The Full Picture: Charlie Chaplin

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty via New Yorker

Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty via New Yorker

Born Charles Spencer Chaplin in London on April 16, 1889, Charlie Chaplin’s life can truly be described as a “Cinderella” story. Chaplin, whose childhood can be described as far from normal, managed to rise from crippling poverty to become the iconic figure he is today, bringing laughter to people all around the world.

Not long after Chaplin’s birth, his father, a known alcoholic, left his newborn son, his other son Sydney and their mother to survive on their own. Chaplin’s mother, a vaudevillian and music hall singer who went by the name Lily Harley, had to provide for her family all alone. It was Harley’s career that played the biggest role in Chaplin’s passion for the stage according to

At the mere age of five, and because his mother suffered a large strain on her voice on stage, Chaplin was ushered to replace her after the production manager had heard him sing. Chaplin wowed the audience with his presence and sense for comedy, even imitating his mother at one point during the show. Unfortunately, Harley never got her singing voice back, which meant the end for her career.

In 1896, with their mom’s health deteriorating, Chaplin and his brother Sydney were admitted to a public school for “orphaned and destitute children” and even made a temporary home for themselves at London’s toughest workhouses. His mother was eventually admitted to an asylum after suffering severe mental illnesses.

Determined to make a career for himself in the entertainment industry, Chaplin made use of his mother’s connections and made his professional debut as a member of a juvenile clog-dance troupe. One show led to another, until he finally caught the eye of American film producer Mack Sennett who signed Chaplin to a contract for $150 per week.

In 1914, Chaplin made his first film debut, playing an out-of-work swindler in “Making a Living.” Chaplin wanted to set himself apart from other actors and opted for one known character, giving rise to his famous character: “The Little Tramp.” This character became his on-screen persona for almost two decades and a half. Chaplin became a worldwide phenomenon and quickly became a millionaire.

Related: The Full Picture: Pablo Picasso

His off-screen life is said to have been full of drama. Chaplin had various affairs with actresses whom he worked alongside with in movies. What was most controversial, nonetheless, were his marriages. Chaplin married four times during his lifetime, with three of the marriages being to teenagers. The first two marriages, to Mildred Harris, 17, and Lita Grey, 16, ended in divorce. In 1943, Chaplin married 18 year-old Oona O’neill with whom he had 8 children and a lasting marriage.

Despite living in the U.S. for almost 40 years, Chaplin was never naturalized and is said to have been essentially exiled from the country. According to an article featured on, Chaplin gained a reputation as a communist sympathizer following his role in “Modern Times” and was placed under extreme surveillance by the FBI as a result. The next time he left to England for a vacation, his re-entry visa was declined.

Chaplin chose to uproot his family and relocate to Switzerland, where he remained until his death in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Vaud, Switzerland, on Dec. 25, 1977. Interestingly enough, just a few hours after he was buried, Chaplin’s body was stolen by two men who demanded a $600,000 ransom for its return. The men were then caught and Chaplin’s body was retrieved and re-buried.

From rags to riches, Chaplin’s life has been nothing but eventful. Despite his difficult childhood, Chaplin managed to rise and become an iconic figure in the silent film era and the comedic legend of his times.