Charles Champlin dies at 88; former L.A. Times arts editor, critic
Charles Champlin, the former Los Angeles Times arts editor, film critic and columnist whose insightful, elegantly written reviews and columns informed and entertained readers for decades, died Sunday at his Los Angeles home. He was 88.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his son, Charles Champlin Jr.
The Harvard-educated Champlin had worked 17 years at Life and Time magazines before joining The Times as entertainment editor and three-times-a-week columnist in 1965.
During his 26 years at The Times, Champlin served as the paper’s principal film critic from 1967 through 1980.
He then shifted to book reviewing and, with his “Critic at Large” column, offered a more general overview of the arts. He retired in 1991 but continued to contribute to The Times’ daily and Sunday Calendar sections and wrote two books despite becoming legally blind from age-related macular degeneration in 1999.
In honor of his film coverage and criticism, Champlin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.
“Charles Champlin was one of the great gentlemen of American film criticism and a pioneer in showing that mass-market newspaper reviewing could be smart and well-written as well as accessible,” Times film critic Kenneth Turan said Monday.
His tenure as arts editor in the late 1970s was touched by controversy over the paper’s coverage of one of the era’s biggest Hollywood scandals: the ouster of David Begelman as president of the motion picture and television division of Columbia Pictures after he had forged $40,000 worth of checks, including one for $10,000 made out to actor Cliff Robertson.
The Times did not investigate the Begelman affair until well after rival papers had thoroughly reported on it, opening the paper to criticism in an era when the paper’s entertainment staff was not expected to pursue investigative stories.
As a movie critic, Champlin estimated that he saw 250 movies a year and reviewed half of them. He came to the job at a time when the new movie rating system launched in 1968 gave filmmakers unprecedented creative freedom.
“I quickly came to realize that I had acquired an aisle seat at a period of historic ferment in American films,” Champlin wrote in “Hollywood’s Revolutionary Decade,” a 1998 annotated collection of his reviews from the 1970s.
Champlin was known for being “a discerning critic,” as fellow film critic Arthur Knight once noted. But he also was criticized by some for writing what The Times’ late media critic David Shaw, in a 2001 examination of how the media cover Hollywood, called “overwhelmingly favorable reviews.”
Champlin acknowledged his “reputation as a kind critic.” But in a talk he gave at Chapman University in 1977, he good-naturedly offered ample evidence to the contrary by reading excerpts from some of his less-flattering movie reviews.
Of the 1975 comedy-drama “Lucky Lady,” for example, he wrote that it was a “cynical, vulgar, contrived, mismated, violent, uneven and uninteresting disaster.” As for the plot of the Liza Minnelli-Burt Reynolds-Gene Hackman movie, it was, he wrote, “unmenageable, trois as we will.”
Addressing the “perils of being a reviewer in Hollywood,” Champlin told his Chapman audience that “it’s not that [filmmakers] are going to put pressure on you. It’s just that you like them in many cases. It’s painful to say a movie is a disaster.
“It pains you to do it, but you have to do it. All you have going for you as a critic is your credibility. If you lose it, you’re useless as a critic.”
As a film critic, Champlin had many fans among the elite of Hollywood, including actor Jack Lemmon.
“I’ve gotten some pretty bad reviews along with the good ones from Chuck, but he’s always been honest and constructive,” Lemmon, who died in 2001, said in Don Widener’s 2000 book “Lemmon: A Biography.”
Director Arthur Hiller, then-president of the Directors Guild of America, offered his praise in 1992, when Champlin received an honorary Life Member Award from the guild.
Champlin, Hiller said, was “the epitome of a film critic [who] has shown an incredible knowledge of films, a deep caring about films and filmmakers.”
The veteran journalist was in charge of arts coverage when the Begelman case broke into the headlines at other papers.
For more than two months after Columbia’s initial announcement that it had launched “an inquiry into certain unauthorized financial transactions between David Begelman and the company,” The Times ran only three brief stories — two just a paragraph apiece — buried inside the paper.
It was not until the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles on the Begelman case that The Times entered the fray by running an edited version of the Post article.
And it was not until an ensuing flurry of newspapers and magazines latched onto the Begelman case as evidence of widespread corruption in Hollywood that The Times assigned a team of four reporters to the story in an effort to catch up.
“We were absolutely in a state of panic,” Champlin recalled in a 1979 Times article by Shaw that chronicled the paper’s poor coverage of the Begelman case.
Three months after the story broke, The Times published its first major piece on the scandal. Written by Champlin after a telephone interview with Begelman, the piece was seen as “sympathetic” to the producer and referred to the forgeries as “crimeless crimes” and Begelman as “a culprit who doubles as a victim.”
Champlin, who years later said that he “couldn’t pretend it was a piece of reporting,” was criticized for the article, which outside observers viewed as an apologia.
In his analysis of The Times’ failure in the Begelman case, Shaw noted a lack of communication between The Times’ entertainment department and the news department. It also showed that, while the entertainment section’s critics and feature writers covered the artistic side of Hollywood, it was, as Sunday Calendar section editor Irv Letofsky said in 1979, “not equipped to do hard-news investigation.”
The fact that Champlin’s article on Begelman didn’t follow any investigative stories, Shaw wrote, “contributed to an already widely held perception that the Times had deliberately ignored the Begelman affair because the paper was ‘protective’ of Hollywood.”
Champlin was born March 23, 1926, in Hammondsport, N.Y., a hamlet on Keuka Lake in the Finger Lakes region, where members of his family had long owned a winery that was effectively closed during Prohibition.
In 1943, Champlin headed to Harvard, where he joined the Army’s Enlisted Reserve Corps in early 1944. That May — two months after he turned 18 — the self-described “bookish, introspective and fairly unassertive” college student volunteered for induction into the Army.
While serving in a mortar squad in March 1945, he was wounded in the right hip by a German artillery shell and returned stateside after about three months in combat.
After his discharge, Champlin returned to Harvard, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1948. On a recommendation from a writing instructor at Harvard, he was quickly hired by Life magazine as a “trainee” in its picture bureau in Manhattan.
A year later, after moving up to a job as a researcher, Champlin was assigned as a correspondent in Life’s Chicago bureau. After three years in Chicago and two years as a correspondent in the Denver bureau, he returned to New York City as a writer for the magazine.
In 1959, having become the senior writer in domestic news, he was assigned to Life’s Los Angeles bureau. Before joining The Times, Champlin was a London-based arts correspondent for three years.
Over the years, Champlin brought his arts and film expertise to television, including hosting “At One With” on KNBC-TV Channel 4, “On the Film Scene” on the Z Channel in Los Angeles and “Champlin on Film” on the Bravo cable channel. He also co-hosted “Citywatchers,” a public affairs program on KCET-TV in Los Angeles, with the late Times columnist Art Seidenbaum.
Among Champlin’s other books are “The Flicks: Or, Whatever Became of Andy Hardy” (1975), which was revised and republished in 1981 as “The Movies Grow Up, 1940-1980"; “George Lucas: The Creative Impulse” (1992); and “A Life in Writing: The Story of an American Journalist” (2006).
His slim (69-page) 2001 book “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind” dealt with his struggle with macular degeneration.
Besides son Charles Jr. of Santa Barbara, Champlin is survived by his wife of 66 years, Margaret (Peggy) Derby Champlin; daughters Katherine Laundrie of Vista, Calif., Judith Desmond of San Anselmo, Calif., Susan Champlin of New York City and Nancy Cecconi of Eagle Rock; son John of Valencia; half sister Nancy Kreis of Camillus, N.Y.; 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer.
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