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Thomson on Films: Cliff Robertson and the Sordid Ways of Old Hollywood

Cliff Robertson died the other day. He was 88, and I suppose he was what is called an establishment figure. Long ago he had won an Oscar for his performance in Charly (1968) about a retarded man who is given an experimental drug that lets him find genius (and his doctor, Claire Bloom) but then slips back to being a fool, and he was perfectly OK in the film if you can manage to sit through it now, in which case you may surmise that nearly any actor in that begging role might have won the Oscar. Robertson also played John Kennedy in PT 109, Cole Younger in Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid and Hugh Hefner in Star 80. He was promisingly nasty in Sam Fuller’s Underworld USA, but he never let that side develop. In truth, Robertson was respectable, and dull, and just a little self-important. He had been born wealthy and he married rich with his second marriage, to Dina Merrill, an actress and an heiress. But David Begelman made him look bad in a way that says so much about the old Hollywood.

David Begelman was two years older than Robertson. Robertson served in the merchant marine in the war and then attended Antioch College, before dropping out to pursue acing. Begelman was in the Air Force during the war and said he had been to Yale, but no one ever checked until it was too late. He became an agent and the manager of illustrious careers, first at the MCA talent agency and then at the new agency, CMA, which he co-founded with Freddie Fields. He screwed some of his clients in an amiable, regular way; it was part of being excited by their talent. But he also screwed them financially. He was especially attentive to the very vulnerable Judy Garland. He skimmed away several hundred thousand dollars of her income and he seems to have extorted more from her on the suggestion (false) that there was a photograph of her naked and unconscious having her stomach pumped out.

These were odious, dirty tricks, though Begelman seems to have dealt in small sums—it was just that there were a lot of them. Moreover, he had charm, glamour, and the talk and a lot of his clients loved him, because in so many ways he really did look after them. You may say that this was disgusting behavior as well as illegal, but people like Judy Garland needed to feel loved to deliver their art and their show, and Begelman adored show business. It wasn’t his fault that agents had somehow settled on taking just 10 or 15 per cent, instead of, say, 50—and there were agents, like Joe Glazer (who specialized in black talent) who took as much as 50 when they could.

Anyway, Begelman rose in the sky until he became a chief executive at Columbia. It was then that Cliff Robertson’s tax attorney pointed it out to the actor that he had received a check for $10,000 from Columbia. I don’t remember that, said Robertson, I never got that money; and when he saw the check he realized that his endorsement had been forged “for cash.” There was an investigation, and it turned out that Begelman had been doing quite a lot of this thing, but usually with modest sums. In the early 70s, making a fuss over $10,000 was regarded as picky or anal in Hollywood.

Everyone said they were amazed and shocked and Begelman was rapped over the knuckles and dismissed from Columbia. But Robertson was black-listed, and that really is the point of the story. Cliff Robertson reported the matter to the IRS and his being justified and right had nothing to do with the town’s reaction. No had much liked Robertson and hundreds of people enjoyed Begelman’s amusing company. Yes, it seemed clear that the agent and then the executive had been screwing people steadily, but that is a sign of affection in the town. Anecdote: One day John Wayne was at a Warner Brothers party and much aggrieved. He had reason to believe the studio was steadily cheating him on profits from his pictures. So Jack Warner could see the actor was grumpy and he went up to him and asked, “What’s the matter, Duke?” “Well, Jack,” said the shy Wayne. “I’ve got a notion you’re screwing me.”

“Duke, of course, we are, “said Jack Warner, “but we’re your friends!”

It’s always hard to tell with actors and when they are cast and when they are not. Robertson was fifty and rather stodgy, and now there was an edge of his righteousness to his personality. He let it be known that he thought he was being ostracized because he had exposed a rascal. In his way, Begelman was disgraced, but he had had a long practice in “doing disgrace” like losing at cards. In just a few years the executive was back at MGM (a studio no longer in great shape) and he seemed to be rehabilitated. He was making pictures again. Whereas Robertson found himself settling for small and marginal roles.

Still, by the early 1990s, David Begelman had fallen once more. He was bankrupt. So he checked into a luxury hotel in Century City in 1995 and shot himself with the gun friends attested he had always carried. It was a horrible end for a man in his early seventies, but there was a part of Hollywood that read the story and sighed, That Begelman! Till the very end he behaved like someone in a movie. Wasn’t it a brave and classy way to go? Wasn’t it a sign of the nerve that the town had always liked in the guy? Why had he carried the gun? Wasn’t it because he’d guessed that, one way or another, he’d have to use it?

Of course, times have changed, and the small sins of the golden age must be treated in perspective. No one now would dream of keeping in fraudulent practice just for $10,000.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.