He was born in Walworth, London, England to Charles Chaplin, Sr. and
Hannah Harriette Hill, both Music Hall entertainers. His parents separated
soon after his birth, leaving him in the care of his increasingly unstable
mother. In 1896, she was unable to find work; Charlie and his older
half-brother Sydney had to be left in the workhouse at Lambeth, moving
after several weeks to Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children.
His father died an alcoholic when Charlie was 12, and his mother suffered
a mental breakdown, and was eventually admitted to the Cane Hill Asylum
at Coulsdon, near Croydon. She died in 1928.
Charlie first took to the stage when, aged 5, he performed in Music
Hall in 1894, standing in for his mother. As a child, he was confined
to a bed for weeks due to a serious illness, and, at night, his mother
would sit at the window and act out what was going on outside. In 1900,
aged 11, his brother helped get him the role of a comic cat in the
pantomime Cinderella at the London Hippodrome. In 1903 he appeared
in Jim, A Romance of Cockayne, followed by his first regular job, as
the newspaper boy Billy in Sherlock Holmes, a part he played into 1906.
This was followed by Casey's Court Circus variety show, and, the following
year, he became a clown in Fred Karno's Fun Factory slapstick comedy
Move to America
According to immigration records, he arrived in the USA with the Karno
troupe on October 2, 1912. In the Karno Company was Arthur Stanley
Jefferson, who would later become known as Stan Laurel. Chaplin and
Laurel wound up sharing a room in a boarding house. Stan Laurel returned
to England but Chaplin remained in the USA. His act was seen by film
producer Mack Sennett, who hired him for his studio, the Keystone Film
While Chaplin initially had difficulty adjusting to the Keystone style
of film acting, he soon adapted and flourished in the medium. This
was made possible in part by Chaplin developing his signature Tramp
persona, and by eventually earning directorship and creative control
over his films, which enabled him to become Keystone's top star and
His salary history suggests how rapidly he became world famous, and
the skill of his brother, Sydney, at being his business manager.
1914: Keystone, worked for $150 a week
1914-1915: Essanay Studios, of Chicago, Illinois, $1250 a week, plus
$10,000 signing bonus
1916-1917: Mutual, $10,000 a week, plus $150,000 signing bonus
1917: First National, $1 million deal — the first actor ever
to earn that sum. He also formed his own independent production company,
the Charles Chaplin Film Corporation, which made him a very wealthy
Chaplin as Auteur
Chaplin built his own Hollywood studio in 1918, and assumed an unparalleled
degree of artistic and financial independence over his productions.
Using this independence, over the next 35 years he created a remarkable,
timeless body of work that remains entertaining and influential. These
include comedy shorts (such as A Dog's Life (1918) and Pay Day (1922)),
longer films (Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Pilgrim (1923)), and his
great silent feature length films: The Kid (1921), A Woman of Paris
(1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). After the arrival
of sound films, he made City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936),
essentially silent films scored with his own music and sound effects.
His dialogue films made in Hollywood were The Great Dictator (1940),
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952).
Modern Times (1936), a silent movie, did feature some dialogue. It
is actually his first movie where his own voice is heard. However,
it is still, majorly and essentially, a silent film.
In 1919 he founded the United Artists film distribution company with
Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, and served on
the board of UA until the early 1950's.
Although "talkies" became the dominant mode of moviemaking
soon after they were introduced in 1927, Chaplin resisted making a
talkie all through the 1930s. It is a tribute to Chaplin's versatility
that he also has one film credit for choreography for the 1952 film
Limelight, and one credit as a singer for the title music of the 1928
film The Circus. The best-known of several songs he composed are "Smile",
famously covered by Nat King Cole, among others, and the theme from
Limelight, which won a belated Oscar for best film score in 1973.
His first dialogue picture, The Great Dictator (1940) was an act of
defiance against Adolf Hitler and fascism, filmed and released in the
United States one year before it abandoned its policy of isolationism
to enter World War II. Chaplin played a fascist dictator clearly modeled
on Hitler (also with a certain physical likeness), as well as a Jewish
barber cruelly persecuted by the Nazis. Hitler, who was a great fan
of movies, is known to have seen the film twice (records were kept
of movies ordered for his personal theater). After the war and the
uncovering of the Holocaust, Chaplin stated that he would not have
been able to make such jokes about the Nazi regime had he known about
the actual extent of the pogrom.
Chaplin's political sympathies always lay with the left. His politics
seem tame by modern standards, but after the 1940's his views (in conjunction
with his influence and fame) were seen by many as dangerously radical.
His silent films made prior to the Great Depression did not contain overt
political themes or messages, apart from the Tramp's plight in poverty.
But his films made in the 1930's were more openly political. Modern Times
(1936) depicts the dismal situation of workers and the poor in industrial
society. The final dramatic speech in his 1940 film The Great Dictator,
which was critical of patriotic nationalism, was highly controversial,
as was his vocal public support for the opening of a second European
front in 1942 to assist the Soviet Union in World War II. The critical
view of capitalism in his 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux was hugely
controversial, with the film being protested at many US cities.
Although Chaplin had his major successes in the United States and was
a resident from 1914 to 1952, he retained his British nationality. During
the era of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused of "un-American activities" as
a suspected communist; and J. Edgar Hoover, who had instructed the FBI
to keep extensive files on him, tried to end his United States residency.
In 1952, Chaplin left the US for a trip to England; Hoover learned of
it and negotiated with the INS to revoke his re-entry permit. Chaplin
then decided to stay in Europe, and made his home in Vevey, Switzerland.
He briefly returned to the United States in April 1972, with his wife
to receive an Honorary Oscar.
Chaplin: The Later Years
Chaplin won the honorary Oscar twice. When the first Oscars were awarded
on May 16, 1929, the voting audit procedures that now exist had not
yet been put into place, and the categories were still very fluid.
Chaplin had originally been nominated for both Best Actor and and Best
Comedy Directing for his movie The Circus, but his name was withdrawn
and the Academy decided to give him a special award "for versatility
and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus" instead.
The other film to receive a special award that year was The Jazz Singer.
Chaplin's second honorary award came 44 years later in 1972, and was
for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures
the art form of this century". He came out of his exile and collected
his award less than a month before the death of J. Edgar Hoover. Upon
receiving the award, Chaplin received the longest standing ovation
in Academy Award history, lasting a full five minutes from the delighted,
enthralled star-studded studio audience.
Chaplin was also nominated without success for Best Picture, Best
Actor, and Best Original Screenplay for The Great Dictator, and again
for Best Original Screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
In 1973, he received an Oscar for the Best Music in an Original Dramatic
Score for the 1952 film Limelight, which co-starred Claire Bloom. The
film also features a cameo with Buster Keaton, which was the first
and last time the two great comedians ever appeared together. Because
of Chaplin's difficulties with McCarthyism, the film did not open in
Los Angeles when it was first produced. This criterion for nomination
was not fulfilled until 1972.
His final films were A King in New York (1957) and A Countess From
Hong Kong (1967), starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando.
Chaplin's professional successes were repeatedly overshadowed by his
private life, particularly with regard to his politics and his pattern
of relationship with young women. On October 23, 1918, the 28 year
old Chaplin married the 16-year-old Mildred Harris. They had one child,
Norman Spencer Chaplin, who died in infancy; they divorced in 1920.
At 35, he became involved with 16-year-old Lita Grey during preparations
for The Gold Rush. They married on November 26, 1924 after she became
pregnant. They had two sons, the actors Charles Chaplin Jr. (1925-1968)
and Sydney Earle Chaplin. Their extraordinarily bitter divorce in 1928
had Chaplin paying Grey a then-record-breaking $825,000 settlement.
The stress of the sensational divorce, compounded by a tax dispute,
allegedly turned his hair white. The publication of court records,
which included many intimate details, led to a campaign against him.
Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard were involved in a romantic and
professional relationship between 1932 and 1940, with Goddard living
with Chaplin in his Beverly Hills home for most of this time. After
the relationship ended, Chaplin made public statements that they had
been secretly married in 1936, but in private he claimed they were
in fact never officially married. In any case, their common-law marriage
ended amicably in 1942, with Goddard being granted a divorce and settlement.
Afterwards, Chaplin briefly dated actress Joan Barry, but ended it
when she started harrassing him and displaying signs of severe mental
illness. In May 1943, she filed a paternity suit against him. Blood
tests proved Chaplin was not the father, but as blood tests were inadmissible
evidence in court, he was ordered to pay $75 a week until the child
turned 21. Shortly thereafter, he met Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene
O'Neill, and married her on June 16, 1943. He was 54; she was 17. This
marriage was a long and happy one, with eight children. They had three
sons Christopher Chaplin, Eugene Chaplin and Michael Chaplin and five
daughters Geraldine Chaplin, Josephine Chaplin, Jane Chaplin, Victoria
Chaplin and Annette-Emilie Chaplin.
In April 1972, Chaplin returned to America to accept an Honorary Academy
Award. The presentation is remembered as one of the emotional highlights
in all of Academy Award history. Chaplin's weeklong return visit to the
US, his last, also included numerous honors in both New York and Los
On March 4, 1975 he was knighted as a Knight of the British Empire
by Queen Elizabeth II. The honour was first proposed in 1956, but vetoed
by the British Foreign Office on the grounds that he sympathized with
the left and that it would damage British relations with the United
States, at the height of the Cold War and with planning for the ill-fated
invasion of Suez underway.
Chaplin died on Christmas Day, 1977 in Vevey, Switzerland, following
a stroke, aged 88, and was interred in Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery in
Corsier-Sur-Vevey, Vaud. On 1 March 1978, his body was stolen in an
attempt to extort money from his family. The plot failed. The robbers
were captured, and the body was recovered 11 weeks later near Lake
Geneva. There is a statue of Chaplin in front of the alimentarium in
Vevey to commemorate the last part of his life.
Amongst his many honours, Chaplin has a star on the Hollywood Walk
of Fame and in 1985 he was honoured with his image on a postage stamp
of the United Kingdom and in 1994 he appeared on a United States postage
stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
In 1992 a film was made about his life entitled Chaplin, directed
by Oscar-winner Sir Richard Attenborough, and starring Robert Downey
Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie's daughter, portraying
Charlie's mother, her own grandmother), Sir Anthony Hopkins, Milla
Jovovich, Moira Kelly, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller,
Paul Rhys, Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis, and James Woods.
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted among
the top 20 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy
All his life, Chaplin was known to be an avowed atheist. He had nothing
but contempt for any form of religion. He once joked, "I would
love to play the part of Jesus! I fit it perfectly because I am a comedian".