Cliff Robertson


The Oscar-winning actor talks about computers, videogames, and his good friend Ray Kassar, the man who runs Atari.

To date, Cliff Robertson has had a career of remarkable quality and diversity. Born in La Jolla, CA in 1925, he went to Antioch College and, after serving in the Second World War, joined a small acting troupe. He subsequently appeared in movies as well as television, starring in episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, not to mention one of the first science fiction TV series, Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers.

Robertson played JFK in 1963’s P.T. 109 and won an Oscar for his performance in Charly in 1968. His most recent film is the science fiction epic Brainstorm, a picture which was two weeks from completion when star Natalie Wood died. Brainstorm is going to be completed and released early next year, along with Robertson’s new film, directed by Bob Fosse (All That Jazz), in which the actor plays Hugh Hefner.

Brainstorm is a plausible adventure in which a scientist (played by Christopher Walken) working at Robertson’s hi tech facility finds a means of transmitting videotape and computer-generated feelings and experiences directly into the human brain. How this process gets out of hand lends the film both its drama and title.

Cliff Robertson isn't playing Air-Sea Battle, he's preparing for a bombing run in the much underrated war film 633 Squadron.

Q: In our pages, people have praised videogames for helping us take out our aggressions or develop hand-eye coordination. Do you have anything more “philosophical” to say about the medium?

A: Oh, I sometimes think that life itself is a videogame. When I look back I realize that we are all kind of maneuvering through pretty narrow straits sometimes, trying to avoid the shoals, the rocks, the storms. I feel that on a subliminal level, the people who play videogames are reassuring themselves. Keeping from being gobbled up or shooting down the invaders is a way of reinforcing in their own minds that right will win. They’re trying to reaffirm their reason for living and working and believing.

Q: Videogames seem to represent a better world?

A: Certainly a more responsive one. It’s a chance to be a hero for a moment. People who leave arcades seem to strut a little bit. It can work the other way, of course, you can be beaten. But that’s only temporary. You can get as many cracks at the machine as you want, something which doesn’t always happen in real life. But it translates to life, makes you realize that to win at anything you’ve got to be alert, keep on your toes.

Q: Why do you think that women are not as attracted as men are to the medium?

A: Society has been responsible for bringing up women to feel that they can’t handle or are not as good at anything mechanical. It’s a psychological, not biological reason.

Q: In Charly, you lambasted television as “beautifully purposeless.” Do you actually feel that way?

Robertson, in his Oscar-winning role as Charly.

A: Television is the most exciting communications medium that’s happened in our society. The sad thing is how it’s misused in terms of the programs. But when you talk programs you’re talking dollars. You hear people talk about stimulating and educating through television, but the bottom line is it’s got to make money. It’s governed by the buck philosophy, which is why you only hear people talk about doing these things.

Q: Aren’t videogames answerable to red ink!

Cliff Robertson: actor, writer, director … and videogame buff!

A: Yes, but to a different end. Videogames are just the beginning, the appetizer, a way to arrest peoples’ attention and excite their reactions. They don’t just sit there and listen, they participate. This is a harbinger for using TV rather than just staring at it. We’ll see all kinds of new dimensions applied to it. Today, they’re like the first crossword puzzles, which took under a minute. Look at the New York Times puzzle compared to that!

Q: Can videogames become so complex and satisfying that they supplant passive entertainment like movies and network TV?

A: There are times when we want the storyteller to lead us, times when we want to listen. Then there are times when we want a sense of control. There’s room for them both. Either/or situations don’t really exist for us any more. Ever since the Russian satellite sputnik went into orbit in 1957, we’ve seen that nothing is impossible, that human reach is limitless and therefore so are human options.

Q: Brainstorm is a tale of humankind overextending its reach. Before discussing the film, what’s your impression of director Doug Trumbull, a man who has hitherto devoted his career primarily to creating special effects for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Brainstorm?

A: In Hollywood, “brilliance” is used far too often, and very carelessly. However, Doug is brilliant. For years he’s been in the back room; the guy who is the reason behind the success of some of the directors who stand up and take bows with great alacrity.

Q: Tell us about the character you play.

A: He is to the manor born, a man from North Carolina with a scientific background. He decided to take the five thousand acres of North Carolina pine that he inherited and do something useful. So he created a research triangle, an environment for hi tech companies to come to North Carolina. He was able to divert the brain drain from Cambridge and Silicon Valley down there by giving the scientists elbow room to do whatever they wanted. In particular, he and one scientist from MIT have been working on a project for ten years. It involves computers and is a revolution in terms of the way human beings communicate. In fact, pertinent to what we were discussing before about the future of this medium, he says of it, “This is not just a bunch of computer games we’re working on, it’s bigger than that.”

The brunt of a heartless prank pulled by fellow bakery workers, retardate Charly Gordon finds his locker filled with dough.

Q: Do you think that the computerized expanding and melding of minds is in our future?

A: It wouldn’t surprise me. I’ll have to ask Ray Kassar.

Q: You’ve know Atari’s chairperson for quite some time now.

A: For years. There’s an interesting story. I met him many years ago in New York. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, got into the clothing industry and worked for Burlington Mills. He stayed there until he reached a high executive position and then decided that it might be wise to move on. I remember talking to him when he was considering some offers. And one of them was to work for a little-known company called Atari. I told him I thought it would be a great idea. He was reluctant to leave the New York area for San Francisco because his family lived here. I suggested strongly that he go; I’m always saying that to people who reach an impasse in their life and are hesitant to take a large step in a positive but unknown direction. My philosophy is “When in doubt — go.” So he did. And his business acumen made that company what it is today. I believe that without Ray, Atari would never have become synonymous with videogames. As for companies taking Atari on, Ray’s a formidable man. He’ll keep them on top.

Q: You’re an advocate of technology, but do you own a computer?

A: No. I love the concept of them, but running one terrifies me. Don’t quote me on that, though; I’d hate for my own neurosis to reinforce fears any of your readers may have.

Q: What if we do quote you?

A: Then make sure you add that I’m willing to learn. Terror notwithstanding, when in doubt — go.

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