Charlie Chaplin’s Son Has So Many Strange Things to Say About His Dad’s Death
Despite leading one of the most groundbreaking and successful careers in Hollywood history, Charlie Chaplin didn’t talk much — unlike his son.
Michael J. Chaplin, 77, is about as multifaceted as a first-time medieval romance novelist could be — an actor, pop musician, goat farmer and former hippie, Chaplin’s first foray into fiction, A Fallen God, will be a modern retelling of the classic English 12th century chivalric romance story Tristan and Isolde, which has been inspiring contemporary adaptations since the time of William Shakespeare. And if there was a single Shakespearean character to whom I’d compare the young author, I would choose that of the Danish prince Hamlet, given both Hamlet and Chaplin’s noble birth as well as their weird, overdramatic and entirely compelling obsession with their respective fathers’ deaths.
On his book tour, Chaplin spoke to The Guardian about the enduring legacy of his father, who passed away in 1977 but continues to cast a shadow over his son’s career. The younger Chaplin is the offspring of Charlie and his fourth/final wife Oona O’Neill who, unlike some of Charlie’s previous brides, turned 18 just before she wed the silent film icon. Michael J. Chaplin didn’t always have the most amicable relationship with his father — the elder Chaplin famously and unsuccessfully filed an injunction to stop the release of his son’s first book, the autobiography I Couldn't Smoke the Grass on My Father's Lawn — and, today, 46 years after the black-and-white blockbuster actor/director’s death, Michael is mouthing off at his old man in full color.
The Guardian opens its piece on Chaplin’s writing career by paraphrasing a bizarre anecdote from the subject, in which he described an ancient religious sect wherein members count their age by the number of years since their fathers’ deaths. Since the older Chaplin famously passed away on Christmas Day, 1977, his son would be considered a hair past 46 years old, which is still too old to hang onto a grudge against your dad.
“He likes to see the day his father died as a rebirth,” The Guardian writes. “It’s not that Michael disliked his dad. He loved him and couldn’t have admired him more.” Michael said of his dad, “He cast a huge shadow over me,” explaining that, growing up, he was hyper-aware of how extraordinary his father was. “It was rammed down my throat. My teachers would always say: ‘You’ll never be like your father.’”
“Once he died, I thought: ‘Yes, now I should write the novel. I should go ahead and do something,’” Chaplin continued, though it would take almost half a century for this post-dad-death clarity to come to fruition.
Chaplin described his father as “intimidating,” recalling his almost anti-social demeanor, “He always said: ‘I’m a loner, I have no friends.’” In the house, Michael was well-aware that he wasn’t his father’s favorite, saying, “When he wanted to, he could entertain us. He was great at mime. He had a lot of weapons to amuse us with.” However, those weapons weren’t in Michael’s inheritance. Instead, Chaplin taught his performing talents to Michael’s sisters. “He, Geraldine and Victoria would do duets on the piano. He related to them. I never felt that he didn’t love us, but he could get very angry and frustrated.”
Of course, as Michael entered adulthood during the tumultuous 1960s, he turned to the drug-addled counterculture of the era, much to his father’s chagrin. “I definitely wasn’t a good son. I ran away from home. I embarrassed him,” Michael recalled, admitting that he and his father never quite resolved their differences out of court before the latter’s passing. However, Michael did find postmortem closure.
“There was a coming together with my father, but it happened after his death,” Michael explained. “That’s why they say you count the years of your life from the moment of your father’s death. I started having powerful dreams where I confronted him and we talked together. It was when I went back to Switzerland and the family house. He’d stopped at that point being an obstacle and was opening the doors for me to live.”
In one such dream, Michael and Charlie settled one of their final disagreements, wherein Charlie cut Michael out of the family Christmas card picture. “Then I had a dream about meeting my father under this huge Lebanese pine tree in front of the house,” Michael said. “He walked me into the living room, opened up the cupboard and he gave me that photograph, but now me and the whole family were in the card. Then I woke up.”
“I think he was telling me, wherever he is, that he’s not excluding me from his life,” Michael concluded.
He should be grateful that his father never included him in some of his other pictures — there’s not enough room between those giant cogs for two Chaplins.