Cliff Robertson won the best actor Oscar in 1969 and was in some 60 movies before his death on Sept. 10, 2011, at 88, but he’s best remembered for Hollywood work he didn’t do.
Robertson was an innocent victim at the center of a Hollywood embezzlement story. The starring role was played by Columbia Pictures’ president David Begelman, who was later convicted of forgery & theft.
It’s the kind of intricate story people say you’d need to write a book to tell it all. Fortunately, that book exists — David McClintick’s INDECENT EXPOSURE, published by Morrow in 1982. McClintick originally broke and covered the Begelman story for The Wall Street Journal. Hitting the highlights is what’s possible here, but McClintick’s 544-page book is where all the amazing details can be found.
Begelman’s career began to unravel in February 1977 when Robertson received an IRS Form 1099 for $10,000 from Columbia for work done in ’76. But Robertson hadn’t done anything for Columbia then. He had his secretary contact the studio’s accounting department to find out more. Before long, Columbia knew 1099 was no error.
A check cut in Robertson’s name had been endorsed and cashed — but it wasn’t Robertson’s signature. Senior executives quickly noticed the handwriting looked just like Begelman’s. When they initially approached him, Begelman said he recalled ordering those checks and would look into it. The first thing he did was try to reach Robertson by phone. They were no strangers since during Begelman’s super-agent days he’d represented Robertson. Their relationship ended badly when Robertson decided Begelman had lied to him about money and the terms of a movie deal.
From here, the plot thickens. Columbia put Begelman on a paid holiday. Further investigation found he’d embezzled $65,000 more, also by forging checks. The issue of whether Begelman, president since 1973, could remain drove a wedge between Columbia CEO Alan Hershfield, who favored firing him, and the Board, which wanted to keep the very well-connected executive.
Columbia wound up ousting Hirschfield for not reinstating Begelman, who Columbia later let go, explaining he suffered from emotional problems. Indeed, the deeply troubled Begelman ultimately committed suicide in 1995 at 73. But in 1978, Begelman was fined $5,000 and sentenced to three years probation with community service, for which he produced a well-regarded anti-drug documentary. In January 1980, Begelman became president of MGM. The following year, Hirschfield was named chairman of 20th Century Fox.
Robertson claimed to have paid the greater price — being blacklisted in Hollywood for years for exposing the very popular Begelman’s crimes.
“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” – Cliff Robertson as “Uncle Ben”, playing opposite Tobey McGuire as “Peter Parker” in Spider-Man (2002)