The Third Born: Sydney
This, the second installment in this series, comes as a result of the death on Tuesday of Sydney Chaplin, the second of two sons Chas had with his second teen-aged bride, Lita Grey.
Following the over-the-top messy divorce (dubbed “The Second Gold Rush” by the press) of their parents in 1927, Sydney, named after his uncle, and Charles Jr. were the source of the occasional lawsuit between the former couple. In 1932, Chas sued Lita over her having signed their boys to a contract with Fox studios. Needless to say, Chas won the suit. Syd was educated at various boarding schools (he claimed to have been thrown out of three of them) and at Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, service in World War Two followed. Between stints in boarding school, when visiting his father, he would find himself doing the things that all boys do when growing up, like playing tennis with Garbo and turning sheet music pages while Einstein played his violin.
In 1952, Sydney made his screen acting debut in his old man’s Limelight. During this time, he briefly dated his costar, Claire Bloom (he also found time to romance Judy Holliday and Joan Collins). More screen roles followed, he appeared in around thirty films, but Sydney was more interested in stage work. He had founded The Circle Theater, a theater in the round, as the name suggests, in 1946 with several of his L.A. cronies. Some of the productions at the Circle were anonymously directed by Chas. Of working with his father, Syd said, “He was generous with other people but he was tough on me. He’d expect me to get it right away. And there was a lot of pressure from him. With me, it was always, ‘Come on Syd, what the hell is the matter with you?!’ Which does not make it easier. We had a strange relationship. It used to blow hot and cold. I don’t know why.”
Sydney worked with his father again in 1967 on Chas’s last film, the color, widescreen disaster, A Countess From Hong Kong (“It’s a hell of a good picture” said Syd). By this time, Syd had become a successful Broadway actor performing in productions of Bells Are Ringing, for which he won a Best Featured Actor Tony; Subways Are for Sleeping and Funny Girl, for which he was again nominated for a Tony. Obviously, Chas never saw his son in any of these plays because, you know, he was persona non grata in the States at the time.
Sydney’s career cooled sometime in the late sixties but he took it in stride, “I never had the burning desire for recognition and respect that had driven my father.” He also, more awesomely, said “I think anyone who feels his life has been scarred because of the fame of his father is a bore.”
In recent years, Sydney gave interviews to many of his father’s biographers and for various documentaries. In Jeffrey Vance’s excellent Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, Sydney recalled going to see a revival of his father’s Mutual-era films with a friend in the 1940s. He and his friend liked the films but not nearly as much as the man sitting several rows behind them. When the house lights went up, Syd saw the source of the laughter, needless to say, it was Chas himself. “It was my father who laughed the loudest! Tears were rolling down his cheeks from laughing so hard and he had to wipe his eyes with his handkerchief. He was sitting with Oona. He had brought her to Silent Movie [Theater in Hollywood] because she had not seen any of them before.”
Sydney Chaplin married three times, had one son, Stephan, and died on Tuesday at age eighty-two.