December 05, 1983 12:00 PM

For nearly four years after he played the part of whistle-blower in the real-life drama he calls “Hollywood-gate,” it seemed that the curtain had come down on Cliff Robertson’s movie career. Shocked when he discovered in 1977 that David Begelman, then president of Columbia Pictures, had forged his signature on a $10,000 studio check as part of a bizarre embezzlement scheme, Robertson contacted the Beverly Hills and Bur-bank police, then turned to the FBI. The public approved; Hollywood didn’t. “I got phone calls from powerful people who said, ‘You’ve been very fortunate in this business—I’m sure you wouldn’t want all this to come to an end,’ ” Robertson remembers.

Though he shrugged off the threats at the time, neither the TV networks nor the movie studios saw fit to hire him for nearly four years. “I think a handful of moguls were trying to set me up as an example of what happens if you confront the big-boy network,” says Robertson, 58. Happily, Cliff’s trip to Coventry was finally cut short, and these days he’s much in demand. The blackballing, if that is what it was, ended in 1981, when director Douglas Trumbull cast him in Brainstorm.

Why did Trumbull take the plunge? “We were casting the Alex Terson role, Cliff’s name came up, and I immediately felt he’d be perfect,” he says. “As far as I know there wasn’t one shred of difficulty in hiring him. It wasn’t until afterward that I learned he hadn’t been working.”

Recently, the risen-again star has been seen in Class, a brainless wisp of a movie co-starring Jacqueline Bisset, as well as in Brainstorm, a folksy series of AT & T commercials, and Bob Fosse’s Star 80, in which he plays Hugh Hefner to Mariel Hemingway’s doomed Dorothy Stratten. But the highlight of Robertson’s comeback is his role as a neurosurgeon on Falcon Crest—his first series role since 1953, when he played a space cadet in Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers. Falcon Crest’s brisk schedule leaves him little time to brood about the lost years; while his wife, Dina Merrill, 57, works through mid-December in Broadway’s On Your Toes, he lives alone in a rented house near Falcon Crest’s Burbank studios, studying his lines and winding down after work.

Despite his years of professional exile, he is not a man on whom life’s wounds are apparent. Sitting in his kitchen, wearing baggy brown corduroys and dragging on a clandestine cigarette (“I promised my daughter I’d quit”), Robertson recalls the one role for which Hollywood will always remember him. By alerting the authorities to Begelman’s misdeeds, he says, “I was simply looking out for No. 1. I wasn’t trying to be Don Quixote. If I hadn’t done what the law required, which was to give evidence to the authorities, I would have been a party to a crime.”

Instead, he became just another out-of-work actor. From 1977 to 1981, he filled his days writing, giving lectures, making an occasional commercial and playing the part of Lord Bountiful. (Aside from his charity work for the National Mental Health Association, among other organizations, Robertson frequently performs ad hoc acts of kindness. He once sent a widowed aunt on a round-the-world cruise; another time he arranged—and paid for—a friend’s open-heart surgery.) Hoping to capitalize on his 1968 Oscar-winning role in Charly, playing a mentally retarded man who becomes, briefly, a genius, he wrote and began peddling Charly II, only to have the film’s backers pull out. Then he directed another independent production that went broke after just five days of shooting. “I got stiffed,” he shrugs. “I was reaching for straws because I had to work.”

As he reflects on his recent success, his hands play about his mouth self-consciously and his blue eyes remain fixed on the nearby patio. “Even now, with these three pictures, I made less than half of what I made before,” he says, “and the roles aren’t as big as what I would have done earlier.” (Falcon Crest is another matter. Industry sources estimate that his weekly salary ranges from $35,000 to $50,000—precisely the same as Jane Wyman’s, Cliff says.)

When Cliff returned to Hollywood, he received the attention due any prodigal son: “As I walked down the streets at MGM, people congratulated me,” he recalls. “Actors I didn’t even know shook my hand. At lunch, when I entered the crowded commissary, everything came to a standstill. It was eerie.”

What kind of man would take the risk of exposing a crime others had carefully decided to overlook? Cliff sees himself as an Everyman. His own tidy family fortune, and the millions that Dina inherited from the E.F. Hutton and Post cereal empires, couldn’t be more irrelevant, he says. His wife agrees that Robertson’s obstinacy comes from his gut. “He’s very old-fashioned, very New England in his strengths and beliefs,” says Dina. “He thinks there should be foundations, principles—and when he gets an idea, he’s like a dog with a bone.”

The importance of acting according to principle is a notion Robertson acquired early on. His father, Clifford Parker Robertson Jr., heir to a Southwestern land fortune, was divorced from Audrey Willingham Robertson when Cliff, their only child, was just 2. When Audrey died of peritonitis a few months later, her mother, Eleanora, herself a divorcée, adopted her tiny grandchild and took him into her comfortable home in La Jolla. “Willingham,” as Cliff called her, was kind, compassionate and thoroughly Calvinist; though the boy was assured a healthy inheritance, she made certain he didn’t emulate his easygoing namesake—”a charming guy who never worked a day in his life,” Cliff observes. “You couldn’t help liking my father. He was a very romantic figure—tall, handsome. He married four or five times, and between marriages he’d pop in to see me. He was a great raconteur, and he was always surrounded by sycophants who let him pick up the tab. During the Depression, he tapped the trust for $500,000, and six months later he was back for more.”

Young Cliff declared his financial independence as soon as possible. At 9, he claimed to be two years older in order to snare a job selling magazines. As a teenager he graduated to a paper route and, as a junior at La Jolla High, began rising at 4 a.m. to trap lobsters. In the summer he pedaled his bike 13 miles to a nearby airfield, where he scrubbed planes in exchange for an occasional flying lesson.

As Robertson grew older, he remained his own man. In 1947, after a brief fling as a journalism major at Antioch College and a two-and-a-half-year stint in the U.S. Maritime Service, he settled in New York, refusing Willing-ham’s offer to subsidize his incipient acting career. Instead, he tailed subjects for a detective agency and parked cars at the Stork Club to finance his studies at the Actors Studio.

Even as a fledgling performer, Cliff let it be known that he wouldn’t suffer moguls gladly. Signed to a seven-year contract with Columbia Pictures after his 1956 film debut in Picnic, he set a studio record, he says, for time on suspension as a result of refusing unacceptable roles. Cliff’s friends find this stubbornness praiseworthy: “There’s a crusading element to him,” says Arizona Congressman Morris Udall, a pal since the actor helped with his 1976 Presidential campaign. “He’s dedicated and sincere, but not stuffy.”

But some of Robertson’s colleagues have found his ardent nonconformity tedious. “There are two Cliffs,” says Ralph Nelson, who directed his performance in Charly. “He can be very engaging and articulate, but he can also be very selfish. He has a reputation for being difficult; he’s almost always late and always blaming somebody else.”

High-minded or arrogant, Robertson nevertheless made more than his share of featherweight films—including My Six Loves, with Debbie Reynolds, and Gidget. “I’m not particularly proud of most of the pictures I’ve been in,” he admits. “The thing that kept me alive was that I learned you could offset bad movies with a good TV role.”

One of those was the lead in the 1958 Playhouse 90 production of Days of Wine and Roses. When the movie was cast, however, the role went to Jack Lemmon—who had divorced actress Cynthia Stone just six months before her 1957 wedding to Cliff. The loss of the part stung, and friends hint that he may have been especially upset about losing out to Lemmon, since Jack never seemed to struggle, as he did. “I think he’s very aware of Jack’s career,” says Dina. “But Cliff got Cindy,” she adds with a laugh.

Robertson was buoyed a year later when he played the part of John Kennedy in PT-109. Despite the indifferent script, PT was a decidedly high-profile project: The President himself reportedly approved Cliff’s casting. After the picture was released, Kennedy invited him to a White House tête-à-tête to express his approval. “They stowed me in the Cabinet Room,” Robertson says. “Kennedy came in a door right behind me, and said, ‘Hi, Cliff,’ as if from nowhere. We went into the Oval Office and ended up talking about our children.”

Although the early ’60s were auspicious for Robertson’s career, he found it difficult to shake his unhappiness following the breakup of his two-year-old marriage and a trying legal battle for visitation rights to Stephanie, now 24. Dina, a longtime friend, offered him balm for his heartache. The two began as buddies, but just weeks after her 1966 divorce from businessman Stanley Rumbough Jr., she and Cliff wed on her mother’s Washington estate. Daughter Heather—Dina’s fourth child—arrived two years later, when Dina was 42.

In some ways, their relationship is a study in contrasts: “I’m much more people-oriented,” says Dina. “His favorite line is, ‘Why don’t we just stay at home with the family,’ and mine is, ‘Let’s have some people over for dinner.’ ” She thrives on life in Manhattan and their U.N. Towers aerie; he prefers her hideaway in the Hamptons or his house in La Jolla. By all accounts, both are strong-willed and independent, with their own sets of friends. “For me, being apart as much as they are would be terrible,” says a friend. But the long-distance marriage seems to suit both of them. “We find our moments,” Dina says. “We talk a lot on the phone, and we take vacations together. Besides, we’re not young kids anymore.”

Indeed. Before Cliff became embroiled in the Begelman scandal, his last career coup had been Charly, and that was 15 years ago. Piqued at being shut out of the movie versions of stories he’d performed in on television, he secured the rights to the property in 1961 and doggedly shopped it around. As Charly’s prime mover and star, he considered the movie a personal triumph. Never mind that his colleagues whispered he’d bought the Best Actor Oscar through an expensive ad campaign in the trade papers—an allegation he vehemently denies; from then on, he was Cliff Robertson, Academy Award winner.

But Oscar’s magic could not be relied on. The years that followed were artistically and commercially spotty. There was J.W. Coop, a Robertson creation in which he played a rodeo rider; Washington: Behind Closed Doors, a well-received 1977 miniseries; Three Days of the Condor, with Robert Red-ford, and a handful of films that descended to various levels of obscurity. At least one associate wonders whether the Begelman affair hurt Robertson at all. “When the scandal broke,” says one director, “I said, ‘I feel quite sure [he’ll] use this as an excuse for not working.’ ”

But Robertson needs no excuses now. His kitchen counter is piled high with Falcon Crest scripts; his secretary is besieged with interview requests. “Now that everything is over,” says Cliff with a sigh, “it’s painful in a Proustian remembrance way. You remember the sad, down days, and you don’t like to think about them. You press on down the road as life leads you.”

Although he surely wouldn’t say so himself, it is clear that when Cliff Robertson goes to sleep after another precious day on the job, it is with the belief that he once accomplished something heroic. “Sometimes,” he says, “I look back on it all and I’m kind of astonished I was able to carry it all out. I look at myself and say, ‘I don’t believe you, Robertson.’ ”