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Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson) is a grown man with the mind of a child. By day he leads a simple life working as a sweeper in a Boston bakery, where he is often the butt of cruel jokes from his co-workers. At night he attends classes taught by the beautiful and compassionate Alice Kinian (Claire Bloom). Alice is touched by Charly's eagerness to learn and convinces him to undergo experimental surgery in an effort to cure his mental deficiency.
Originally published as a novelette in the 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Charly (1968) was based on the science fiction story Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes; the story won a Hugo award for Best Short Fiction in 1960.
Shortly after Flowers for Algernon won the Hugo Award, CBS bought the television rights to turn it into a teleplay for the Theater Guild's U.S. Steel Hour. James Yaffee wrote the teleplay script, and actor Cliff Robertson played Charlie (it wasn't until the film version that the spelling of the lead character's name changed from "Charlie" to "Charly"). The 1961 live telecast was called The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon. The reviews were stunning, and Robertson received an Emmy nomination for his performance.
A few days after the successful telecast, Cliff Robertson began negotiations with the story's author, Daniel Keyes, to purchase the film rights. Robertson told the press that he had been "always a bridesmaid but never a bride," referring to the excellent leading roles he had played on television in productions such as Days of Wine and Roses and The Hustler, but had lost out to bigger stars like Jack Lemmon and Paul Newman for the movie versions. By controlling the property, Robertson was determined not to lose out again.
Robertson hired a young writer named William Goldman, who later became an Oscar®-winning A-list screenwriter with such hits as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President's Men (1976). Goldman had never written a screenplay before but armed with a few how-to books, he wrote a first draft of the film, which he called Good Old Charley Gordon.
When Robertson showed Daniel Keyes Goldman's draft, the cover page had been removed so Keyes could not see who had written it. Keyes hated it. The spelling of the lead character's name had been inexplicably changed from "Charlie" to "Charley." Plus, the script had an implausible upbeat Hollywood ending-something Keyes had feared all along. "I told Robertson I didn't care for the script," recalled Keyes in his 1999 book Algernon, Charlie and I: A Writer's Journey. "He said nothing and took it back."
Cliff Robertson then assigned a new writer to the project, Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night ), and William Goldman's script was shelved. Keyes had no idea until years later that William Goldman had written the draft he had rejected. It wasn't until he picked up a copy of Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman's popular book, and saw that Goldman had devoted an entire chapter to his experience with writing Charly, which he credited with getting him started in the film business.
Charly was shot on location in Boston, which was a change from the original story's setting of New York City, and it was directed by Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight , Lilies of the Field ). Robertson, wanting the film to be cutting edge, sent Ralph Nelson to Expo 67, the 1967 World's Fair in Canada, to learn about the newest movie making technology. He wanted Charly to have a modern look, utilizing multiple images and split-screen techniques.
For the female lead of Charly's psychiatrist and love interest, Robertson hired respected stage and screen actress Claire Bloom.
Reviews of the film were generally positive, especially praising Cliff Robertson's performance as the title character. "Charly emerges a peculiar combination of sentimentalized documentary, romance, science fiction and social drama," said Variety, and the Long Island Press called it "Dynamic...a chilling ending that speaks volumes."
Cliff Robertson's investment in Charly paid off, and won him the Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance. The movie's success also helped book sales for Flowers for Algernon, which had been expanded into a novel and was used as an educational tool in schools across America. Bantam Books, the publisher, launched a joint project with the film where it sponsored a series of screenings for educators in major cities at which Cliff Robertson would often make personal appearances.
Producer: Ralph Nelson, Selig J. Seligman
Director: Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: Daniel Keyes, Stirling Silliphant
Cinematography: Arthur J. Ornitz
Film Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Art Direction: Charles Rosen
Music: Ravi Shankar
Cast: Cliff Robertson (Charly Gordon), Claire Bloom (Alice Kinian), Lilia Skala (Dr. Anna Straus), Leon Janney (Dr. Richard Nemur), Ruth White (Mrs. Apple), Dick Van Patten (Bert).
C-103m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Andrea Passafiume