Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tribute To Cliff Robertson: A Guest Post from Screenwriter Steve Latshaw

With the death this weekend of Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson, screenwriter Steve Latshaw looks back at meeting and working with this big-time star.

Charly and Me
Steve Latshaw

Cliff Robertson was 75 years old when we did a movie together back in 1999. Hard to believe that was more than twelve years ago. At that time, Cliff hadn't yet made his umpteenth comeback in the first Spider-Man (2002) movie for Sam Raimi. But he was still a formidable force of nature. 

I was writing a movie for director Fred Olen Ray and producer Andrew Stevens called Mach 2.  It was another in a series of low budget espionage/disaster pictures--sort of TV movies--we were making at the time.  We had actually created a new genre with these things:  the overseas buyers didn't like too much violence (as in gun violence), but they did love disaster movies. "Action without violence," they called it.  
But they didn't necessarily want the kind of movie like Earthquake (1974) where you introduce a bunch of soap opera characters, then put them in the middle of a natural disaster and kill them all off.  I mean, yeah, they wanted that.  But they wanted more.  So we came up with this hybrid thing.  Mix disaster with spies and espionage.  
We were doing these movies based on available stock footage from other studios in those days.  We'd buy up their action sequences (like plane crashes and stuff) and put our actors in the cockpit.  In this case, producer Andrew Stevens had purchased all the Concorde footage from Airport 1979: The Concorde. So, we cooked up an “A” story about the Concorde, pilot-less, flying over Europe, about to crash into Paris.  
For the “B” story--it was all an international conspiracy, involving the Vice President of the United States (a candidate for the Presidency), the man who was running for President against him (played by David Hedison), shadow government terrorists led by a renegade CIA officer (Michael Dorn), and an Air Force Captain (our hero, played by Brian Bosworth) who was, as luck would have it, afraid to fly! In other words: terrorists were plotting to crash the Concorde into Paris. (This was two years before the 9/11 tragedy, by the way. Our film was held up for release until a year or two after the horrible attacks on New York and Washington.)
Cliff was cast as the Vice President. Before he would agree to do it, he insisted on meeting with the director and me (the writer), just to see what kind of people we were.  So, we had lunch at the elegant Bistro Gardens, in Studio City.  
Cliff told great stories and I sat there mesmerized.  This was my childhood hero, pretty much the living embodiment of JFK to me.  My first encounter with Kennedy and Robertson was watching PT 109 (1963) with my Dad. This was the guy that led his crew to safety and rescue after their PT boat crashed. I know it was really Kennedy who was the hero--but Cliff Robertson WAS Kennedy to me. And now I'm sitting there talking script with him.  

So I listened and enjoyed and pinched myself.  I even got interested when the great man started pitching his idea for sequel to the movie Charly (1968) to us.  He'd even brought the script.  Charly had been based on the story "Flowers for Algernon", about a mentally handicapped man who, after scientific experimentation, becomes a genius.  But the science had a catch: and he eventually returned to his old life.  Cliff won an Oscar for that role. (More about that later.)

Things changed on our set. They always do. Reality sets in. Cliff wanted to be my "script collaborator" on Mach 2.  In other words, for the most part, he insisted on writing his own dialogue.  His character (Vice President Pike) was responsible for pushing the shadow government conspiracy in the film, so he had a certain amount of critical expositionary dialog to handle.  

Cliff rewrote it into a series of verbal essays about the nature of American politics and the importance of winning:  that the dark side of politics becomes the light side if you win. “Everybody has a dark side” and various other bits of gibberish. 

Cliff Robertson on the set of the Steve Latshaw-scripted 
film Mach 2. 
He'd hand me the pages and then allow me to "polish" them (which meant me trying desperately to sneak back in some of the exposition and story stuff, so the movie would make sense). Cliff had been hired for one day. And at the end of that day, what was planned as a ten page cameo had turned into twenty-odd pages of vintage Robertson. 

And you couldn't object without getting his dander up. He'd wave that Oscar for Charly at you or insist he'd taught William Goldman how to be a screenwriter on the set of Masquerade (1965). 

By the time we finished shooting Mach 2, I think only one scene remained that I wrote in its entirety. (It was a car scene where Robertson tells his aide to disappear or he'd be killed).  And speaking of Charly, Cliff kept waving the script of that Charly sequel, in his briefcase, called Charly II, which actually read as if it had been written for another “Charly,” Charlie Bronson.  

In Cliff's Charly II, Charly's neighborhood is being terrorized by a local street gang. So Charly decides to get smart again and also learn martial arts so he can kick their collective asses.  Lots of martial arts action in that one. Also a love story. I think.

But who really cares? He had an Oscar. I didn't. He had a career.  I was just starting. And he was a principled man, a man whose career was damaged when he insisted on telling the truth about sleazy-but-powerful Columbia Producer David Begelman, who once forged Cliff's name on a check.  

Cliff lived his principles in another way too: serving in the Merchant Marines in World War II. So getting my stuff tampered with didn't really matter to me. 
It was lots of fun and Mr. Robertson actually made our collaboration seem like a collaboration, even though it wasn't. Not really. He treated me as an equal, which I was not. He offered some sage and excellent advice about raising my--at that time--somewhat errant son. A son who is now a hero of his own (and mine), serving proudly with the US Coast Guard.  
And Cliff later wrote me some kind words of encouragement when I was crashing and burning through a tough divorce.
He was Cliff Robertson: star of 633 Squadron (1964) and Devil's Brigade (1968) and JW Coop (1972) and Obsession (1976) and Three Days of The Condor (1975) and PT 109. Especially PT 109.  He'd been in my fanboy radar a long, long time. (Editor's note: Steve! Steve! You forgot the part where he played the Big Kahuna in Gidget (1959)! His best part!)
And he was every bit the star I remembered from childhood.  And more.  I liked him a lot.  And I cherished the time I spent working with him.
Steve Latshaw
Hollywood, CA

Robertson in that movie Steve forgot to mention, Gidget, with Sandra Dee.  The Big Kahuna doesn't get the girl.  But he steals the film.

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osvaldo neto said...

Another great, heartfelt written piece by Steve. I've also shared it on my blog and social networks. Cheers to you Robin, Steve, his son Ryan and of course, Cliff Robertson! Who don't miss actors like him with such personality at the movies and TV these days?

Craig Edwards said...

What a wonderful piece about one of my favorite actors! I first became a fan of Cliff Robertson after my incredibly wonderful seventh grade English teacher - the incomparable Ms. Rita Williams - had us read the short story version of "Flowers for Algernon." I remember some months later reading in TV Guide that channel 30 (KDNL) out of St. Louis was going to be showing a movie called "Charly" and that it was based on this short story that I had dearly loved. I caught the movie the night it aired - and I've been a Cliff Robertson fan ever since.

I'm watching Mach 2 in my limited time during my morning routine before work - not the best way to watch a movie, but in my current situation usually the only way, especially if it's an action flick or horror movie. I will really enjoy Cliff Robertson's part - and I'll pay special attention to that one 1005 Steve Latshaw scene! Cheers!