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Son of "Little Tramp" Dies

Adam Bernstein

Sydney Chaplin, 82, a son of movie comedian Charlie Chaplin who went on to his own acting career in film and on Broadway, including a Tony Award-winning performance in the long-running musical "Bells Are Ringing," died March 3 at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He had a stroke last year.

Sydney Chaplin was a son of the actor and director best known for such silent masterpieces as "The Gold Rush" (1925) "City Lights" (1931) and "Modern Times" (1936). The elder Chaplin, who frequent screen character The Little Tramp delighted audiences for generations, was among the most prolific and influential filmmakers of all time. Playwright George Bernard Shaw called him "the only true genius motion pictures ever produced."

While Sydney Chaplin said he admired his father, he was admittedly nothing like him in ambition -- and never pretended otherwise. He appeared in a few movies, often playing American Indians. "I sat around in the commissary in pigtails and said 'Ugh!' on camera," he said dismissively.


He also appeared in supporting roles in two of his father's sound pictures. In "Limelight" (1952), he played a composer who steals away dancer Claire Bloom from the aged music hall performer played by the elder Chaplin. He later had a secondary role in "A Countess from Hong Kong" (1967). He acted series of cheap French and Italian productions and the campy horror film "Satan's Cheerleaders" (1977).

He showed early promise as a stage performer, initially at the prestigious Circle theater in Los Angeles. His Broadway debut, in "Bells Are Ringing" (1956), earned him the Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical. The show ran nearly three years, but his role was played by Dean Martin onscreen.

Tall and handsome, Sydney Chaplin was an easy fit for musical comedy. He starred in shows including "Subways Are for Sleeping" (1961) and in "Funny Girl" (1964), about the life of entertainer Fanny Brice. He was nominated for a Tony in "Funny Girl" for his portryal of gambler Nick Arnstein, Brice's troubled lover. "Funny Girl" made a star of Barbra Streisand and played three years on Broadway, but Chaplin quit the cast after a dispute with Streisand. Omar Sharif played the Arnstein role onscreen.

Streisand was reputedly one of Chaplin's many romantic conquests, but one of Streisand's biographers reported that the tryst was short-lived and acrimonious.

Streisand was notoriously self-conscious about her looks, and Chaplin would whisper "nose" in her ear during love songs.

It was also reported by Streisand biographer James Spada that she managed to extract revenge one night as the curtain was dropping. "It was the scene on the chaise longue where they were going to make love," Spada wrote. "The curtain had a heavy bar in it to keep it taut. They had been told not to raise their heads until it had passed. He whispered `nose' again and she bit his neck. His head reared up and he got a concussion."

Sydney Earle Chaplin was born March 30, 1926, in Los Angeles to Charlie Chaplin and his second wife, actress Lita Grey. She was 16 when she married the 35-year-old Chaplin in 1924, and the union lasted three unhappy years. They had two children, one of whom, Charles Jr., died of alcohol abuse in 1968.

The Chaplin-Grey divorce lingered publicly and acrimoniously for nine months, revealing unflattering stories of the comedian's philandering. Lita Grey burned through a $1 million settlement, married several more times and struggled with an emotional breadown.

Sydney Chaplin spent his childhood in a serious of boarding schools and was eventually kicked out of Black Fox Military Academy in Los Angeles, a school specializing in educating the sons of the famous.

After seeing Army combat service in Europe during the last year of World War II, he returned to Los Angeles and entered theater.

When "Funny Girl" ended his stage career, he continued making movies in Europe and then started several restaurants. He also enjoyed golfing in amateur tournaments. Although he stayed out of the public eye for decades, he did a round of interviews when a collection of his father's films was released on DVD in 2003.

He told one reporter, "Someone once asked me what I considered to be good retirement age, and I said '15.'

By Adam Bernstein  |  March 5, 2009; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein  
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