The remarkable Mr. Champlin

It’s rare that you can say that one person changed the trajectory of your life, and for the better. Charles Champlin, who changed mine in every way, died on Sunday. He was 88, and at the end he had Alzheimer’s but the earlier deviltry was that in 1999, he’d developed age-related macular degeneration that left him legally blind.

That must have been purgatory for someone whose life had been the graceful  consideration of books and films, films and books. As the writer that he was, above all else, he wrote about his AMD too, in a sliver of a book, “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind.”  Purportedly, it’s about ways to get the better of the disease; it’s really a look at lifelong  gallantry.

The persona that Champlin presented to the world: a man foursquare as the aviator glasses that became his trademark, wasn’t all of him, not by a Hammondsport mile. The essential Champlin who could shift among a half-dozen settings and arrive intact and unruffled at each one, was compound-complex.  He’d have to be; he was functioning as an editor, an essayist, a critic, most certainly a teacher, a lecturer, a sometimes author and a card-carrying devotee of the hurly-burly of Cannes. And, somewhere in all that, he and his extraordinary wife Peggy were raising a family of six.

Television, which can bring out the worst in the most surprising people, brought out Champlin’s warmth and curiosity; he drew the audience in as close as his guests. He was unparalleled in conversations with filmmakers of every stripe, on television or over a companionable Scotch. They loved him, and why wouldn’t they? They got smart, deep, appreciative conversation without a knife in sight.

Harvard may have given him his humanistic grounding; or perhaps his faith. It may have come from his being wounded during the war, or from finding his way up the ladder at Life magazine or when he was an arts writer in London. Anyone’s guess.Truthfully, it’s innate.

Surprisingly, the one thing Charles Champlin couldn’t — or maybe wouldn’t —  do was color nicely inside the lines. He had a flair for the unpredictable, or perhaps for great escapes. How else to explain his presence at the tiniest of events, a Critic’s Choice Sunday in Marin County, where he brought his almost-favorite film, Beat the Devil, to talk about with as much joy as though he’d made it. (This was the end of the 70s, before film festivals mushroomed after every rain.)

Catalysts can be pretty damn mysterious.

Beat the Devil performed as expected, Champlin probably better, his pleasure was expansive and infectious and he loved a good audience. Every other part of the evening was a disaster.

It was a night of out-of-gas rides from the airport, a missed dinner, a missed early flight home and — as it turned out — an honorarium paid with a bounceable check. Don’t look at me. I was certainly part of the critical melee, but mostly I was on hand because I was the only one of the gang who knew what Champlin looked like.

At the point when he’d missed the early LA flight, Champlin’s urbanity kicked into overtime. He stood us, his shell-shocked hosts, to a round of drinks.Then a second one. And at that moment, eying his briefcase bursting with Loyola students’ papers, I asked if he’d look at some of my stuff, because after 3 years at the Pacific Sun, my great editor had left and I was adrift.

Believe me, no sensible person agrees to read reviews and interviews by the second-string writer on a hippie Marin County weekly, at the end of a semi-disastrous night. For that you have to credit  Champlin’s streak of unpredictability.  

Forever searching for the father/uncle/teacher who knew best, I honestly hoped that he’d point out where I’d gone off the tracks or ask why I hadn’t picked up on Hitchcock’s influences. Did I have the vaguest idea of a critic-editor’s life at a major newspaper?  Please!  I knew. I’d seen The Front Page.   

Still, I was in no way prepared for Champlin’s voice on the phone, many weeks later, saying with no preamble, “Why aren’t you doing this for us?” In some perverse way, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, except that it was.

I wanted a teacher. I got a mentor. He put me to work as a stringer for that terrifying mensch Irv Letovsky, who edited Sunday Calendar and implanted in me the rule I still use for sticky details:  “Write around it! Write around it!”

I came down the next successive summers to review during Kevin Thomas’ vacations. Then I came home to Mill Valley, to my girls, my cats, the intriguing man I had met. Everything seemed in perfect balance, until the afternoon in 1980, when Champlin, on the phone as always, told me that, since he was moving over to Books, he wanted me to take over his chair as the film critic.

That is not predictable behavior . It’s not corporate (certainly not LAT corporate), it’s barely comprehensible, but it is exactly how my life changed, and who changed it, coloring outside the lines in bold zig-zags.

Did we spend the next decade in perfect professional accord?  Don’t be childish. Did he hire me because I didn’t seem exactly. . .assertive? I have no idea. I do know that, more than once. I wrote something that royally pissed off some of the very old guard, causing him no end of tidying up. It was something we never talked about. I’m sure he had to stand up for me, more than once. Learning by doing can be tricky, and mentorship isn’t all roses.  Did we spend long lunches, talking about books and movies, about people in them, and how best to write about them?  Do you have the vaguest idea of a critic OR an arts editor’s life?

What I know absolutely is that Charles Champlin’s humanity or curiosity or both, let him take a huge risk and because of it, my life expanded like some stop-motion flower, one astonishing layer after another.

Thankfully, I was able to tell him that, in time. But it can’t be said enough:  thank you, dear companionable, singular Chuck, for the riches of my life.

18 thoughts on “The remarkable Mr. Champlin

  1. How could you give a negative review to Back to the Future? Do you realize you are the only critic (and probably person) to not like Back to the Future? Please immediately admit you were wrong about one of the most beloved films of all time.

  2. Mom, what a richly-detailed, kind and generous stream of ideas about Charles! I love how honest you are about your relationship,not always easy or in lock-step, as it seems too often the recently departed did nothing but walk on water.  I’m certain that Peggy will/is very, very touched to read this. Have you been in contact with her at all? Love to you, and I’m so happy to see you(r) writing!   Caitlin B. Hartford   

  3. I am one of the probably thousands of people in Southern California who was first introduced to Japanese cinema by Charles Champlin via public tv KCET in the early 1970′s. I was a college graduate, movie buff and Vietnam vet… but I had never seen even a Kurosawa film. Mr. Champlin had the knowledge and, most importantly, the honest love and enthusiasm for Japanese films that made me fall in love with those films–Ikiru, Harp of Burma, Yojimbo, Woman in the Dunes, Seven Samurai, and many others.

    He opened my eyes to a vision of life to which I had been blind. His efforts–his work–resonate still, over forty years later. Few people leave such a rich and humane legacy.

    Belated thanks.
    Rest in Peace, Mr. Champlin.

  4. Thank you, Sheila, for this exquisitely written and insightful piece on my dad. I’m sharing it with my mom. It’s like getting him back again for a moment. –Susan

  5. Words fail me, reading yours! Lovely to see into more corners of your life, as well as Mr. Champlin’s.

  6. This is absolutely wonderful, Sheila. What graceful writing, and what a fine portrait of a fine man. It was a treat to hear your voice on the page again. xoxo, Cyra

  7. Champlin’s PBS series “Film Odyssey” changed my adolescent brain in the early 1970s: Truffaut, Bergman, Kurosawa, et al. Thanks for the piece.

  8. I am one of the probably thousands of people in Southern California who was first introduced to Japanese cinema by Charles Champlin via public tv KCET in the 1970’s (maybe the 80’s–I’m not so young and it’s been a while). I was a college graduate, movie buff and Vietnam vet… but I had never seen even a Kurosawa film. Champlin had the knowledge and, most importantly, the honest love and enthusiasm for Japanese films that made me fall in love with those films–Ikiru, Harp of Burma, Yojimbo, Woman in the Dunes, Seven Samurai, etc. He opened my eyes to a vision of life to which I had been blind.
    Belated thanks.
    Rest in Peace, Mr. Champlin.

  9. The memories of Chuck flow back reading your beautiful piece. A mensch for sure. How difficult recent years must have been for those who knew him as a passionate, knowledgeable and highly literate friend and writer.

  10. Sheila Dear,

    This is absolutely gorgeous! Hadn’t realized that your ending up in LA had happened so serendipitously. What a grand stroke of luck. And how smart he was to spot you so quickly.


  11. They pass by rarely, these remarkable ones. Is it luck or divinity that curves our path toward theirs? You know what the Irish would say. Read this twice, it was so full. Thank you for posting it, my own remarkable friend.

  12. Sheila, of course the memories came flooding back. When I saw the obituary this morning in the NYT you were the first person who came to mind. What a beautiful, loving tribute to someone who deserves it. Thank you for this. I have forwarded it to friends (see Judy’s comment, above) so that they can read your wonderful words.

  13. Loved that – I thought of you when I heard of his passing yesterday. I had friends in town, a charity luncheon that went on and on and of course physical therapy which now occupies about 1/3 of my life.

    I just forwarded this onto the bounced check/outta gas culprits.

    And have to say – loved your line about film festivals mushrooming after ever rain. No kidding!

    Gotta get on the horn now with Matson and arrange the shipping of our Maui house to Oakland. A woman’s work is never done!

    XOXOX, Jesse

  14. Chuck inscribed his book, “Back There Where The Past Was”, .’.as memories set a bit north of Tennessee’, my home (Judy). That was 1989. He’d come back to London for a few special LATimes pieces, needed a photographer, luckily I was in the London bureau. Train ride conversations, personal ones too, Jazz and of course Shakespeare. He made one feel like you were with family, that special gift as we well know.
    Chuck’s Mac.Deg. business comes to me as a heartache. Please God as he might have said.
    I will look for his book, “My Friend You are Legally Blind” book, need to read it .

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