PASSINGS: Jay Robinson dies at 83; gained brief fame as Caligula in ‘The Robe’

Jay Robinson, 83, a character actor who had a burst of fame after his film debut as Caligula in the 1953 biblical epic “The Robe” but saw his career take a downturn following his arrest for drug possession, died Friday at his home in Sherman Oaks, said longtime friend Lee Brandon. Robinson had congestive heart failure and had been in poor health since suffering a fall last year.

Robinson, a New York native, was routinely labeled the “boy genius” of Broadway after a string of noteworthy performances in the early 1950s, highlighted by his role as the fop Le Beau in a 1950 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” that starred Katharine Hepburn.

He was 23 when “The Robe,” starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature, was released, and his performance as the tyrannical Roman Caesar earned praise from critics. He reprised the part of Caligula the next year in a follow-up film, “Demetrius and the Gladiators.”

But Robinson’s life took a turn in the late ‘50s. He was arrested in December 1959 at his home in Bel-Air and charged with possessing and selling heroin. He was found guilty the next spring, sentenced to a year in jail, released on bond expecting probation and began the appeals process.

He said years later that frustration at being typecast led to his drug use. But after his arrest, there was no work at all.


“I lost everything in Hollywood,” Robinson told The Times.

He took menial jobs, working as a short-order cook and a veterinarian’s assistant. In 1966 he was arrested on a bench warrant for failing to appear for a retrial of his original case and was sent to the state prison in Tracy, where he was put to work as a firefighter. Paroled after 15 months in the spring of 1968, he began to rebuild his life and career.

He won guest spots on “Bewitched,” “Mannix,” “The Waltons” and other TV series, landed a regular role on the daytime soap “Days of Our Lives” and was cast in small parts in “Shampoo,” “Big Top Pee-wee” and a handful of other movies.

“I feel like the ultimate survivor,” he told United Press International in 1988.

Times staff reports