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Universal Pulls Out of Chaplin Film : Movies: Studio cites budget worries in Sir Richard Attenborough’s life of silent-film great. But others suggest creative, casting differences.

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Universal Pictures has withdrawn from its commitment to a film about the life of Charlie Chaplin, produced and directed by British filmmaker Sir Richard Attenborough, which was to start production here this month.

All but a few of the production staff on the film have been laid off at Shepperton Studios, where shooting was to begin. According to sources close to the production, Attenborough announced the layoffs to crew members last week in person and said “Charlie” will be delayed at least until May.

On Thursday, a Universal spokesman in Los Angeles confirmed that the studio had backed out of the project, saying that it was for budgetary considerations rather than creative differences.

The film now rests in Attenborough’s hands and “he is now looking for another studio to commit to the film,” said an employee at Lambeth Productions, which is making the movie. Attenborough will apparently visit Los Angeles soon to discuss “Charlie” with other potential backers.

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The film was to star Robert Downey Jr. as the legendary comic silent-movie star, with Winona Ryder as his widow, Oona. The script calls for Downey to age considerably in his portrayal of Chaplin.

Attenborough, whose “Gandhi” won the best picture Oscar for 1982, has the permission of the Chaplin family and estate to make “Charlie.” Both he and the film’s associate producer, Diana Hawkins, declined to comment on the Universal pull-out. Hawkins relayed a message that any comments to the media at this point might prejudice negotiations with another film company.

Crew members on the film first suspected problems when a two-week delay was announced in its production start date, and Attenborough flew to Los Angeles for talks with Universal executives. A subsequent news report said that Downey could not fly to London to start work because of safety fears relating to the Gulf War.

Conflicting theories about the Universal decision have been aired. One insists that the studio was unhappy about the script for “Charlie” and demanded changes that Attenborough, fearing the reaction of the Chaplin family, was unwilling to make. (The screenplay is said to be candid about Chaplin’s numerous relationships with women and his personal problems.)

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A second theory says that Universal was against casting Downey as Chaplin and preferred a better-known and more experienced lead actor. Sources say that Attenborough talked to several candidates to play Chaplin, including Dustin Hoffman, who at one point showed interest in the role, before settling on Downey.

Universal’s pullout appears reminiscent of Attenborough’s efforts to bring “Gandhi” to the screen, which took him 20 years.


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