill got signed onto a Danish freighter on which no English was spoken. ‘Well, buddy,’ he said, ‘this is it!’ I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, how am I going to make out?’ ”
True to tradition, Cliff managed, and soon he was signed onto an old freighter which was going to the Philippines. “I was signed on as an ordinary seaman. Nothing appeared more romantic to me than heading out through the Golden Gate.
“There were two other young fellows in the crew: Joe Bananas, a big blond; and Lipsky, from the South Side of Chicago. Both were rough, but good-hearted.”
Naturally, since Cliff was around, there was bound to be some excitement, and the first round came when they had nearly reached the Philippines. “I was coming off my watch,” says Cliff, “and I was attracted by a plane coming toward us. As it came closer, I saw its bomb bay open. I couldn’t believe it when it began to bomb us!”
As the shrapnel began to fly, Cliff raced below deck to rouse Joe Bananas from his bunk. “Since we weren’t at war,” says Cliff, “and didn’t know Pearl Harbor had just been bombed, Joe was stubborn. ‘We’re being attacked!’ I shouted. ‘I mean it!’
“Then I grabbed my life preserver and my camera—which was empty, of course—as another bomb sent more shrapnel shrieking. Joe finally got the message—he had nothing on when he tore up those stairs and into a lifeboat!”
The freighter was left to sink, but, says Cliff, “They hadn’t hit us directly, so we were able to make it to port—Zamboango.”
In spite of the damage, the ship sailed on. “We spent a month getting to Australia,” Cliff recalls. “Manila was at war, so we camouflauged the ship and moved under wraps at night, hiding days. There are thousands of small islands around there. When we got to Australia, they gave us a big celebration—only we weren’t permitted off the ship!”
The freighter moved on to New Zealand, where Cliff decided to look for another kind of adventure. “I had a bug about flying,” he says. “A pal of mine had joined the R.A.F. in England, so I decided to join the New Zealand Air Force then and there. I jumped ship for a week to try to get into action, but the Air Force said my eyes were too weak.”
So he returned to his ship. “I had a thrilling voyage back,” Cliff recalls. “Twelve thousand miles of zigzagging, because we had no arms and it was rumored that the Japs were lurking all the way. Everybody swore we wouldn’t make it, and it was even reported that our ship was lost. Back home, Grandma was the only one who wouldn’t believe the news. ‘I know Cliff’s alive!’ she insisted. When I finally got back, the guys around town greeted me with, ‘Hey, you’re dead!’ ”
Cliff remained home for four days, just long enough to pack his things for Antioch College. And, although he attended for only a year, it proved to be the most decisive time of his life.
“Antioch was great,” he says. “It’s a progressive school, where you study for a while, then work for a while; they feel so many people prepare for what they find they don’t like, so they try to prevent this. I asked to be a special student, one who works at a full-time job all along.”
Permission granted, Cliff got a job in near-by Springfield. First he was a copy boy on a newspaper, then radio editor. “I was fired for hobnobbing with the radio stations, so I went to work as a local newscaster.”
At school, Cliff became great friends with the dean. “He was the first person who was positive I should be an actor,” says Cliff. “They gave a fantastic test there, a comprehensive which lasted eight hours a day for a week. Then Dean Pillard talked to me about the results. He began a three-hour session with me by telling me things about myself that no one had ever mentioned. ‘You’re lucky,’ he concluded. ‘You’re capable of doing what you want to do, so go ahead and become an actor. Don’t worry any more about what people will say!’
“You know,” says Cliff seriously, “Dean Pillard’s saying I had the basic talent has kept me plugging away ever since. I swore not to listen to anyone who said I couldn’t do it.”
However, thoughts about acting were temporarily put aside while Cliff went to war. When he enlisted in the Navy, his previous sea experience led to his being assigned to the Maritime Service. “I was sent to Catalina as an instructor; a lot of the fellows couldn’t even swim. But I wanted action, and I finally got it as an able seaman.” Two years of war later, Cliff was ordered to New London for further training. As a third mate, he was sent back to the South Pacific. And later, when he participated in the invasion of Italy, and in dangerous North Atlantic crossings at the peak of the war, he never received a scratch. Today, he still qualifies as a third mate and is a lieutenant j. g. in the Naval Reserve.
“After the war,” Cliff goes on, “I spent eight more months at sea on a combined cargo-passenger ship that went to the West Indies. I bided my time, because I wanted to make enough money to tide me over when I later took a crack at the stage. I was happy at sea—never got seasick once—but it can get so much in your blood you’ll never give it up. I vowed I’d not go back to sea once I’d left it. Later, when I was almost down and out in New York, I lived near the waterfront, and the sea haunted me.”
It was 1946 and he had taken a job as a waiter. It lasted for five days. “I was going nuts trying to take care of the crowd,” says Cliff. “A prissy headwaiter kept flitting about, goading me to be quicker. I’d already learned to hurry, so when he didn’t knock it off I finally threw my whole tray of desserts on the floor. All the people laughed. I walked into the kitchen and out the back door. I never went back.”
When nothing else clicked, Cliff landed work as a longshoreman, loading ships. It was tough work, but it didn’t do his physique any harm.
Then, gradually, he began inching his way into show business. “When I was twenty-two,” he recalls, “I worked with Jack Lemmon at a music hall on Third Avenue. They were presenting ‘The Drunkard,’ the old-time melodrama. Jack was the roving master of ceremonies, and after I did my bit I doubled as bus boy.”
After that came some summer stock in small towns throughout New England. Back in Manhattan in the winter, Cliff managed to get parts on radio once in a while. Then came some TV roles. But always, when the rent was due, there was a scramble. When constant trips to casting offices resulted in nothing but rejections, Cliff worked as a bodyguard then as a private detective. After a year of scraping by, he got his first decent break, in the road company of “Mister Roberts.” He toured with the show for two years, which landed him in quit a few cities he’d otherwise have missed.
By the time he was twenty-five, Cliff was back in New York, aching to act on Broadway. Instead, he found himself doing more and more in radio and television. Then, since he had never attended a dramatic school, he decided to try to get into the famous Actors’ Studio.
“It took me two and a half years to even get up nerve enough to try out,” says Cliff. “I didn’t want to fail if I applied.” He finally auditioned, along with a hundred other hopefuls. At the end of the year there were thirty-seven finalists, three of whom were finally accepted as students. Cliff was one of them.
Cliff ultimately debuted on Broadway because he never stopped studying and working. Between plays he scored in more than a hundred of the best live dramatic shows on TV. After he made his Broadway appearance, with Helen Hayes in “The Wisteria Trees,” he received the movie bid that he felt, at last, was the right one. He’d received offers from Hollywood for five years, but after talking to actors who’d worked in films he decided to consider each offer cautiously. He also relied on his instinct. He wanted to possess a sense of values that wouldn’t be warped. “I felt that professionally and emotionally I wasn’t mature enough to try the movies,” he says of his postponing previous bids.
While acting in “The Wisteria Trees,” Cliff was spotted as a possible for a role in “Picnic.” Columbia gave him a screen test in New York for it. At the same time, he was standing by to replace Ben Gazzara in the lead of the hit play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” Cliff says “so I decided to check directly with Elia Kazan, who was going to give me the big break on the stage. He happened to be in Greece. I phoned him long-distance—after all, if you’re going to do something, do it! ‘Well, kid,’ he answered, ‘if you’re back from Hollywood in eight weeks, I can get a replacement for you till then.’ ”
When Cliff reached the Kansas location for the picture, a tornado delayed the shooting schedule and he couldn’t return in time for the play. So he stayed in Hollywood and became a star there instead.
“I expected work in Hollywood to be different. I figured I’d have to learn and relearn for the movies,” Cliff says. “Everyone’s been tremendously kind. I didn’t know anything about the camera. I like the change, though. What’s surprised me is the great talent I’ve encountered have I’ve met writers, directors, and actors, who have extraordinary ability, and their skill is not being misused. They’re not parked on a shelf. Hollywood has a healthier working atmosphere than I anticipated.”
Cliff has been in excellent company. Bill Holden sat up many an evening on the “Picnic” location, generously giving him advice. Rosalind Russell, an ace example of a stage and movie star, discussed the aspects of working in both mediums. And he found Kim Novak one of the hardest-working girls he’s ever known.
Cliff played his role of the fellow who had everything handed to him so convincingly, he was cast next opposite Joan Crawford in “Autumn Leaves.” In striking contrast, he plays a husband who is so upset he goes violently berserk.
“Joan couldn’t have been more helpful in either the test or in making the picture,” says Cliff. “She’s the most glamorous of stars, yet she dared something entirely different for her because it’s a challenge. As an average secretary, in ‘Autumn Leaves,’ she has none of her usual luxury, wears only what any working girl can afford. She’s still glamorous without all the trimmings, demonstrating that you don’t need a lot of money to be well-groomed.”
Cliff has been particularly impressed by the team spirit shown on movie sets. “There’s a pride,” he says, “in doing your best in Hollywood that is an inspiration!
Now under long-term contract to Columbia, Cliff will make two films a year, with the studio having an option for a third. He can do one outside film of his own choice each year, and all the TV and stage plays he wishes that don’t conflict. After two years, he’ll be allowed a whole year off, He can make any deals at the salary he may draw then, or he can travel. “I’d like to combine stage, screen, and TV, because,” he grins, “acting isn’t like marriage—professionally, you can have three loves at once!”
This eligible candidate for marriage-type love has also studied singing, dancing, boxing, and riding since he’s come to Hollywood. And he’s delighted by movie love scenes, explaining, “On the stage, kisses are faked; but the movie camera comes so close, they can’t be faked.”
Cliff is an individualist, but not an exhibitionist. In Hollywood, he’s been living in a garage apartment until he’s more permanently settled. His place is forever in need of a feminine hand. “I have no sense of organization,” he admits. “I can’t get around to the little things. I’ve kept my apartment in New York. In one corner of it there is a can of paint I bought four years ago that’s still unopened. Next to the paint there’s the rug I bought three years ago, still wrapped up.”
Cliff’s friends, who are not all in show business, agree a wife could have a wonderful time with him, in many ways. Thus far, however, romance has added up to no more than taking a girl out for a quiet dinner and the movies. “I don’t go for excessive beauty,” he says frankly. Partial to blonds, he doesn’t care for artificial make-up. Nor does he want his social time arranged so he’ll be seen only with important names.
Cliff has gone with a lot of girls, but has never proposed because of his acute sense of responsibility. “I just couldn’t afford to marry while I’ve been so uncertain about myself. In this precarious business, I believe it would be better to marry someone who understands all its pitfalls, but who isn’t involved personally.”
Added to his unaffected and home-loving traits, Cliff shows a definite fondness for sports. He plays tennis, skis, goes to ballgames, and fishes. He also has a passion for sailing—as you may have surmised—and he someday wants to make it clear across the Pacific alone!
Cliff isn’t just lucky. It’s taken him nine years, and he started from the very bottom. But now his struggles are behind him and, although he has long since left the sea, it seems certain that there’s only clear sailing ahead for this talented, adventure-Ioving young man.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE AUGUST 1956