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Channeling Chaplin : It is the role of Robert Downey Jr.'s career--and he believes the Little Tramp is with him

December 20, 1992|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

And indeed, Attenborough had been a longtime admirer of Chaplin and had even met the director late in his life. After procuring the rights to Chaplin's 1974 autobiography from his widow, Oona Chaplin, as well as David Robinson's biography "Chaplin: His Life and Art" as the basis of his film, Attenborough commissioned a script from William Boyd with later input from William Goldman and Bryan Forbes and received the go-head from Universal.

Attenborough cast several well-known actors in the film's key roles. Aykroyd plays Mack Sennett, the producer of the Keystone Kops, Kevin Kline portrays Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Chaplin's close friend, and Anthony Hopkins plays the fictional editor of Chaplin's autobiography. Chaplin's many leading ladies and numerous wives are portrayed by Moira Kelly, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller and Marisa Tomei.

The hunt for Charlie, however, was more difficult. He looked at 30 actors, including Dustin Hoffman, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, who had contacted the director about the role, and eventually screen-tested seven--including Downey, who had caught Attenborough's attention with his performance in "Air America."

"I thought he showed a wickedness and a cheek and an irreverence and an ability to throw away a line that had nothing to do with Charlie but were elements that were needed," recalls the director. Although an initial meeting arranged by Creative Artists Agency between actor and director was something of a disaster--"I was wearing an earring and a Matsuda jacket and he was like 'Oh dear,' " says Downey, dropping into a letter-perfect imitation of Attenborough--the subsequent screen test sealed the deal.

"A lot of what he did I thought was crap," says Attenborough with a chuckle.

"But I remember you rubbing your hands together," interjects Hawkins. "You said, 'I could do business with him.' "

Once he had won the coveted role--largely on the basis of that screen test, his talents as a mimic and his physical similarities to Chaplin--Downey faced numerous challenges in portraying the legendary star. Since "Chaplin" tracks the star's life from his impoverished London boyhood to his final years as a virtual exile at his Swiss estate, Downey needed to age to nearly 90 (6-year-old actor Hugh Downer plays Chaplin as a child), master a cockney accent as well as imitate Chaplin's singular swayback posture. He also had to be funny without opening his mouth.

"It was challenge on top of challenge and frustration on top of frustration," says Downey, who describes his usual acting approach as "pretty lazy, which has been a cover for me not really committing (to a role)."

"Robert works a lot the way he learned on . . . what's the television show he did?" says Attenborough.

"Saturday Night Live," says Hawkins.

"Right--improvisation, of the moment, intuitive, uncalculated, spontaneous et cetera," continues Attenborough. "And because of the kinds of films I make, fact, documentary biography, I work on the basis of strict discipline and preparation, which was totally new to Robert. We had to start right from fundamentals with this little Brat Pack gadfly who had no discipline at all in terms of acting but was willing to work his backside off."

Downey spent almost a year preparing for the role, reading historical narratives, reviewing Chaplin's films while studying with various voice and movement coaches--including Johnny Hutch, a member of Britain's Benny Hill comedy troupe who choreographed Downey's music-hall sequences from actual eyewitness accounts of Chaplin's own routines--as he learned to speak with a British accent, play tennis and the violin with his left hand, as well as master the comic postures and pratfalls of Chaplin's screen persona, a puckishly asexual foil to his offscreen life.

"The whole thing is like with the pelvis (tipped) back," says Downey standing up and arching his back in imitation of Chaplin's famous Little Tramp stance. "He was such a lover in real life," adds Downey, "but on film--'penis? Not threatening.' "

Such pre-production efforts, however, did little to assuage Universal executives, who became increasingly uncertain about the $30-million film, which was set to begin filming in Los Angeles, London and Switzerland in March, 1991. As one project observer put it, "Once it became clear that it wasn't going to be a film with Crystal or Williams playing Chaplin, Universal was looking for a way out."

"Nobody ever said to me, 'We don't think Robert can do it,' " says Attenborough. "But because Robert was neither fish nor fowl--he wasn't Dusty (Hoffman) nor was he a complete unknown--and because the budget was $30 million, not $20 million, they simply refused to sign his agreement."

When Attenborough insisted, after months of delay during which the elaborate Los Angeles sets had already been built, that Universal "sign Robert or put the bloody picture in turnaround," back the answer came. "OK, the picture is in turnaround."

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