Cliff Robertson and my brother

The actor Cliff Robertson, who died this weekend at age 88, was a very important member of my family. We were not at all related and we never actually met.

But Robertson won his only Oscar for the title role in a movie called "Charly," It was released in 1968, when I was 11 years old, and featured Robertson as a mentally-challenged man who swept floors in a small bakery.

My father owned a small bakery in The Bronx at that time. More importantly to all of us, my older brother was also a mentally-challenged young man who sometimes dropped by the shop to sweep the floors.

In the film, Robertson's Charly becomes the subject of an experiment -- one that works and turns him into a genius by the middle of the story. When I heard about the movie, I couldn't wait to see it: there weren't a lot of stories around then about brain-injured adults, and I hoped "Charly" would touch on the things my family went through every day.

It did -- in ways I couldn't realize at the time. I asked my mother and father to go with me, but -- to my surprise -- they said no thanks. So I called up my best friend Steve and we went together. It was an extreme experience, watching Charly transform into a wunderkind, and then, by the start of Act Three, realize the magic was wearing off and he would inevitably regress into the floor-sweeper he had once been.

I told my parents all about it later that night. I could tell it was not a comfortable subject, so I rushed my recounting, and moved on to other stuff (I think Rick Barry had just joined the old ABA, and my Dad love basketball).

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It was years later when my father and I talked about it: he couldn't go see the movie, he said, because it hit too close to his dreams. He never really reconciled with having a mentally-challenged son -- every morning, he said, he would expect to wake up and find it was a dream; for a moment each day he'd look for a "normal" boy to come walking down the stairs, ready for school or sports.

"Charly" was that dream and -- in the way it ended -- it was a nightmare. The movie's message was that some things can't be undone, no matter how hard we try, no matter how we wish and hope.

As a family, we carried Cliff Robertson and his performance with us for many years. It helped me -- I also had wished things were different in our house in The Bronx, but in the years ahead, I taught myself to come to terms with how some things just are.


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