Sydney Chaplin: Actor who stepped from his father's shadow to appear on Broadway
Wednesday 11 March 2009
A son of Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin seemed destined to remain in the shadow of his father professionally – his filmography is notable for consistent mediocrity – but in the 1950s he had a spell as one of the most popular leading men on the Broadway stage, starring opposite Judy Holliday, Lauren Bacall and Barbra Streisand, and winning a Tony Award. In addition to having an affair with Holliday, he was the lover of some of the most beautiful women of his era, including Joan Collins, Claire Bloom and Kay Kendall.
It was Holliday who secured for him the role of her leading man in the hit Broadway musical Bells Are Ringing, and though their romance ended with some acrimony, Chaplin was admired for his geniality and what Joan Collins called "his outrageous and scurrilous wit." His tempestuous affair with Kay Kendall ended when she married Rex Harrison, but he remained friends with both of them, and when Kendall was dying he would take Harrison out to the golf course to relax his mind.
"It's such a good feeling to share the stage with someone supportive, for whom you have great affection," Lauren Bacall stated in her memoirs. "He and I really liked each other, respected each other, but no romance. He'd had that experience once and never again."
A bon vivant, Chaplin had an easy-going manner and lack of ambition that endeared him to his friends. When the roles he originated in Bells Are Ringing and Funny Girl went to others for the screen versions (Dean Martin and Omar Sharif respectively), he said he was not disappointed. "I never had the burning desire for recognition and respect that had driven my father," he said. According to Joan Collins, "To Syd, life was one great big ball. He loved to drink, to dance, to gamble, to joke and to play. He didn't take acting seriously; it was just a way to make some bread. He had a small allowance from his father, but not enough to lead the crazy playboy existence he desired."
Charlie Chaplin married his second wife, the 16-year-old actress Lita Grey, in 1924, and Sydney Earle Chaplin (named after his father's half-brother) was born two years later in Beverly Hills. His parents were divorced in 1927 in a bitter court case. Sydney was raised by his maternal grandmother and saw little of his father during his childhood. An undisciplined youth, he had a sporadic education ("I had been thrown out of three boarding schools by the time I was 16") before he was drafted into the infantry in 1944, serving in Europe under General Patton.
Chaplin claimed the war gave him a new perspective, and after discharge he joined a group establishing the Circle Theater, Hollywood's equivalent to an off-Broadway house, that staged classical and avant garde plays in the round. He presented more than 50 plays in four years, winning plaudits for a schedule that included the world premiere of William Saroyan's Sam Ego's House. Charlie Chaplin staged some of the productions, and Sydney acted in several. He made his screen debut in a role his father created for him, as a young composer in love with a ballerina (Claire Bloom) in what was to be Charlie's last unqualified film triumph, Limelight (1952).
Bloom later remarked on how "wickedly funny" Sydney could be talking of his father's eccentricities, compared to his "inhibited and wooden performance on the set". They had a romance, but she was later to confess, "I had been drawn more to the idea of being Chaplin's daughter-in-law than being Sydney's wife." Sydney remained in Europe for several years, finding Paris and Rome suited to his lifestyle, and his next major film role was in Howard Hawks' epic about the building of the Great Pyramid, Land of the Pharaohs (1955), shot in Rome and starring Joan Collins as Princess Nellifer. Collins had just ended a violent marriage to the actor Maxwell Reed, and responded to the humorous nonconformist. "Every day we started laughing, and didn't stop until the early hours of the morning, when we would stagger out of whatever disco or club we hit upon that night. We finally laughed our way into bed, where we proceeded to become, if possible, even more hysterical."
When Collins was offered a contract in Hollywood, Sydney followed her. He became part of the famed group that gathered at the home of Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair every Sunday to play charades. Work was scarce, though, until he met Judy Holliday at one of the Kelly's gatherings. Holliday was about to start work on her first Broadway musical, Bells Are Ringing, in which she would play a switchboard operator who becomes involved in the lives of her customers, notably a fun-loving playwright neglecting his talent. A leading man had not yet been cast, and when Holliday suggested Chaplin, she met opposition from co-librettist Betty Comden, composer Jule Styne and director Jerome Robbins, all of whom pointed out that Chaplin could not sing. Holliday said she would not do the show without him, and a compromise was reached: Chaplin was cast, but if he was not giving a professional performance by the first week of try-outs, he would be dismissed.
After rigorous coaching by Holliday and vocal coach Herbie Greene, Chaplin received better reviews than the star. "Of course, I wanted Sydney to make a hit," Holliday said to Styne, "but not at my expense." Broadway critics lauded Chaplin as the discovery of the season and he was awarded the Tony award as best featured male actor of the year, beating Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady.
After nearly a year, Holliday and Chaplin took a holiday which included a visit to Chaplin's father and stepmother Oona in Switzerland. Though neither Chaplin nor Holliday would speak about what happened, by the end of the holiday they were no longer sweethearts, and the atmosphere backstage became tense. At the end of his contract, Chaplin was replaced by his understudy, Hal Linden, and plans for Holliday and Chaplin to do the show in London were cancelled.
His next Broadway show was Goodbye Charlie (1959) in which he co-starred with Bacall. The scores for Chaplin's next two Broadway shows were written by Jule Styne. Subways Are for Sleeping (1961) was a whimsical tale of "well-dressed drifters". It ran for six months, with Chaplin's laid-back vocal style perfect for the hit ballad "I'm Just Taking My Time".
In Funny Girl (1964), which starred Barbra Streisand as the comedienne Fanny Brice, the role of Fanny's first husband, the larcenous gambler Nicky Arnstein, was perfect for Chaplin, for it needed someone with the charisma to win the audience's sympathy despite the character's flaws. The show was an enormous hit. Though Streisand had most of the show-stoppers, Chaplin was persuasive singing "I Want to be Seen With You", while a duet with Streisand, "You Are Woman, I Am Man", became a highlight.
Recently asked what form of acting he liked best, Chaplin replied, "Musical theatre was wonderful, because I had a marvellous guy, Jule Styne, who wrote tons of great hits." He regretted that his father was not able to see him on stage during those years, due to the McCarthy witch hunts. "I'd send him the albums of the musicals and he got a big kick out of that." He appeared in his father's final film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), a critical and commercial disaster of which Sydney said, "It's time will come."
In the 1960s Chaplin moved back to Europe, where he made several films, including Le Clan des Siciliens (1969) with Jean Gabin. When Charlie Chaplin died in 1977 he left his fortune (over $100m) to his widow, Oona, who gave Chaplin the $500,000 he needed to open a bistro called Chaplin's in Palm Springs in the late 1980s, a gathering place for celebrities where Chaplin would hold court. It closed in the 1990s, and in retirement Chaplin enjoyed golf, playing well enough to win celebrity tournaments. Asked to name his favourite film, Chaplin remained loyal to his father. "City Lights," he would say. "The greatest single motion picture ever made."
Sydney Earle Chaplin, actor: born Los Angeles, California 31 March 1926; married Susan Magnes (marriage dissolved, one son); Noelle Adam (marriage dissolved); Margaret Beebe; died Rancho Mirage, California 3 March 2009.
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