Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Classy Actor, and a Classy Old Gal in the Sky...

from a photographer's notebook...

One of my all time favorite screen actors, Cliff Robertson, passed away this weekend. He was 88.

One of Robertson’s most affecting portrayals was in the film “Charly,” where he appeared as a gentle, sweet natured bakery worker with the IQ of a small child. A doctor played by the ever classy Claire Bloom conducts an experiment in which she raises Charly’s intelligence to that of a genius, but the change proves only temporary and the denouement sees Charly heart-breakingly regress to his former state. Cliff Robertson won a well deserved Academy Award in 1969 for his performance in the film, which also marked his directorial debut.

Cliff Robertson portrayed Lieutenant John F. Kennedy in the film “P.T. 109” in 1962. An early film role was in “Picnic.” Among my favorite Robertson performances was as the shadowy operative Higgins in the superb CIA thriller “Three Days of the Condor.” (I guess it is particularly poignant to think of that film today, as Higgins' office was on an upper floor of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and exteriors of the towers, as well as views looking out from his office, appear in several scenes in the film.)
Robertson brought unfailing class even to less successful films in which he appeared. One of my favorites in the latter category was “The Pilot,” from 1980. I’m not sure that one has even made it to DVD, but that’s all right. My trusty Sony VHS Hi Fi HQ machine still gets its exercise with my copy of “The Pilot.” Robertson was a pilot himself, which could only have added to the realism he brought to the cockpit sequences and to his portrayal of airline captain Mike Hagan, a man “born in the left seat” but battling the demons of alcoholism. Robertson directed that one too, and hired some pretty solid supporting players, including Edward Binns, Frank Converse, Milo O’Shea, Dana Andrews, even Gordon MacRae (in his last film role) as the airline’s chief pilot, and, if I may use that descriptor one more time, the ever classy Diane Baker as his lover.

Oh yes, “The Pilot” also “starred” two very fine looking early classic jetliners. Two early model Douglas DC-8’s (-30s) were dressed in the livery of “North American” airlines, and they looked mighty sharp in the beautifully filmed aerial sequences. The film was shot in part in south Florida, including push backs, taxiing, and take-offs from Miami International Airport. I'm guessing the two DC-8s may have been provided by Eastern and National, two Miami-based airlines, as those two companies appear in the end credits. Another "clue" might have been Robertson's comment before the last take-off (oops, spoiler warning - you didn't read that) in the film. Just before engine start, he muses, "Who was flying this bird?"  Then, a  grin of recognition as he picks up a medallion from the center pedestal and says, "Ah, Skeeter Royal, eh?" Now, that was a really nice touch from Robertson, showing his respect for the profession he was portraying - turns out Skeeter Royal was Chief Pilot for National Airlines at the time. Must have been quite the spirited flyer - he once buzzed the MIA tower in a 747.

One had the feeling watching the film that, if the fates had dealt a different hand, Robertson could have made a fine airline captain. His respect for the details in flying the DC-8 and for those who fly the heavy metal was evident in the film. I can not think of another airplane movie that presented so much pre-take-off detail - about any airliner - I mean, where else might you hear in movie dialog the words "Blow-away jet to go?"

Here's another "guess" about this film and its attention to detail.  Just a hunch, of course, but it wouldn't surprise me if director/star Robertson hadn't gotten SAG cards for some real airline pilots and flight engineers, to assure an extra measure of realism. Sort of like when directors engage real broadcast news people to play such characters; they know what to do at, say, a press conference.  Reason I think that could have been the case in some of the casting for "The Pilot:  I enjoyed watching the (possibly Canadian) actor who played Ken Howland, the other "North American" DC-8 captain, who hits - and almost loses his airplane to - severe clear air turbulence, after the radio conversation with Robertson's character, in which Mike Hagan tells Capt. Howland he's going to divert around what he suspects could be such dangerous conditions along the planned route. So, I check for other films in which he might have appeared. Seems Bob Willis was in only one film, "The Pilot." Likewise, the guy "playing" the Flight Engineer at the start of the film, Bob Kosloski. He sure looked and sounded authentic as he went through those checklists with Robertson and Converse. "The Pilot" was his only film as well.

There were also some beautifully filmed sequences featuring an open cockpit biplane, as Mike teaches his daughter Cricket some aerobatic maneuvers. And, speaking of words not normally spoken in more commonplace aviation films, when was the last time you heard "Lomcevák" (a dizzying aerobatic maneuver Mike is teaching Cricket to do) in a feature film? 

Yes, Robertson truly loved airplanes and flight...

May he soar forever over his celestial airfield on "laughter-silvered wings." (High Flight, Gillespie Magee, RCAF)

Learning of Robertson’s death led me, I guess predictably, to get out my copy of “The Pilot.” (I’ll watch “Condor” tomorrow). Watching “Mike Hagan” make the best of a weather diversion to take his DC-8 passengers on a low altitude flight-seeing tour of the Grand Canyon, as well as point out to them in his folksy P.A. announcements “the famous buttes and mesas” in Monument Valley, where director John Ford shot “Stagecoach,” all to John Addison’s fine score and the lovely cinematography of Walter Lassally showing off the graceful yet muscular lines of the DC-8, made one forget the dramatic license of a DC-8 buzzing the western U.S. landscape at such a low altitude. Aw, hell, it was poetic...and romantic.

See, I have this long-standing fondness for the DC-8. She was the first jetliner I ever flew on. I well remember walking on red carpets rolled out on the tarmac, a bit before the jetways were installed at Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport, to those big United DC-8 Mainliners, with city names under the pilots’ windows…a detail not lost on Cliff Robertson for his “North American” DC-8s. Now, that was what you called getting up close and personal with the beast. Hearing the machinery…smelling the kerosene…

So, as these stimuli have a way of doing, I just had to seek out some old slides of the old gal. May I share one such early slide, and ask that you look past the grain of the old “High Speed” Ektachrome slide film for a glimpse into another era.

It's early evening at Chicago-O'Hare. The year is 1964, and this early model DC-8 "Mainliner" in United's "Jet Delivery" colors is ready to board her passengers for a flight to Baltimore’s Friendship International Airport, which would later become Baltimore Washington International. As familiar a sight in the early years of the "Jet Age" as the more "iconic" Boeing 707, the DC-8 would actually outlast the 707 in passenger service, especially in her "stretched" versions, and United would go on to have the largest domestic fleet of these distinctive Douglas work-horses.

Like all her early jetliner peers, she was a loud and smoky beast (at least from the outside!), until noise regulations mandated quieter (and cleaner) engines. The rugged build of the DC-8 in her "stretched” 60-series made her a fine candidate for the quieting "makeover" that turned her into the more "polite" and environmentally friendly "Super 73."

My first DC-8 flights were in 1964 on "Jet Mainliners" like this one, and I last enjoyed her spacious comfort on a -73, flying cross country nearly twenty years later. Quite a run for this grinning Pioneer Lady of the Jet Age.

About those "smiling" and "grinning" references...

In my "Confessions of an Airplane Lover," I spoke about the DC-8 having a nose that looked like it was grinning at you. That had to do with the two intakes for her air conditioning/pressurization packs, whose placement at the lower edges of the nose gave the "8" a quite unique appearance, especially in relationship to the black radar "tip" of her lengthy nose.

I know, I tend to "anthropomorphize" some of my favorite airliners, but have a look, and see what you think!

Is that a grin, or what?

Oh, by the way, the astute airplane lover will recognize, behind the two DC-8's an early version of their younger U-A-L colleague, the Boeing 727... and off to the far left, a Vickers Viscount turboprop.

©2011 Steve Ember

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