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Charlie Chaplin, as remembered by a pal

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Silent Film Celebration is preparing to present 'The Gold Rush.' Chaplin friend Norman Lloyd reminisces about the star's later years.

June 03, 2009|SUSAN KING

Norman Lloyd says he can remember when he first became aware of Charlie Chaplin -- even if he was only 1 year old and it was more than 90 years ago.

The year was 1916 and, as Lloyd recalls, "there were little Charlie Chaplins that you would wind up and they would walk. I remember vividly. I was sitting in the high chair with the little tray in front of me. My parents would wind it up and it would walk to me."

The 94-year-old actor, producer and director, best known for playing the kindly Dr. Daniel Auschlander on "St. Elsewhere," would become good friends with Chaplin 30 years later. Lloyd also had a role in Chaplin's last American production, "Limelight," in 1952.

Lloyd is a master storyteller who can regale audiences with tales of working with Orson Welles in the earliest days of the Mercury Theatre or his relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock, first as an actor in 1942's "Saboteur" and later as a producer and director on the memorable TV series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."

But on a recent pleasant afternoon, the erudite Lloyd is holding court in the woodsy Brentwood house he shares with his wife of 73 years, Peggy, to talk about his friendship with Chaplin.

With the 20th annual Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Silent Film Celebration Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall presenting Chaplin's legendary 1925 comedy "The Gold Rush" -- including Timothy Brock conducting the orchestra in Chaplin's original score -- who better than Lloyd to talk about what made one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century tick.

Lloyd says Chaplin, who died in 1977, wouldn't be surprised that his films have endured over the decades. "I think he expected it," says Lloyd. "At one time in the early '20s, Charlie was the most famous man in the world. Charlie had a wonderful ego."

The two met in the 1940s through a mutual friend named Ted Durant. "He was a great character around this town," Lloyd says of Durant. "He was a remnant of the 1920s society boy. I met Tim at Joseph Cotten's because Joe was with me at the Mercury Theatre. Tim and I struck up an acquaintance, and he invited me on Saturday to come up to Charlie's to play tennis."

Chaplin was a bit standoffish at first, but the two connected by chatting after the match. Shortly thereafter, Chaplin called Lloyd to come up on his own and play singles during the week.

"That developed into a real friendship, and that developed into Charlie asking me up to the house to the sun porch, where we would have a drink after tennis, which was always a Scotch Old-Fashioned. Then he said why don't you invite your wife over and we will have dinner with Oona? The four of us had an intimate dinner, and Peggy and Oona [Chaplin] really hit it off."

At one point, Chaplin asked Lloyd if he wanted to do a project with him. "He said anything you want to do, I'll do with you if you can go half."

Lloyd wanted to do a film version of Horace McCoy's novella about the marathon dances of the Depression, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Chaplin gave him the $3,000 to buy the rights.

But "Horses" never was to be.

"It's a tragedy because his ideas for the picture were fabulous," Lloyd says of the aborted project. "He knew about dance marathons. He used to go to them." (The film was finally made in 1969 by different producers, with Sydney Pollack as director.)

Lloyd co-starred in Chaplin's film "Limelight," which also featured Chaplin's son, Sydney, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce and Buster Keaton.

"He was interesting as a director," says Lloyd.

"In the case of Nigel Bruce and myself, he was very relaxed. But when he worked with Sydney and Claire Bloom he was hell on wheels. He would lose his temper. The whole thing was just torture.

"I loved Charlie . . . but I felt that he was tough."

While on a trip to London for the premiere of "Limelight" in 1952, Chaplin was refused re-entry into the United States. It was the height of the communist witch hunts, and Chaplin's left-wing politics made him a target. The public had also turned against him during a highly publicized paternity suit trial with actress Joan Barry.

"The government said he couldn't come back until he passed a moral turpitude test. With that, he said, 'I'll never make another picture in America.' And he never did."

For information about the LACO Silent Film Celebration go to www.laco.org.

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Elsewhere

The French adore Charlie Chaplin and they also love American comedy auteur and Muscular Dystrophy fundraiser extraordinaire Jerry Lewis.

Saturdays in June, the Silent Movie Theatre presents the "Jerry Lewis: The Total Filmmaker" retrospective.

All we can say is, "Hey, lady!"

Two of his best comedies, 1963's "The Nutty Professor" and 1964's "The Patsy," screen this Saturday. www.silentmovietheatre.com

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susan.king@latimes.com

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