He was one of film’s first giants—an actor, director and producer whose sentimental comedies made him the most famous man of his day. As the long-suffering but always buoyant hobo, the Little Tramp, he starred in some of Hollywood’s best-loved silent movies. But Charlie Chaplin was also a husband (four times, to much younger women) and father (10 times, by two of his wives). To his oldest living son, Sydney Chaplin, 62, Charlie was a magical but formidable figure.
Named after his father’s older half-brother, Sydney Earl Chaplin was born to Charlie and his second wife, starlet Lita Grey. Though his parents divorced while he was still a baby, Sydney maintained contact with his work-obsessed father. In 1946, at the age of 20, he entered show business himself, and over the next 35 years he appeared in five Broadway plays and 20 films, including the stage production of Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl—a project that was marked by clashing egos and backstage bickering.
Today Sydney Chaplin is the co-owner—along with his fiancée, Margaret Beebe, 39—of the Palm Springs restaurant Chaplin’s. There he can usually be found by the bar, mingling with a clientele that includes Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson. When somebody insists on buying him a drink, Chaplin orders a “weakie” (water with a splash of vodka), then settles in to regale listeners with amusing and often risqué anecdotes. One can’t help but eavesdrop.
I was born in 1926 in Beverly Hills, when my father was 37 and my mother, Lita, was 18. My brother, Charles Spencer Jr., was born first, and then 10 months after that I arrived. Sixteen months later my parents divorced.
My mom wanted to be a movie star, but as it turned out, she had a pretty good career as a nightclub singer. She had a big drinking problem, though. It didn’t bother me as a kid because I didn’t know she was ruining her health. She stopped in the ’40s and hasn’t had a beer since. My brother had the same problem. He died 22 years ago, when his drinking caught up with him. He got a blood clot in his leg that traveled to his heart. Charlie was only 42 and the nicest guy in the world. When we were young, we were raised as twins—they even dressed us alike.
Charlie and I grew up in Beverly Hills with my mom and stepfather, Arthur Day, a sportswriter. Mom and Arthur sure knew how to entertain, which they did most every night. Everybody was always making out in the bushes or peeing over the balcony or throwing up in the pool. I never wanted to go to the movies—there was more going on at home.
After my parents divorced, my father married actress Paulette Goddard. They stayed together for nearly 10 years. During that time, from about 5th grade on, I went to Black Fox Military Academy, a sleep-away school for the sons of Hollywood rich people. There were only 150 students, but they included Buster Keaton’s kid and Bing Crosby’s four sons. I remember meeting up with Gary Crosby years later. He got drunk and ended up sobbing, “If only you knew what it’s like being the son of a famous father!”
I got to see my own father on weekends. He still lived in the house where I was born—a huge English Tudor mansion with three master bedrooms and an organ in the entrance hall. My brother and I both liked visiting because Paulette was great—she’d get us out of school to go sailing. Most of the time, though, Dad didn’t have time for us. I don’t have any unpleasant memories of him—I just wish he’d been around more.
I only went as far as the 8th grade in school. After I quit, I bummed around—until I turned 18 and got drafted. After playing tennis in Beverly Hills, I suddenly found myself a private in the infantry in the 65th division of Patton’s Army. You can imagine what an adjustment that was.
After the war I went back to L.A. and got mixed up with a group of kids from UCLA. In 1946 we started the Circle Theater. It lasted four years, and my father directed me in several of its 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 in 1951. I had a romance with the female lead, Claire Bloom, who was 20 then. We had a pretty wild time, but we just necked. She was set to go to England to do Romeo and Juliet for the Old Vic, and she insisted upon remaining a virgin until after she’d played Juliet.
My father’s marriage to Paulette Goddard ended in 1942, and the next year he married Oona O’Neill. He was 54, she was 18, and the press came down on them like crazy. Her father, playwright Eugene O’Neill, even disowned her.
Well, she was with Dad until the day he died. She is a bright, charming woman with a wonderful sense of humor. And generous too. She gave me the $500,000 I needed to open my restaurant. They had eight kids together, for God’s sake, so they must have been doing something right.
I tried living in Paris for a white, but my acting career stalled. To help pay the rent, in 1953 I made a lousy movie there with Kirk Douglas, Act of Love. In L.A. five years before, Kirk had caught me in bed with his girlfriend, oil heiress Irene Wrightsman. I woke up at her house with a big dimple two inches from my face, and I thought I was a goner. She started screaming and scared him off before he killed me, but, needless to say, they never married. Kirk had calmed down by the time we made the picture.
Then I had a small part in Land of the Pharaohs, which was filmed in Egypt and Rome and starred Joan Collins. If you think she’s pretty now, you should have seen her at 22. Dazzling! We ended up going together for several years. In 1955 we moved from Europe to Hollywood. We’re still fond of each other. It’s nice to see someone you know get so rich.
Before Joan and I drifted apart, I got to know her kid sister, Jackie Collins. She was always tagging along with us and was such a dumbbell. I remember one party where she picked up an hors d’oeuvre and whined, “I don’t like these beads.” “Then don’t eat them,” I said. “They’re caviar.” Who knew that years later that funny little kid would be a millionaire author?
Universal had some very bad years when they fired everyone. In 1955, I moved in with Gene Kelly as his houseguest and stayed for two years. Gene’s door was always open. One night a guest showed up, drank, had a great time and left. Everyone thought he had been invited by someone else. Turned out he was just a guy who drove up with the crowd and stayed all evening, listening to Lena Home and Judy Garland sing. He must have thought it was one hell of a party.
One day in 1956 Judy Holliday called to say 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. Judy was a terrific dame—we used to play poker. When she asked me to fly to New York to audition, I decided to sing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. But I was so nervous, I sounded like Minnie Mouse.
It took about 10 more auditions for me to get the part. I was lucky because Bells Are Ringing was an enormous hit. I even won a Tony for best supporting actor.
In 1960, at the age of 34, I married a dancer, Noelle Adam. We were married eight years, but it didn’t work out—I don’t know how anybody does it. Our son, Stephan, our only child, is 28 and in Paris now, acting in French films.
I went from Bells straight into two flops: Subways Are for Sleeping and In the Counting House. Thank God for Funny Girl. It was 1963, and at first Barbra Streisand and I hit it off. She played Fanny Brice, and I was her gangster boyfriend, Nicky Arnstein. It seemed clear to me that Barbra didn’t find herself attractive and was compensating with this enormous drive to succeed. I thought those qualities were rather attractive—until the charm became overbearing.
Barbra thought she knew everything. When she started directing me, I told her she should stop mugging like Martha Raye, leave me alone and concentrate on her own lines. Things got so bad that she brought me up on harassment charges and there was a hearing at Actors’ Equity. The charges were ultimately dismissed. She’s not a generous person. Whatever niceness may be there is pretty deeply hidden. You’ll see—she’ll end up sad.
My father didn’t, but he did age enormously when he had no more work. I was with him in Switzerland when he died, on Christmas Day in 1977. It was ironic because he always hated Christmas. He was 88 years old and a troubled, driven man. I felt sorry for him. He was terribly insecure. Except for Oona, he was a loner with no friends. And he was terrified he might die poor. It was an illness. When he died he left Oona his total fortune of more than $100 million. He was afraid if he gave me any money I’d piss it away.
He was a strange man. He had great difficulty expressing his feelings to me, which was odd because he expressed emotion on the screen so marvelously. But people are the way they are. My father gave so much to the world that I’m grateful to have been a small part of his gift. This April 16 is the 100th anniversary of his birth, so if you’re in Palm Springs, stop by. I’m buying everyone a round of drinks.