If there is one person who knew how to entertain and was gifted with the ability to make people laugh, it’s Charlie Chaplin. The British actor and director started entertaining audiences in 1897 at the tender age of ten when he joined a clog-dancing act; his career lasted for nearly eight decades. From the stage, Chaplin entered the world of silent film in his 20s. His second time in front of the camera, Chaplin introduced Tramp, his immortal cinematic character. The creation left moving-pictures fans cracking up in all of his hilarious two-reeler movies.
Chaplin had a special sparkle during the golden age of silent cinema. Even in the flourishing world of the “talkies,” the silent star found a voice with his perfect parody portrayal of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940). His signature mustache certainly came in handy. It only makes sense that he would grace the world with one last piece of entertainment two months after he passed away.
Here is the strange and slightly morbid case of the kidnapping of Charlie Chaplin’s coffin.
The Case of the Missing Coffin
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Chaplin suffered a number of strokes. The frail and wheelchair-bound entertainer spent the last years of his life residing by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, with his fourth wife, Oona. On Christmas Day, 1977, the actor died peacefully in his sleep at his Corsier-sur-Vevey home. He was 88 years old.
Then, on March 2, 1978, 51-year-old Oona thought her husband was resting in peace when she got a phone call from the police informing her that there had been a burglary in the middle of the night, and Chaplin’s coffin was missing.
Scene of the Crime
Criminal prosecutor Jean-Daniel Tenthorey was the first person on the scene at the graveyard. “It looked like only a hole,” he explained. “A big hole, with earth on each side, and the cross of wood was put on one side.” Shortly after, they received a phone call from a person claiming he was behind the body-snatching crime.
The man on the other end of the line had a thick European accent and said he had a picture to prove that he did, indeed, have the late actor’s coffin. As you can imagine, he demanded one million Swiss francs (£1.5 million today) to get it back.
Throughout his life and career, Chaplin had been no stranger to controversy. At one point, he had been suspected of being a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts, so rumors immediately spread about theft. Anti-Semites were already upset that a supposedly Jewish person could be buried in a Christian cemetery and might have destroyed his grave.
Another potential possibility was that neo-Nazis stole the body in response to his political satire in The Great Dictator. But it was also feasible that someone had just snatched the body to make some quick cash. With no leads, they couldn’t rule out any of these options.
Undercover Operation Gone Wrong
Whatever the motive, Oona refused to pay the ransom, and her lawyers completely supported her decision. Even though there were threats against Chaplin’s youngest child, she never considered this strange and spooky situation as anything too serious. She even acknowledged that “Charlie would have thought it rather ridiculous.”
As the weeks went by, the still unknown thieves continued with their ransom demands and asked Chaplin’s butler to drop the money off in the family’s Rolls Royce. The police saw this as an opportunity to catch the thieves, and they arranged for an officer to go undercover as the butler and make a fake drop. Unfortunately, the strong operation was ruined when the local postman didn’t recognize the guy driving the Rolls, so he followed the car. This led the police to accidentally arrest him.
The embarrassed police managed to redeem themselves in May. As they were expecting another call from the grave thieves, they tapped the Chaplin’s phone and assigned officers to keep tabs on about 200 telephone boxes in the area. Obviously, this was way before GPS tracking.
Luckily, their plan worked flawlessly. Eleven weeks after the grave-robbing, police finally had 24-year-old Roman Wardas in custody in connection with the crime. A man named Gantcho Ganev was picked up later as his accomplice. Wardas was struggling financially and was hoping to make a quick buck from this scheme. He directed police to a cornfield and told them exactly where to dig.
Rest in Peace
Wardas was charged as the mastermind behind the crime and was sentenced to four years behind bars. Ganev, on the other hand, who was 38 at the time, received an 18-month suspended sentence since he was just the “muscle man.” Both seemed sorry for their actions and even wrote an apology letter to Oona, which she gracefully accepted.
Later, Chaplin’s son Eugene admitted that his mother said, “In a way, it’s a shame we found him!” Meanwhile, Chaplin’s body was reburied. But this time, the coffin was encased in concrete to make sure no one could steal him ever again. Now, the cinematic legend could property rest in peace.
Chaplin’s upbringing was like a Charles Dickens novel. He was raised by Hannah and Charles Sr., who were roaming hall actors with very low stable income. Chaplin and his big half-brother Sydney grew up poor and hungry, but things got much worse. His parents’ relationship was crumbling, and his father abandoned the family.
Chaplin was really close to his penniless and unreliable mother. While raising her sons, Hannah still desperately tried to make it as a stage actress, but her voice would frequently fail her in front of the crowd. In an early twinkle of glory, a stage manager told five-year-old Chaplin to go sing instead of his mom.
The Role of a Lifetime
Chaplin is mostly famous for his role in The Little Tramp as a gentle yet clumsy character that he portrayed in many of his movies. But there was a dark secret about the Tramp. Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine once revealed that her dad was obsessed with achieving immortality through that character. He was so scared that he wouldn’t be remembered that he let his Tramp character appear in anything.
Similarly to Dicken’s character, little Charlie rose from rags to enormous riches, almost overnight. He spent his entire childhood and adolescence touring with numerous vaudeville troupes. Then, in 1913, he moved to California, and Keystone Studios signed him on as a comedic actor. The rest is practically history.
First Shotgun Wedding
At the peak of his career, Chaplin’s love life was a whole other story. Basically, one giant nightmare. The rising star knocked up his 16-year-old lover Mildred Harris; the pregnancy forced the pair to tie the knot in a quickie wedding. As you can imagine, the actor was deeply unhappy in his first marriage, but he didn’t realize things were about to get much more tragic.
When their son was born, the baby was severely malformed and died at just a few days old. This was obviously difficult for both parents, and within a year, Chaplin and Harris split up.
Talk Is Cheap
As an entertainer, Chaplin famously campaigned for giving more power and control to actors and less to the big studios. That’s why he decided to create his own studio, United Artists, with other silver screen stars like Mary Pickford. However, Chaplin foolishly sold his shares in the company in 1955, just eight years before the studio released the first James Bond movie.
Chaplin was notoriously dismissive of the decline of silent films and the rise of so-called “Talkies.” He resisted this change in almost all his movies, despite the fact that silent films were becoming obsolete. He was committed to silent comedy and said: “Words are cheap. The biggest thing you can say is ‘elephant.’”
By 1915, Charlie Chaplin’s movies were so admired and beloved by audiences that he became a pop culture phenomenon and, arguably, the first real movie star. Stores were filled with Chaplin and “The Little Tramp” merchandise, and everyone went insane for the actor. Like celebrities now, Chaplin was hounded whenever he went out in public.
He had so many fans that one journalist described the worldwide craze as “Chaplinits.” It’s really no surprise that he became so popular. In addition to writing, directing, and performing in his own films, Chaplin wrote a lot of their scores. He really was a jack of all trades.
Another Quickie Wedding
Chaplin walked down the aisle once again, this time with starlet Lita Grey. Unfortunately, his second marriage was even more unpleasant than his first. Just like his first wife Mildred, Grey was a 16-year-old girl when she met 35-year-old Chaplin… and got pregnant.
Chaplin was so scared that he would get charged for inappropriate activity with a minor that he hastily got married in Mexico. He really tried to be happy in this marriage, but he wasn’t. The actor would often leave the house to get away from his wife, despite having two children together.
If you pay attention to his films, you will notice that Chaplin is naturally left-handed. However, like other lefties at the time, he was forced to write with his right hand because being a lefty was seen as deviant for some reason. In a documentary-style film on the United Artists’ formation, you can see him writing with his right hand.
As a comedian, Chaplin had a good sense of humor and could make a joke out of everything; sometimes, it would even get him in trouble. Leading up to World War II, Chaplin met with Winston Churchill, who was reading the newspaper and looking very concerned. Chaplin asked him what was wrong, and Churchill said, “Germany.” Chaplin tried to make light of the situation but Churchill called him out saying, “No, no, it’s quite serious.” Umm, yeah.
Exposing the Ex
By 1926, Lita Grey had enough of her unhappy marriage, and she left Chaplin, taking the kids with her. But when she filed for divorce, everything unraveled when she exposed her husband. A bitter and angry Grey charged him with infidelity, misconduct, and “perverted desires.” Things quickly went from bad to worse.
When the press found out about these allegations, people were outraged and demanded that his films be banned. Eventually, Chaplin paid Grey $600,000 (which was an enormous amount at the time) to make it all go away. Unfortunately, this wasn’t his last controversy… More drama was yet to come.
Frenemies in the Business
Granville Redmond was one of Chaplin’s friends. He had taught the comedian joke techniques to use on camera. Redmond was a brilliant teacher and a significant reason that Chaplin was shaped into the master silent comedian we all know him as now. Why? Redmond had a secret weapon. He was actually deaf, so he was able to ensure that Chaplin was communicating exactly how he needed to.
Rumor has it that Charlie Chaplin and fellow silent film comedian Buster Keaton had a nasty feud, but that was all lies and speculations. The truth is, the two were actually buds. In fact, when Keaton was having a hard time paying the bills in 1928, Chaplin hired him to work on the set of his film Limelight. Keaton once described Chaplin as “the greatest silent comedian of all time.”
If That’s Your Real Name?
There are a ton of myths and legends about Charlie Chaplin, but one of the strangest rumors is that he was actually Jewish and born in France. People have said his birth name was Israel Thornstein, and the FBI even looked into this claim. They found nothing. But that wasn’t the only brush he has with the secret service.
Chaplin’s Beverly Hills home, Breakaway House, was a hot spot with the Hollywood set, and Chaplin loved screening his films for his guests, or even play a game of tennis with them. The mansion was actually built by studio carpenters whose specialty wasn’t making sturdy homes. It started falling apart within just a couple of years. But that minor detail added to its charm!
A Sadistic Genius
When an elderly Chaplin directed Marlon Brando in A Countess from Hong Kong, it ended in disaster. Chaplin liked to impersonate the actors while he was directing to show them what to do. Brando was insulted and furious when he saw Chaplin taking on his role; he even threatened to quit. Brando later called the director “the most sadistic man” he ever met.
One time, Chaplin was fired from his job as a butler because he found a trumpet in the attic of the house and started playing it. Chaplin was up to his usual antics, but his employers didn’t really enjoy his comedic genius. Maybe keep this in mind next time you find something in someone else’s house.
Adult Bride… and Back to Teenagers
When Chaplin got married for the third time, he finally had an age-appropriate bride… well, sort of. Chaplin was 47 at the time, and Paulette Goddard was 26 years old, a consenting adult. They exchanged vows in 1936 and stayed together for six years. Apparently, they drifted apart because they were both too focused on work.
Chaplin had dealt with public backlash before, but his last marriage was the most infamous. In 1943, Chaplin married yet again. This time, to Oona, the 17-year-old daughter of famous playwright Eugene O’Neill. Clearly, he had a thing for young girls, and the public couldn’t handle it. After all, Chaplin was 54 at the time.
Charlie Chaplin DNA
Chaplin’s acting legacy lives on, and he certainly passed down his acting DNA. One of his granddaughters, also named Oona, inherited the entertainment gene. She is an actress in her own right. You might recognize her from her role as Talisa Stark on Game of Thrones.
She admittedly feels a little disconnected from her grandfather. Oona said that “When people say [Charles Chaplin] I still think now of the guy in the mustache and bowler hat and funny walk- I don’t think of an old man who was my grandfather.”
If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us
During World War II, Chaplin’s fragile reputation started getting really tarnished. First of all, the English accused him of being a coward during World War I. Plus, the head of the F.B.I., J. Edgar Hoover, became suspicious of the comedian’s war-time motives and created a file on his political alignments. But that was just the beginning…
The government subpoenaed Chaplin in 1947 to testify for The House Un-American Activities Committee. He didn’t show up, and, as a result, in 1957, he was met with an unpleasant surprise: He was denied entry to the United States after going to London for a movie premiere. Since he was temporarily exiled from the country he called home, Chaplin moved his family to Switzerland.
Exiled From America
Chaplin released his black comedy Monsieur Verdoux in 1946 and received awful backlash. At that point, his stock was falling so deeply in America that they wanted nothing to do with his movies. The crowd even booed him at the premiere, and many folks boycotted the movie as well as the release of his next film, Limelight.
After decades of exile, Chaplin finally returned to America in 1972 to pick up an honorary Oscar. His appearance was heartbreaking. He got a 12-minute standing ovation from the audience as soon as he came on stage. It was clear that Chaplin was incredibly touched that he hadn’t been forgotten after all this time. He said: “Words seem too futile and feeble… you are all wonderful, sweet people. Thank you.”
Do It Right, or Don’t Do It
Chaplin was an infamous perfectionist when it came to his work; he wouldn’t allow any of his films to come out until he was completely satisfied with them. Still, he never used a working script. He liked to improvise instead, working and reworking the story. As you can imagine, it led to a ton of footage that he couldn’t use.
One day, Chaplin’s notorious perfectionism reached some disturbing heights. He destroyed the original negative of his film The Sea Gull in front of a crowd of people. No one knew what was happening in Chaplin’s head, but some audiences believe that he was unhappy with the way the lead actress had played her part.
A Secret Letter
In 2011, decades after the star passed away, Chaplin’s family members found a mysterious letter hidden away in a drawer with some of his other things. The contents of the letter changed everything. In it, a guy named Jack Hill stated that Charlie Chaplin was actually born in a gypsy caravan that belonged to Hill’s aunt… who happened to be a Gypsy Queen.
Even though the family doesn’t have any more evidence or clues as to where he was born, they admitted that the letter must have been significant and likely true. Otherwise, why would Chaplin have kept it under lock and key?
Just One More Licorice Boot
Many times, actors go to extreme lengths for their roles, and Charlie Chaplin was no exception. On one occasion, Chaplin ended up in the hospital with severe insulin shock. This was because for his masterpiece The Gold Rush, Chaplin reshot a scene 63 times. Therefore, he had to eat a prop boot made of black licorice over and over…
Like many other mega-stars, Charlie Chaplin had his handprints, footprints, and signature preserved in cement at The Chinese Theater. However, no one knows where that piece of cement is now. After his fall from grace, it is believed someone or some organization took away the testament to his fame. Strangely, it still hasn’t been found.
Deep Blue Eyes
Obviously, you couldn’t see color in silent film because they were all black and white. That and some movie makeup led many people to believe that Charlie Chaplin had brown eyes. However, they were actually blue. In his autobiography, he explained that people are always surprised by his eye color. When Oona, Chaplin’s fourth wife, saw him for the first time, she wrote to a friend: “Just met Charlie Chaplin. What blue eyes he has!”
Even though Chaplin’s last marriage was surrounded in controversy, it had a happy ending. Chaplin referred to the day he met Oona as “the happiest event of my life,” and she reportedly worshipped the man. The couple had eight children together and remained married until his death in 1977.
Approved by the President
Chaplin’s Little Tramp character famously shared the same mustache shape as Adolf Hitler. Needless to say, the funny actor and the evil ruler couldn’t be more different, but this wasn’t just a random coincidence. Apparently, the German dictator knew how popular Charlie Chaplin was and grew his stash in order to be associated with the endearing comedian.
Charlie Chaplin almost pulled the plug on his classic film, The Great Dictator, because he was concerned that audiences wouldn’t find his mockery of Hitler funny. When it was time to make a decision, Chaplin got reassurance from a pretty good source: President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt personally called Chaplin and told him to go through with it.
Will the Real Charlie Chaplin Please Stand up?
Apparently, Chaplin once went undercover and entered a “Charlie Chaplin Look-ALike” contest. He thought he would definitely win the prize for his own iconic look. However, he lost! Some sources say he came in second place, and others reported third place. Either way, it wasn’t the result he expected.
In the second half of the 1910s, a strange genre of film came out, where professional actors pretended to be the iconic comedian. Plenty of notable actors at the time, like Billie Ritchie, Stan Jefferson, and Billy West, were made up to look exactly like Chaplin. Even weirder, filmmakers insisted that they were actually him.
Oops… Shot the Wrong Guy
Everywhere Charlie Chaplin went, scandal seemed to follow him. One of the most infamous occurrences was his involvement with the mysterious death of producer Thomas Ince. This event took place aboard William Hearst’s yacht, where apparently Chaplin allegedly seduced Hearst’s mistress (according to one rumor).
As soon as the magnate found out, he was angry and wanted to shoot Chaplin, but mistakenly shot Ince instead. We can’t say whether this version of events is more truth than fiction, but at the time, it was a huge scandal and added more controversy to Chaplin’s reputation.
Chaplin’s beloved mother sparked his interest in comedy. For a period of time during his childhood, little Charlie got very sick and had to spend weeks in bed recovering. In order to make him feel better, his mom sat next to the window and re-enacted anything she saw to make her son laugh. That’s when Chaplin understood the power of comedy.
Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, met a cruel fate. She always struggled financially and suffered frequent mental health episodes. She was even forced into an asylum in 1903. Charlie and his brother Syd had to live in a harsh workhouse as destitute children. Hanna was institutionalized for decades, but when Charlie grew up, he rescued her and moved her to California.
The Punishment for Cheating
Despite his political troubles and complicated marriages, Chaplin’s biggest controversy came from his illicit extra-marital affairs. In the 1940s, the very married, middle-aged Chaplin began a steamy affair with Joan Barry, a 22-year-old aspiring actress. Predictably, they were doomed to a disastrous end.
When Chaplin first ended things with the young girl, she didn’t take it well at all. Reportedly, Barry suffered from obsessive and paranoid behavior. Let’s just say the breakup didn’t help her mental health. Then, she came back into Chaplin’s life claiming she was pregnant with his baby. The next few months were a living nightmare.
Who’s Your Daddy?
After her baby Carol Ann was born, Barry sued Chaplin for child support. When it went public, it sparked a media frenzy about Chaplin’s moral depravity and disgrace. His enemy, J. Edgar Hoover, joined in on the fun and started a smear campaign to get Chaplin charged with even more offenses. But the real horror began when the trial started.
In order to prove that Chaplin wasn’t the father, his lawyers brought up blood-type evidence at the trial. Since these tests were inadmissible in court at the time, Barry won the suit. Chaplin was forced to pay $75 a week to Barry until the child turned 21- even though Carol Ann wasn’t his daughter. However, the damage was done, and Chaplin’s reputation was shattered.
Strange but True Facts
In 2016, a museum opened in Switzerland in Chaplin’s old house in Corsier-sur-Vevey. There, you could watch his movies, look at wax figures, and eat at a restaurant appropriately named “The Tramp.” Chaplin was also the first celebrity to ever appear on the cover of Time magazine. But strangely, he never won any awards for his acting talent.
Disney’s Mickey Mouse is partly based on Charlie Chaplin, but he also inspired a much darker character. According to one of his biographers, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which tells a story of a man in love with a much younger girl, is based on Chaplin’s relationship with Oona.