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They Remember Charlie : Was Chaplin a rascal or a great man? Here are the views of several who knew him well

December 20, 1992|KEVIN THOMAS | Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer.

"Much to my own surprise, I find myself thinking of him fondly, despite all the bitterness and hatred of the past, during the divorce," remarked Lita Grey Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's second of four wives, and the only one still alive. "I realize now more of what makes people tick."

Chaplin was a complex and controversial man, but he is remembered with affection by friends, colleagues, relatives--and even an ex-wife. His eldest daughter, Geraldine, expresses only gratitude for having been his daughter and cherishes memories of before-dinner talks in front of a cozy fire in his home in Switzerland. Shelley Winters and Norman Lloyd (who had a small role in "Limelight") recall his enthusiasm and encouragement of young actors--and his passion for tennis. His second cousin Betty Chaplin Tetrick, now 76, looks back on the kindness and generosity from her famous relative, as does her husband, Ted Tetrick, a close associate from 1938 to Chaplin's death in 1977.

What's more, the study of Chaplin's film legacy continues, with the recent restoration of his first important three-reeler, the 1915 "Police" (see sidebar on Page 37). Five years after "Police," Chaplin would make his first feature-length classic, "The Kid," which teamed the Little Tramp with child actor Jackie Coogan and featured a 12-year-old whose name he changed from Lillita McMurray to Lita Grey.

Lita Grey Chaplin has remarkably expressive large eyes and, at 84, one can see the striking beauty that captivated Chaplin, who seduced her when she was 15. The two married in 1924, but soon endured one of Hollywood's earliest and nastiest divorce scandals, which for Lita had a long-lasting dark aftermath. Speaking recently in her unpretentious West Hollywood apartment after seeing a screening of Richard Attenborough's film "Chaplin," Lita Chaplin has come to terms with a turbulent and colorful past and especially with her feelings for the man who became one of the most famous men of the 20th Century. Her view of Chaplin today is one that comes from a lifetime of reflection.

"I know that Charlie, with his dreadful childhood, had to have a lot of quirks in his personality," said Chaplin, weighing her words carefully. "Since genius is said to be the capacity for taking infinite pains, it must necessarily follow that such a man, devoting all this time to one thing, which he did better than anyone else in the world, must neglect many areas of his thinking and his development. His Little Tramp character, I now realize, was the love of his life and occupied his every moment.

"He had a good side when his career was not threatened and, unfortunately, a bad side when it was threatened; then he could be really malicious.

"Once when I was on tour with my book, 'My Life With Chaplin,' I told an audience that Charlie had no sense of humor, and they gasped, thinking me crazy. He was a genius with a great sense of comedy in what he saw; he could show you in his films but couldn't make the same things seem funny if he merely told you about them."

Although Lita recalls that Chaplin's publicists--not Chaplin himself--at the time of their divorce tried to characterize her as, in her words, "an illiterate peon from the gutters of Mexico," she is in fact descended directly from California's earliest Spanish land-grant families. When she met Chaplin for the first time, on her sixth birthday, she was living with her divorced mother in the Navarro, an apartment house at 9th and Alvarado that her grandfather, who had already developed Whitley Heights, had just built and named for one of the family's ancestors.

"For my birthday my mother took me to Hollywood to see if we could see some movie stars, and we went for lunch to a small tea shop on Hollywood Boulevard," Chaplin recalled. "I was taken by hand by the manager to meet Charlie Chaplin. I was bewildered because I couldn't figure out how this man in his tramp outfit and heavy pink greasepaint could be the same man I could see when my grandmother took me to the movies. I was so frightened I ran back to our table.

"I didn't see him again until I was 12. My mother and I were now living in a second-floor flat on De Longpre in Hollywood. Chaplin and his assistant director, Chuck Riesner, were walking along De Longpre, near Chaplin's studio, and they saw me playing. Chuck, who was our neighbor, said to Charlie, 'This is the little girl I've been telling you about.'

"Chaplin said to me, 'I'm making a film in which I will be using a lot of children. Would you like to be in it?' I went and told my mother, 'Somebody wants me to be in a movie.' The result was a year's contract with the Chaplin Film Corp., with the understanding that I was to be chaperoned at all times by my mother. I played the Flirting Angel in 'The Kid.' Charlie was wonderful with the children. He would swim with us in the studio pool, play hide-and-seek with us. Jackie Coogan, who took direction very well, was only 4 years old."

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