Surprising and Revealing Facts About Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin might just be one of the most famous people that ever lived. Young whippersnappers today might not know who he is, but the silent film legend had a career that spanned 75 years. He’s like the human Mickey Mouse. An icon, recognizable to millions around the world. But who was Charlie Chaplin, really? Is there any Charlie Chaplin trivia that’s not widely known?

Thanks to several Charlie Chaplin biographies and his own My Autobiography, the answer is a resounding yes. He was a fascinating and complicated man – studying Chaplin reveals facts (many less-than-flattering) about Charlie Chaplin that don’t appear in the first few paragraphs of his Wikipedia page. Read on for some fascinating Charlie Chaplin trivia.

He Had Four Wives, All Of Them Teenagers

Chaplin’s wives were all considerably younger than he. When he was 29, he married 16-year-old Mildred Harris, but they divorced two years later. When he was 35, he married another 16-year-old, Lolita [!] McMurry, in Mexico, to dodge California’s statutory rape laws. Their marriage ended three years later in a highly-publicized divorce case. His third wife, Pauline Levy, was 20 when they got married in 1936. Chaplin – still aging, unlike his brides – was 47. They divorced after six years, “without public fuss,” according to Chaplin’s New York Times obituary. Finally, Chaplin’s last wife – Oona O’Neill, daughter to playwright Eugene O’Neill – was 18 when he was a whopping 54. Their marriage “proved happy and lasting, and it produced eight children.”

No One Is Sure Where Or When Chaplin Was Born, Or Even What He Was Named

Was Charlie Chaplin born to gypsies in the back of a caravan? That’s what one letter Chaplin kept locked up in his house claimed. Found by his family in 1991, the letter from a man named Jack Hill claimed that Chaplin was born “in a caravan [that] belonged to the Gypsy Queen, who was my auntie. You were born on the Black Patch [a Romany community] in Smethwick near Birmingham.”

Chaplin’s birth certificate has never been located, but prior to the discovery of the letter, biographers put his place of birth as East Street, Walworth, in South London (that’s 7-year-old Charlie in the center of the above photograph). The truth remains unknown, despite an MI5 investigation into his background in 1952, inspired by American allegations that Chaplin was a “high-risk communist.”

“After scouring the files at Somerset House in London for his birth certificate, MI5 concluded: ‘It would seem that Chaplin was either not born in this country or that his name at birth was other than those mentioned.'”

Some suggested Chaplin was not his real name, and that he was born Israel Thorstein, perhaps changing his name to conceal his Jewish identity.

He Once Entered A Charlie-Chaplin Look-Alike Contest... And Lost

In 1975 – nearing the end of his life – Charlie Chaplin decided to enter a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in France. You can just picture him, coyly smiling at his own joke, totally sure of his eventual success, since he was, ya know, the actual person the contest was trying to find a match of. Here’s the thing, though, he didn’t just lose the top spot; he actually took third place in his own look-alike contest. Some think that perhaps his eyes – which were piercingly blue when seen in color – were the thing that lost him the prize, given that the judges and audience would’ve only seen their grey appearance in his black-and-white films.

He Was The "Most Sadistic" Man Marlon Brando Ever Met

When Marlon Brando was 15 minutes late to the set of A Countess From Hong Kong, director Charlie Chaplin berated Brando in front of everyone, telling him he “had no sense of professional ethics” and that he was a “disgrace” to the profession. Brando also claimed in his autobiography that Chaplin treated his own children “cruelly” and would humiliate them publicly. Ultimately, Brando declared Chaplin “probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met.”

He Made J.D. Salinger Extraordinarily Jealous

Catcher in the Rye scribe J.D. Salinger was not happy that 18-year-old Oona O’Neill (pictured) chose Charlie Chaplin over him. The marriage to Chaplin, especially, set him off. Chaplin was 54 at the time; Salinger was 24. Salinger was so incensed he sent O’Neill ”a scathing, scatological letter describing in disgusting detail his version of the Chaplins’ wedding night.”

Thieves Dug Up Charlie Chaplin's Grave and Moved His Coffin

On March 1, 1978, Chaplin’s coffin was dug up and reburied in a cornfield by two men looking to extort money from his wife, Oona. Chaplin had only been buried at the cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, for about three months at the time. Police arrested the grave robbers – unemployed refugees from Poland and Bulgaria – a few months later and Chaplin’s coffin was returned to its former spot, this time in a vault made of reinforced concrete.

His First Gig Was Clog-Dancing At Only Seven Years Old

A street performer as young child, Chaplin’s first paying gig is surprising. Seven-year-old Charlie was hired to clog-dance in music halls. He reportedly “relished mixing with the magicians and acrobats.” By age 14, he had risen in the ranks and earned the role of a pageboy in a touring Sherlock Holmes show (that’s him in costume above). He was well-received: he was known as a “prime favorite with the audience.”

His Films Were Projected On The Ceilings Of Hospitals During WWI

Chaplin was a British citizen living in America during World War I, but he didn’t fight for any nation in an official capacity. His comedic talents, however, were put to good use to boost morale. The British reportedly propped up cutouts of Chaplin’s Tramp character for a laugh – and  “so the Germans would die laughing.” Military hospitals even projected his films on the ceilings so the wounded could “enjoy a morale-raising chuckle from their beds.”

The KKK Protested His Work In 1923

As beloved as Chaplin was in the early years, at least one group thought he took things too far in his comedy: the KKK. That’s right: the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan formally protested Chaplin’s The Pilgrim (1923). Why? He played an escaped convict pretending to be a Protestant minister, which offended them. They weren’t alone: the Evangelical Minister’s Association in Atlanta said it was “an insult to the Gospel.”

There Is A Charlie Chaplin Film You've Never Seen - And Apparently It Is Great

As beloved as Chaplin was, not all of his films survived to the modern day. Her Friend the Bandit(1914) is Chaplin’s only truly “lost” film, known only through contemporary reviews. Here’s what we’re missing:

Charles Chaplin, a bandit, captures and impersonates the ‘Count de Bean’ at a fancy party in Mabel’s house and makes many crude social blunders before the arrival of the police.

The Lexington Herald called it “one of the funniest and most hilarious comedies in a decade, with a conglomeration of mirth-provoking scenes.”

His First Oscar Statuette Was Stolen

In 2015, Chaplin’s first 1928 honorary Oscar statuette was stolen from the Association Chaplin offices in Paris. The thief likely wasn’t just a Chaplin fan: pre-1950 statuettes fetch hundred of thousands of dollars in auctions and could garner even more from “unethical” private collectors. The statuette was meant to find a permanent home in a museum dedicated to Chaplin in Switzerland, built inside his sprawling former home.

He Composed The Music For Most Of His Own Films

Despite not being able to read music, Chaplin composed the music for most of his films, and could play at least the cello and piano by ear. He relied on so-called “musical assistants” to translate his music into proper scores.

You might be familiar with Chaplin’s music and not even know it. Chaplin’s “Smile,” the romantic theme for his Modern Times, was later given lyrics and became a minor hit for Nat King Cole.

He Edited Most Of His Own Films

Chaplin was extraordinarily hands-on with the production of his films: he starred, wrote, directed, produced, and even edited just about everything he ever did (IMDB lists 56 editing credits). He was notorious for shooting way more than he needed and then shaping it all later in the editing room. City Lights, for example, was edited down from 314,256 feet of film to 8,092 feet of film.

As a Charles J. Maland with BFI remarked, “One given to understatement might say that Chaplin exercised considerable care and devoted significant effort to making the film.”

His Son Thinks He Would Have "Felt the Bern"

In 2016, at least one person in America wondered who Charlie Chaplin would have wanted to be president: The Progressive‘s Ed Rampell. Rampell asked Chaplin’s son Michael what his father would have thought about the candidates. Michael said, understandably, “he’s dead now and it’s very hard to say what he would have done or what his reactions would have been,” but he believes Charlie “would have been very much in sympathy” with democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. The Tramp feels the Bern.

He Wrote One Novella

Chaplin, as the biggest silent film star in the world, was primarily known for his lack of words, but he did write one short novel in his lifetime (his only work of prose fiction). Footlights, written when he was 59, wasn’t released until 2014 and later inspired his 1952 film Limelight. The film is perhaps best known for pairing, for the first and last time, Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The novella was the first time the Chaplin family allowed previously unpublished material to be released.

His Name Was Misspelled In His First American Review

The first mention of Chaplin in the American press was from October 8, 1910, in Variety. The review of The Wow-Wows, a half-hour stage show, was a positive one… for Chaplin, at least. The rest of the cast didn’t fare very well. The reviewer said that the show “drags the time when Champlin [sic] does not occupy the center of the stage.” That’s right: Champlin.

As The A.V. Club notes, this was a common problem, early on. An early job offer via telegram read, “Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that?”

He Died In His Sleep On Christmas Day

Chaplin died “of old age” on Christmas Day in 1977 at his home in Switzerland, with his fourth wife, Oona, and seven of their eight children at his bedside. He reportedly died “peaceful and calm” around 4 am, “a few hours before his family’s traditional Christmas celebration was to begin.”

Oona told the press, “Charlie gave so much happiness and, although he had been ill for a long time, it is so sad that he should have passed away on Christmas day.”

Chaplin was 88 years old. (The above picture shows Chaplin receiving his Honorary Academy Award from Jack Lemmon in 1972 at age 83.)