Class of 2009 – Cliff Robertson
Actor and aviator Cliff Robertson (Uncle Ben to Spiderman folks) was unable, for health reasons, to join us for his induction into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Luckily he felt well enough (Must have been a spider bite! Sorry, I had to) to call us on the phone and tell us what aviation has meant to him and his life. Listen below:
The biographical information below was compiled by Alan Renga, Assistant Archivist, for the 2009 International Hall of Fame Gala. For more information on the Museum’s Library and Archives, click here.
He is a pilot, an Academy Award and Emmy-Award-winning actor as well as the founder of a very popular youth program within the EAA. He is Cliff Robertson.
Robertson was born in La Jolla, California in 1925 and it was here that he developed a love for aviation. He would ride his bike several miles each day to work at Speer airport, where he would clean airplanes in return for flights in a piper cub. However, Cliff would leave the area to serve his country during World War Two and attend Antioch College in Ohio. After college he went to New York and started work acting on stage, film and eventually television, working in such varied shows as the Twilight Zone and Gidget.
His acting career then took off, and he was personally chosen by John F. Kennedy to portray the president in the motion picture P.T. 109 —the story of Kennedy’s heroic World War II exploits as a P.T. Boat skipper. Perhaps he is best known for starring in Charly, an adaptation of Flowers for Algernon for which he won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor. Other films included Picnic, Sunday in New York, Autumn Leaves, Too Late the Hero, Three Days of the Condor, Obsession, J. W. Coop, Star 80 and Malone. More recently, Robertson’s career has had a resurgence. He appeared as Uncle Ben Parker in the first movie adaptation of Spider-Man, as well as in the sequels Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3.
Yet with all his success and fame, Cliff’s love for aviation has never waned. While filming in England, Robertson decided to join the Fair oaks Flying Club and soloed in a De Havilland Tiger Moth…he enjoyed the airplane so much he bought one of his own, and eventually owned three of the type. This lead Cliff to purchase another British legend: a Supermarine Spitfire. Over the years he owned other aircraft, including a Messerschmitt Me-108 and a Beech Baron 58. In addition to powered flight, Robertson enjoys gliding and owns a two place glider, a Grob Twin Astir.
However, aviation for Robertson is not strictly a leisurely affair. In 1969, Robertson helped organize an effort to fly food and medical supplies to war ravaged Biafra, Nigeria. For this effort he was presented with AOPA’s Sharples Award, given for “the year’s greatest, selfless commitment to general aviation by a private citizen.” When a famine hit Ethiopia in 1978, Robertson again organized relief flights of supplies to that country. In addition, he is dedicated to helping others experience the joy of flight. Robertson takes an active part in the Cliff Robertson Work Experience Program. Each summer, two youths, 16 or 17 years old, are invited to Oshkosh, through the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Air Academy, where they work for ground and flight instruction. The EAA’s Young Eagles program began in 1992 with Robertson as its first honorary chairman. In 1999, he helped kick off the EAA’s campaign, “Vision of Eagles”, a unique set of initiatives designed to educate, motivate and provide direction to young people through aviation-based activities. As if this wasn’t enough, he has received the EAA’s highest honor, the “Freedom of Flight Award,” for his role in the organization’s “In Pursuit of Dreams” presentation.
For his being one of America’s most influential ambassadors of flight, the San Diego Air & Space Museum take great pride in inducting Cliff Robertson into its International Aerospace Hall of Fame.