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They Remember Charlie : Was Chaplin a rascal or a great man? Here are the views of several who knew him well

<i> Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer. </i>

“Much to my own surprise, I find myself thinking of him fondly, despite all the bitterness and hatred of the past, during the divorce,” remarked Lita Grey Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s second of four wives, and the only one still alive. “I realize now more of what makes people tick.”

Chaplin was a complex and controversial man, but he is remembered with affection by friends, colleagues, relatives--and even an ex-wife. His eldest daughter, Geraldine, expresses only gratitude for having been his daughter and cherishes memories of before-dinner talks in front of a cozy fire in his home in Switzerland. Shelley Winters and Norman Lloyd (who had a small role in “Limelight”) recall his enthusiasm and encouragement of young actors--and his passion for tennis. His second cousin Betty Chaplin Tetrick, now 76, looks back on the kindness and generosity from her famous relative, as does her husband, Ted Tetrick, a close associate from 1938 to Chaplin’s death in 1977.

What’s more, the study of Chaplin’s film legacy continues, with the recent restoration of his first important three-reeler, the 1915 “Police” (see sidebar on Page 37). Five years after “Police,” Chaplin would make his first feature-length classic, “The Kid,” which teamed the Little Tramp with child actor Jackie Coogan and featured a 12-year-old whose name he changed from Lillita McMurray to Lita Grey.

Lita Grey Chaplin has remarkably expressive large eyes and, at 84, one can see the striking beauty that captivated Chaplin, who seduced her when she was 15. The two married in 1924, but soon endured one of Hollywood’s earliest and nastiest divorce scandals, which for Lita had a long-lasting dark aftermath. Speaking recently in her unpretentious West Hollywood apartment after seeing a screening of Richard Attenborough’s film “Chaplin,” Lita Chaplin has come to terms with a turbulent and colorful past and especially with her feelings for the man who became one of the most famous men of the 20th Century. Her view of Chaplin today is one that comes from a lifetime of reflection.

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“I know that Charlie, with his dreadful childhood, had to have a lot of quirks in his personality,” said Chaplin, weighing her words carefully. “Since genius is said to be the capacity for taking infinite pains, it must necessarily follow that such a man, devoting all this time to one thing, which he did better than anyone else in the world, must neglect many areas of his thinking and his development. His Little Tramp character, I now realize, was the love of his life and occupied his every moment.

“He had a good side when his career was not threatened and, unfortunately, a bad side when it was threatened; then he could be really malicious.

“Once when I was on tour with my book, ‘My Life With Chaplin,’ I told an audience that Charlie had no sense of humor, and they gasped, thinking me crazy. He was a genius with a great sense of comedy in what he saw; he could show you in his films but couldn’t make the same things seem funny if he merely told you about them.”

Although Lita recalls that Chaplin’s publicists--not Chaplin himself--at the time of their divorce tried to characterize her as, in her words, “an illiterate peon from the gutters of Mexico,” she is in fact descended directly from California’s earliest Spanish land-grant families. When she met Chaplin for the first time, on her sixth birthday, she was living with her divorced mother in the Navarro, an apartment house at 9th and Alvarado that her grandfather, who had already developed Whitley Heights, had just built and named for one of the family’s ancestors.

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“For my birthday my mother took me to Hollywood to see if we could see some movie stars, and we went for lunch to a small tea shop on Hollywood Boulevard,” Chaplin recalled. “I was taken by hand by the manager to meet Charlie Chaplin. I was bewildered because I couldn’t figure out how this man in his tramp outfit and heavy pink greasepaint could be the same man I could see when my grandmother took me to the movies. I was so frightened I ran back to our table.

“I didn’t see him again until I was 12. My mother and I were now living in a second-floor flat on De Longpre in Hollywood. Chaplin and his assistant director, Chuck Riesner, were walking along De Longpre, near Chaplin’s studio, and they saw me playing. Chuck, who was our neighbor, said to Charlie, ‘This is the little girl I’ve been telling you about.’

“Chaplin said to me, ‘I’m making a film in which I will be using a lot of children. Would you like to be in it?’ I went and told my mother, ‘Somebody wants me to be in a movie.’ The result was a year’s contract with the Chaplin Film Corp., with the understanding that I was to be chaperoned at all times by my mother. I played the Flirting Angel in ‘The Kid.’ Charlie was wonderful with the children. He would swim with us in the studio pool, play hide-and-seek with us. Jackie Coogan, who took direction very well, was only 4 years old.”

Lita Chaplin surmises that the reason her option wasn’t picked up at the end of the year was because a certain coolness developed between Chaplin and her mother when he sent his chauffeur to pick her up to attend a party--without her mother. Three years later, when a friend from her dancing school, Merna Kennedy, who had already performed in vaudeville, wanted to meet Chaplin, she took her to the Chaplin studio.

“He happened to be in his office and was glad to see me,” Lita Chaplin said. “ ‘You’re just in time. I’m testing some girls for the leading lady in “The Gold Rush.” ’ He picked me, kind of softened my mother and put me under contract for a year. (At Lita’s suggestion Chaplin later cast Kennedy as his leading lady in “The Circus.”)

“At this point I’m 15, and of course I had enormous hero worship for the great Charlie Chaplin. I’d often watch him make up. When we went on location in Truckee for ‘The Gold Rush’ Charlie got the flu and stayed in bed. When I visited him, he made his first advances to me. Soon, as a ruse, he would have Thelma Morgan Converse, Gloria Vanderbilt Sr.'s twin sister, along when we went to parties.”

In her 1966 memoirs Lita describes Chaplin’s courtship and conquest with honesty and candor, making it clear that she was as attracted to Chaplin as he was to her. Yet when they weren’t making love, the 15-year-old--her pregnancy cost her the lead in “The Gold Rush"--and the 35-year-old world-renowned comedian were lonely and isolated individuals. According to Lita, their always-shaky shotgun marriage became doomed when she became pregnant a second time. (She is the mother of Chaplin’s first two children, Charles Jr., who died an alcoholic at 42 in 1968, and Sydney, the Tony-winning actor and, most recently, proprietor of a Palm Springs restaurant.) As is commonplace for celebrities, their subsequent divorce was soon overtaken by batteries of lawyers on both sides, escalating in bitterness far beyond what either party ever intended.

Lita, who has warm memories of parties and Pickfair and San Simeon, wishes only that she could have had the maturity and wisdom to have made her marriage to Chaplin work, but many observers over the years have questioned her mother’s role and motives in her daughter’s relationship with Chaplin.

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“My mother was in a peculiar position,” Lita said. “My grandfather forced the marriage--he was threatening to kill Charlie--and my mother and I were kind of frightened of my grandfather. Mama was mixed up. She also hero-worshiped Charlie and was really shocked when she found out we had been intimate. Charlie would keep her in a good mood--'Don’t worry, if Lita becomes pregnant I’ll marry her.’ ”

In the wake of the sensational publicity surrounding the divorce, Lita embarked upon a successful singing career--she appeared on Broadway with Milton Berle in “Life Begins at 8:40,” opened the Stork Club and headlined at London’s Cafe de Paris, but Chaplin’s rejection of her had long-term consequences. Lita squandered her settlement, drank heavily and experienced a major breakdown. There were to be three more husbands. Some 20 years ago Lita announced with pride and good humor to friends at a New Year’s Day party that she would be embarking on yet another career, as a saleswoman at Robinson’s in Beverly Hills, a job she enjoyed and held for 17 years.

When Lita hit rock bottom in 1943 she reached out to Chaplin for moral support, and he agreed to meet her after years of estrangement. After a long reconciliatory meeting, she says he said on parting, “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be a real husband.”

*

“The two questions I’ve been most asked are: Was it painful to do? What would your father have thought of the film?” As Geraldine Chaplin, who plays her own grandmother in “Chaplin,” spoke, she was sitting in the Polo Lounge, just around the corner from where her father sat beaming, radiating pure joy, as he received friends and admirers the morning after he received his honorary Oscar in 1972.

“It wasn’t painful to play her, but it was painful to watch on the screen,” said Chaplin, who gives a harrowing portrayal of a woman descending into madness. “As for the other question, it’s impossible to answer. What filmmaker wouldn’t say that he would do a better job in telling his own story?”

At 48, Geraldine Chaplin, the eldest of Charlie and his last wife Oona’s seven children, has a lithe, fine-boned elegance, resembling her mother, who died last year, more than her father. She has had an entirely different career from her father, but it has been as equally venturesome as his, perhaps even more so. She has acted successfully in at least three languages and in various American and English accents.

Her pictures have ranged from “Dr. Zhivago” to Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and “A Wedding,” Alan Rudolph’s “Welcome to L.A.” and “Remember My Name,” to a distinguished series of films with Spanish director Carlos Saura, with whom she has a 14-year-old son. (She also has a 6-year-old daughter with cinematographer Patricio Castilla.) Most recently, she has starred in a film by avant-garde Swiss director Daniel Schmid.

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When asked by Richard Attenborough to play her own grandmother, Chaplin didn’t hesitate: “I immediately said yes! Yippee! How flattering! How thrilling!” Geraldine’s grandmother, a music-hall singer, disintegrated mentally once she lost her voice and could scarcely support Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney; Chaplin’s father, an alcoholic, abandoned his family early on. Hannah Chaplin died in California long before Geraldine was born, but she said her father would talk about her in his later years. “He never said she was insane,” she recalled, “but from his stories you could tell that she was.

“He told us that she had made friends with this man while on the boat for America. When he finally realized who she was--'You’re Charlie Chaplin’s mother!'--she replied incredulously, ‘And you’re Jesus Christ!’ She would be having tea with my father and Syd and say that she was taking home the bread ‘for my boys'--not realizing she was with them that very minute. It was that terrible hunger and starvation she had endured. That poor, sweet woman! My father always said she was a wonderful mimic. When he spoke of her you would see the horror of insanity even though he was telling us ‘funny’ stories, turning them into humor.”

Chaplin was with her parents when her father’s passport was rescinded when they boarded a ship for a vacation in England in 1952. “It turned out to be a long holiday,” Chaplin remarked dryly. “My parents were so intelligent and wise not to tell us children what had happened. Our only life had been here. I read about it somewhere when I was 16 and I was studying ballet. Ballet and boys were on my mind, and I actually was able to regard what had happened as more of a plus. At 8 I would have been horrified.

“When my parents were to return in 1972 my mother was given an indefinite visa but my father only a two-week visa. He was pleased. He said, ‘They’re still scared of me.’

“The Oscar gave my father a new lease on life. It came at the right time. He couldn’t make his movies anymore--nobody would insure him--and he was scoring all the silent pictures. He was a little bit down, and suddenly with the Oscar his self-confidence returned.

“He wasn’t very enthusiastic when I made the decision to become an actress. He thought I was just doing the easiest thing. But his attitude changed after I had made two or three films. He wanted all his children to have respectable professions, like being a doctor or a diplomat.”

As it has turned out, almost all of Geraldine’s siblings have been drawn to performing. Besides herself, Geraldine’s sister Victoria has so far enjoyed the greatest success. “Victoria has a circus with her husband,” Chaplin said. “She’s a trapeze artist, a tightrope walker, a magician and a clown. She is touring all the time. Not one of us is ‘respectable’! “

Chaplin has warm memories of her father. “I’ve blocked out the very last years when he could no longer communicate, but this is the way I remember him. I’d come back home to Switzerland for a visit. He’d work all day in his study, and then sit down and have a drink and get a fire going. We’d just sit there and have a long talk. I don’t remember what we’d talk about, but it was just such a lovely feeling, just so comfortable to be with him. I would think what a great man he is and what a privilege it was to be his daughter.”

*

Shelley Winters, now 70, was under contract to Columbia when she met Charlie Chaplin nearly half a century ago. “I met Charlie Chaplin through his son Sydney at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club,” Winters said recently. “Charlie was mad for tennis. He had a kind of salon, and the only ticket of admission you needed was to be a talented young person. There were always lot of famous people around--Brecht, Salka Viertel, Lion Feuchtwanger--but you never were supposed to be in awe of them. I remember being in awe of them anyway and holding my mouth shut, if you can believe that!

“I don’t remember any political discussions. I do remember a copy of Soviet Union Today on a table, but this was during World War II, and Russia was our ally. Going to Charlie’s always just seemed like fun.

“He overheard me telling someone that Columbia had dropped me because my nose was too wide, my hips were too wide. He said, ‘Shelley, none of that matters. All that matters is what is in your eyes.’ He made everybody feel that he or she was in his league--that it was only a matter of time that you would be as famous and accomplished as he was if you understood your connection to your function as an artist, who gives something back to the audience that is elevating. He had me read Shaw: ‘Theater at its best is elucidated social conscience . . . an armory against despair and darkness.’ He made you understand that acting is an honorable profession with a purpose.

“My brother-in-law owned the Circle Theater, and I watched Charlie direct Sydney and Ruth Conte in ‘What Every Woman Knows.’ Charlie’s idea of directing was to do all the parts himself. He became tall or little, as the part called for, and did the women’s parts as well. He was so obsessed with acting I don’t think he was very good with his early family, his sons Sydney and Charlie Jr.

“Chaplin was so encouraging to young people--me, Marlon (Brando), Monty Clift, who was always very quiet. I saw this film ‘Thunder Road,’ with James Mason and Michael Redgrave, and decided I wanted to direct it on stage. Chaplin came to see it in the little 60-seat theater at the Circle. Afterward, he patted my head and gave me an A for effort. I told him it was because of him that I directed the play. I remember when Robert Walker staged ‘Hello, Out There’ on somebody’s tennis court in Malibu and Chaplin came to that too.

“He was an intellectual, and he never treated me like a dumb blonde, the way the studio wanted me to look. He listened --he treated me with respect.”

*

A chic, elegant woman with a delightful British accent, Betty Chaplin Tetrick had her life transformed by the concern and hospitality of her famous relative. “Charlie and I were second cousins,” she said in a phone interview. “My father and Charlie were extremely close. I met him when I was 5 or 6 and he’d come to London for the premiere of ‘The Kid’ and he came to the house for dinner. Charlie gave me Jackie Coogan’s costume from ‘The Kid’ and his tramp outfit to my older brother to wear at the Lord Mayor’s Ball for Children--and you know how important it is to children to wear just the right costume. We were thrilled!

“At 19 I visited Charlie here and always wanted to return. The war broke out, and I was trapped. But thanks to Charlie, Joe Kennedy, who was then the American ambassador to the Court of St. Jameses’, gave me carte blanche, and I took the last passenger ship for America. I arrived with no money and a little suitcase.”

Tetrick remembers that the legal battles involving Chaplin and actress Joan Barry “were very, very hard on Charlie, who was an extremely shy man. And then there was the McCarthy Era. I think (Attenborough) put that over in the film very well--people forget how bad it was. But with Oona a light came into Charlie’s life. He really, really found happiness with her. I married Ted Tetrick, who was Charlie’s associate. I suffered a miscarriage, never had children, so all of Oona and Charlie’s children are like my own. Mind you, I like Lita and liked her mother, Lillian, too, but she and especially Lillian caused Charlie a great deal of unhappiness in not letting him have Charlie Jr. and Sydney more often or longer.”

“I worked for him from 1938 to the day he died,” said Betty Chaplin Tetrick’s husband, Ted Tetrick. “I am an architect by trade, and I had an interview with him at the studio. He liked little people, more his size, and my only competition for the job was 6-feet-4 tall. I was his ‘right bower,’ his jack-of-all-trades. Whatever situation we were in, I was in it. I designed all the ladies’ costumes for ‘The Great Dictator,’ settled all his labor problems.

“He treated everybody like a king or queen, but he could take a sadistic line with his leading ladies to get what he wanted from them. On ‘The Great Dictator,’ after 64 takes, Paulette Goddard was ready to crown him with a Cognac bottle!”

“I knew him before I was in ‘Limelight'--when he was shooting ‘Monsieur Verdoux,’ ” recalled distinguished Hollywood veteran Norman Lloyd, the author of “Stages: A Life in the Theater, Film and Television.” “We played tennis four times a week, and Charlie was mad for tennis. He was such a fantastic guy. He could suffer feelings of depression, but he was like a guy on the top of his toes all the time.

“Soon it became more than tennis, and my wife, Peggy, and Oona became friends. He asked me if there was anything I wanted to do, and I said ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ We bought it in the late ‘40s, owned it 16 years. In the normal course of events it would have been next after ‘Limelight.’ He vowed he would never make another picture here, and he didn’t.

“Charlie directed like an actor. That is to say he was primarily an actor with Claire Bloom and his son Sydney on ‘Limelight.’ He would play both parts and act them out for them--he would get under the camera and play the scene for them. It cannot have been easy for them. As for himself he would tell the cameraman, ‘Just get me in the cross hairs and stay with me.’ He knew who was important!”


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