The low-budget film drew strongly favorable reviews for its subtle balance of grit and pathos. Writing in The Washington Post, critic Tom Shales called it “a tour de force, but it’s more impressive just as an encouragingly good, genuinely unpretentious movie.”
The rest of Mr. Robertson’s career teetered in middling fare, but his financial independence kept him insulated from career pressures that have dogged some performers.
He carefully managed investments, and in addition was married from 1966 to 1988 to one of America’s richest women, the model and actress Dina Merrill, heiress to the E.F. Hutton and Post cereal fortunes. Her mother was the Washington hostess Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Mr. Robertson shunned Hollywood convention. He handled his own media relations and preferred living away from the film colony — at various times, he had homes on the beach near San Diego and the U.N. plaza in New York. He spent his free time flying his collection of small planes and participated in airborne famine-relief efforts in Nigeria and Ethiopia.
The only child of a prosperous rancher, Clifford Parker Robertson III was born Sept. 9, 1923, in La Jolla, Calif. He was a toddler when his parents divorced. His mother died, and he grew up with his maternal grandmother.
After service in the Merchant Marine during World War II, Mr. Robertson studied journalism at Antioch College in Ohio. His work on the college radio station led the dean to encourage him to pursue acting.
Playing a footless poet in “The Wisteria Trees” (1955) on Broadway brought him to attention of director Joshua Logan.
Logan cast Mr. Robertson in “Picnic,” a film adaptation of William Inge’s celebrated play set in a small Kansas town. Though a movie novice, Mr. Robertson showed great skill as the wealthy and volatile young man who loses beauty queen Kim Novak to a drifter played by William Holden.
The next year, Mr. Robertson was riveting as Joan Crawford’s emotionally unbalanced husband in “Autumn Leaves.” Crawford once called her co-star “stunning. Very few actors could have brought that kind of credibility to such a demanding part. His mad scenes can’t be topped.”
While acquiescing to studio demands in a run of undistinguished films, Mr. Robertson found more compelling work on live television. He played a pool shark in “The Hustler” and a married alcoholic in “Days of Wine and Roses.”
When it came time to cast the film versions, he was overlooked in favor of bigger stars: Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon, respectively. “I was starting to get a reputation as always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” Mr. Robertson said decades later.
He did, however, win an Emmy in 1966 for playing an obsessive gambler in “The Game,” directed by Pollack.