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Biography of Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin’s on-screen nemesis

Although nearly forgotten today,  Eric Campbell was one of the most famous silent film stars, appearing as the villain in many of  Charlie Chaplin’s most famous short films.

Eric Campbell – early years

Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin in "The Adventurer"Alfred Eric Campbell was born in the resort town of  Dunoon, Scotland on April 26, 1879. Eric Campbell began his career working in local theaters in Wales and Scotland.  Where he was discovered by Fred Karno, the same person who discovered both  Charlie Chaplin and  Stan Laurel. Impressed by both Eric’s enormous physical size and his rich baritone voice, Karno brought him to London and trained him in the slapstick arts that Karno’s  Fun Factory was known for. On March 30, 1901,  Eric Campbell married fellow vaudeville performer Fanny Gertrude Robotham, a union that produced their daughter Una a year later.

Eric Campbell meets Charlie Chaplin

Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin in "Easy Street"

In July of 1914, Eric Campbell sailed to New York as part of a troupe of Karno’s on a tour of the United States of America. In that same year, he was hired by Broadway producer Charles Froham, and decided to stay in the U.S.A. The next year, while performing in the George M. Cohan play “Pom Pom,” he was seen by Sid and Charlie Chaplin, who were in town to sign Charlie Chaplin’s contract with the Mutual Picture Corporation. In March of the next year, Charlie Chaplin invited Eric Campbell to join his company of actors in Hollywood, California.

Eric Campbell made a perfect physical contract to Charlie Chaplin; Eric Campbell was over 6 feet tall, weighed over 250 pounds, and had a powerful physique. It was  natural that Charlie Chaplin cast him as a bullying antagonist, first in “The Floorwalker” (1916), as well as in “The Rink” (1916), “The Pawnshop” (1916), “The Adventurer” (1917), “The Cure” (1917), “The Immigrant” (1917), “Easy Street” (1917) and “Chase Me Charlie” (1917).

With this exposure alongside Chaplin, Eric Campbell’s own fame began to rise, including imitators.  One of the best-known imitators of Campbell was  Oliver Hardy, who went on to partner with Charlie Chaplin’s old friend, Stan Laurel.

Eric Campbell in the background, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in the foreground, from the silent film "The Cure"A year of disaster for Eric Campbell

In 1917, while Charlie Chaplin spent five months constructing a new movie studio, Eric Campbell was loaned out to Mary Pickford for her film, “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley“.  Sadly, 1917 turned into a year of personal tragedy for Eric Campbell.

On July 9, 1917, Eric Campbell’s beloved wife died of a heart attack at a restaurant near their home. Shortly afterward, his daughter Una was seriously injured after being hit by a car while walking to a store to purchase a mourning dress. Barely two months later, Eric met Pearl Gilman, a  vaudeville comedienne with a reputation for gold-digging, while at a party. Despite her reputation for marrying and divorcing famous men, she and Eric Campbell were married only five days later. In November of that same year, she filed for divorce.

Eric moved out of their house, and took a room at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, next door to his friend Charlie Chaplin. On December 20th of that year, returning home from a party, Eric Campbell was killed in an automobile accident. He was cremated, and his ashes remained in a closet first at the mortuary and later at a cemetery, since no one paid the funeral bill. Finally, in 1952, an office worker at the Rosedale Cemetary arranged for the burial of Eric Campbell’s ashes.  But there is no record of the location of his final resting place. As part of the documentary “Chaplin’s Goliath: In Search of Scotland’s Forgotten Star,” a memorial plaque finally commemorates the life of Charlie Chaplin’s friend and co-star.

Films Eric Campbell appeared in:

  • The Floorwalker (1916)
  • The Fireman (1916)
  • The Vagabond (1916)
  • The Count (1916)
  • The Pawnshop (1916)
  • Behind the Screen (1916)
  • The Rink (1916)
  • Easy Street (1917)
  • The Cure (1917)
  • The Immigrant (1917)
  • The Adventurer (1917)

Bibliography for Eric Campbell

Chaplin’s Goliath: In Search of Scotland’s Forgotten Star
A documentary on the life of Eric Campbell.
Chaplin, by David Robinson (1979)
The definitive Chaplin biography, with incidental information about Eric Campbell

 

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