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New York Times (19/Nov/2014) - Charles Champlin, Critic and Memoirist, Dies at 88



Charles Champlin, Critic and Memoirist, Dies at 88

Charles Champlin, an arts critic and memoirist best known for his writing about movies for The Los Angeles Times, died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88.

His daughter Susan Champlin confirmed the death. She did not specify a cause but said he had had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Champlin was the lead movie critic for The Los Angeles Times from 1967 until 1980 and reviewed books thereafter. He also wrote a column, Critic at Large, that allowed him greater latitude to write about the arts in general, and about life in general as well; in the column, he often looked back on his childhood in upstate New York, and that led to a nostalgic memoir, "Back There Where the Past Was: A Small-Town Boyhood" (1989).

Well-informed about and well-connected in Hollywood, Mr. Champlin was known as a graceful, knowledgeable writer with a gentlemanly respect for filmmakers and filmmaking.

"From the start," he wrote in an appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock after that director's death in 1980, "Hitchcock displayed a visual imagination of the most astonishing fertility. In 'The Lodger,' which he made in 1926, he ordered a set with a ceiling, so that the passing lights of streetcars could rake across it, establishing the feeling of the locale. He had a raised set built with a glass floor so that he could photograph from below and show the lodger pacing, pacing, pacing."

He was sometimes chided for being too kind in his reviews, but he explained that he was biased in favor of cinema itself, a difficult, collaborative art form that he admired. "I don't like to tap-dance on coffins," he said. On another occasion, he admitted: "It's painful to say a movie is a disaster. It pains you to do it, but you have to do it."

Still, he wasn't entirely averse to an acid touch.

"While I have no doubt that 'Jaws' will make a bloody fortune for Universal and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown," he wrote in 1975, "it is a coarse-grained and exploitive work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written."

Charles Davenport Champlin was born on March 23, 1926, in Bath, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, and grew up largely in nearby Hammondsport, at the southern tip of Keuka Lake. The families of both his parents were founders of a local winery.

His parents split up when he was a boy, and his father, Francis, died before Charles entered high school. His mother, the former Katherine Masson, married Charles Haynes, a salesman in the construction business, and the family moved to Cleveland, N.Y., north of Syracuse.

During World War II, after a year at Harvard, Charles joined the Army and saw combat in Germany, where he was injured by a German mortar shell. He returned to Harvard and, after graduating with a degree in English in 1948, went to work for Life magazine. He spent a decade and a half working for Life in New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago and for Time magazine in London before returning to Los Angeles for good in 1965 as the entertainment editor of The Los Angeles Times.

His tenure as editor was marred by The Times's late and tepid coverage of a late-1970s scandal involving David Begelman, the president of Columbia Pictures, who was found to have been embezzling money through forged checks. The story was first reported in The Wall Street Journal in December 1977 by David McClintick, who went on to write a best-selling book, "Indecent Exposure," about Mr. Begelman's crime and the power struggle at Columbia that ensued.

It was not until long after the Journal story that The Los Angeles Times first published a substantive piece about the episode; written by Mr. Champlin, it was seen as being soft on Mr. Begelman and the studio. In 1979, in an article in newspaper about its own coverage, David Shaw wrote that Mr. Champlin's article "contributed to an already widely held perception that The Times had deliberately ignored the Begelman affair because the paper was 'protective' of Hollywood."

Mr. Champlin was a widely known figure in Los Angeles. A founder of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1975 and its president for many years, he was "perhaps the most important voice in raising the profile of Los Angeles film critics," the association's current president. Stephen Farber, said in an email.

He was also the host of television talk shows on local stations and on the Bravo cable channel. In 1992 he was made an honorary life member of the Directors Guild of America, and in 2007 he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

Some of Mr. Champlin's reviews were collected in "Hollywood's Revolutionary Decade: Charles Champlin Reviews the Movies of the 1970s." His other books include a study of the filmmaker George Lucas and the memoirs "A LIFE in Writing: The Story of an American Journalist" and "My Friend, You Are Legally Blind: A Writer Struggles With Macular Degeneration," an account of the late-in-life loss of his eyesight.

In addition to his daughter Susan, Mr. Champlin is survived by his wife of 66 years, the former Margaret Derby, known as Peggy, whom he met in the Hammondsport library; three other daughters, Judi Desmond, Katy Laundrie and Nancy Cecconi; two sons, Charles Jr. and John; a half sister, Nancy Haynes Kreis; 13 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.