Jay Robinson: from Caligula to Watergate and outer space

Via Fred Clark, I learn that character actor Jay Robinson died a couple weeks ago. Robinson made his big-screen debut as the insane emperor Caligula in The Robe (1953) and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), but his career was sidelined by a stint in prison for drug possession, until he started getting bit parts and guest roles on TV shows like the original Star Trek (where he played an alien named Petri) and Planet of the Apes (the TV series, not the movies). He also popped up in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972) in the sequence where we see what goes on inside a man’s head as a man has sex; while Burt Reynolds and Tony Randall tell the rest of the man’s body what to do, Jay Robinson shows up as a priest who tries to sabotage the proceedings.

Around that time, Robinson happened to become a Christian, and Clark links to a post by TV writer Mark Evanier, who worked with Robinson in the ’70s and recalls attending a lunch with Robinson and his evangelical friends — one of whom was Charles Colson, the former “Nixon’s hatchet man” who founded a prison ministry after becoming a Christian and serving time in jail for Watergate-related crimes:

Before long, I was sitting among his entourage at a big table where not a word was said about Nixon or Watergate but there was constant mention of Jesus, God, Our Heavenly Father, etc. Me aside, everyone alternated: One sentence about how to boost the gross of Jay’s book by strong-arming it into religious stores and book clubs, then one non sequitur paying lip service to Jesus. It was like they were all convinced that when you reach those Pearly Gates, you are judged not on anything you’ve done but wholly on how many times in your life you mentioned God. One of the few things I said to Mr. Colson — and I actually said this — was, “Praise the Lord and pass the ketchup.”

He didn’t get it. He passed the ketchup, said “Praise God,” then turned to Jay and explained how he was going to (nicely) threaten some distributor of religious books and get them to drop a certain other book and push [Jay's autobiography] The Comeback. Jay was pretty serious about not caring about the money. He just wanted people to read his story so that they might benefit from his experiences. For everyone else there though, it was just product to be hustled hard for profits.

One thing neither Clark nor Evanier mention is that Robinson actually had a part in the 1978 movie adaptation of Colson’s autobiography Born Again; Robinson played Colson’s lawyer David Shapiro, while the part of Colson was played by former Disney star Dean Jones. (And since I’ve already mentioned a few of the sci-fi shows that Robinson worked on, allow me to mention that the part of Henry Kissinger was played in that film by Peter Jurasik, who went on to play a doomed program in Tron (1982) and the Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari on Babylon 5 (1993-1998).)

Robinson had fairly steady work from the ’70s to the mid-’90s, though I don’t recall seeing him in anything else except for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), in which he played Mr Hawkins, and even there, I don’t think I recognized him at the time.

Still, kudos to him for turning his life around and staying busy for all those years, and for securing himself a place in Hollywood history. Memory eternal.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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