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Sydney Chaplin dies at 82; stage actor and son of Charlie Chaplin

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Sydney Chaplin, an actor who experienced his greatest success on stage, earning a Tony Award for starring in the late 1950s musical "Bells Are Ringing," died Tuesday. He was 82.


FOR THE RECORD:
Sydney Chaplin obituary: The obituary of actor Sydney Chaplin in Friday's Section A said he attended the local Black Fox Military Academy. The school was called the Black-Foxe Military Institute. —


Chaplin, the oldest surviving child of film legend Charlie Chaplin, died at his Rancho Mirage home of complications following a stroke, said Jerry Bodie, a longtime friend.

He was the second son of Charlie Chaplin and his second wife, Lita Grey, an ingenue who married the movie giant when she was 16 and he was 35. Their marriage ended when Sydney was a year old in a sensational divorce that made headlines.

Sydney Chaplin regularly recalled that he was a veteran of World War II before he really came to know his work-obsessed father.

"He was a strange man," Chaplin told People magazine in 1989. "He had great difficulty expressing his feelings to me, which was odd because he expressed emotion on screen so marvelously."

Discharged from the Army, and relatively aimless, Chaplin was persuaded by a friend to try acting. In 1946, he co-founded the Circle Theater in Los Angeles that developed a reputation for quality productions.

His father eventually directed Chaplin in several stage projects.

"Once my father saw I was taking this acting stuff seriously, he gave me my first movie job, as the young composer in 'Limelight,' " a 1952 film, Sydney told People.

"He simply called me one day and said, 'I've written a new picture and I've written a role for you,' " Chaplin said in 2003 in the Detroit Free Press.

Sydney Chaplin also appeared in "A Countess From Hong Kong," the 1967 film that was his father's last as a director.

On Broadway, Sydney Chaplin broke through in 1956 in the hit Broadway show "Bells Are Ringing" after actress Judy Holliday invited him to try out. She said "that Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne had written a musical for her, and they all thought I'd be perfect for the male lead," Chaplin later said of "Bells."

He recalled auditioning as many as 15 times before landing the part of Jeff Moss, who falls in love with the switchboard operator, played by Holliday.

His other major Broadway success came in the original production of "Funny Girl" opposite Barbra Streisand. He played the gambler boyfriend Nick Arnstein to Streisand's Fanny Brice.

Both actors received Tony nominations for their performances in the musical -- the last of his five roles on Broadway -- but they feuded, and he left the show.

After Omar Sharif was cast as Arnstein in the 1968 film version of "Funny Girl," Chaplin said he found himself curiously undisappointed.

He realized that he "never had the burning desire for recognition and respect that had driven my father," he said in 2003 in the Detroit Free Press. "But then I never had to dance on the streets of London for pennies to stay alive," as his father once did.

Sydney Earl Chaplin was born March 30, 1926, in a Beverly Hills mansion and was named for his father's older half-brother, Sydney, who helped launch Charlie's career.

The younger Sydney grew up living in Beverly Hills with his mother. On weekends, he and his older brother, Charlie Chaplin Jr., would visit his father and his third wife, actress Paulette Goddard.

Being the son of Charlie Chaplin didn't matter much at the local Black Fox Military Academy, which Sydney once described as "a sleep-away school for the sons of Hollywood rich people."

A self-described "wild kid," he went as far as eighth grade in school, then dropped out and "bummed around" until he turned 18 and was drafted and saw combat overseas, he later said.

His film and television career stretched to the late 1970s, and he appeared in more than 35 projects. He had matinee-idol looks and often ended up in romances with co-stars.

At 34, he married Noelle Adam, a French-born dancer and actress with whom he had his only child, Stephan, who has acted in French films.

The marriage ended after eight years.

His father's fourth marriage, in 1943, to Oona O'Neill, gave him eight half-siblings and a stepmother who was his age.

She was "a bright, charming woman with a wonderful sense of humor," Sydney Chaplin said in People. "And generous too."

When his father died in 1977, he left his fortune of more than $100 million to his widow. His eldest child, Sydney's older brother, Charlie, had died in 1968 at 42 of complications related to alcohol abuse.

His father was afraid that his only remaining son would fritter away any inherited money, Sydney later recalled.

But Oona gave Sydney the $500,000 he needed to open a bistro in the late 1980s called Chaplin's in Palm Springs. The restaurant was something of a celebrity hangout where Sydney held court until it closed in the early 1990s, Bodie said.

"He had the most uncomplicated taste," Bodie said. He was the reverse of an egotist. I think that's why people liked coming to see him."

In retirement, Chaplin played golf -- he was good enough to win celebrity tournaments -- and only rarely agreed to speak at festivals featuring his father's work.

His favorite Charlie Chaplin film was 1931's "City Lights," a silent movie that the younger man considered "the greatest single motion picture ever made."

In addition to his son, Chaplin is survived by Margaret Beebe Chaplin, whom he married in 1998; actress Geraldine Chaplin, and seven other half-siblings; and a granddaughter.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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