Charles Champlin, Longtime Film Critic for the L.A. Times, Dies at 88

Charles Champlin - P 2014

Charles Champlin - P 2014

He worked at the newspaper from 1965-91; "criticism must aspire to be art," he once said

Charles Champlin, the esteemed film critic and arts columnist for the Los Angeles Times from 1965-91, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles after a 10-year struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, his son, Charles Jr., said. He was 88.

Champlin, who also hosted TV shows for Los Angeles public station KCET, PBS and Bravo, also suffered from macular degeneration, diagnosed in the late 1990s, which he described in his 2001 book, My Friend, You Are Legally Blind.

After joining the Times as entertainment editor in 1965, he elected two years later to take on the role of the newspaper's principal film critic, just as the new film rating code freed the industry from its self-censoring production code.  

In a compendium of his film reviews from the 1970s, The Revolutionary Decade, Champlin wrote: “Overnight, almost literally, the movie screen was untethered as it had never been before in this country. … [Critics] had a role to play, so I felt, as mediators between this new generation of [uncensored] movies and the filmgoers.”

Each year, Champlin saw up to 250 films and reviewed about 125. “I strongly felt that criticism must aspire to be art," he said. "The aspiration to be art was in fact the respect that the critic pays to the art of others.”

He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007.

Raised in the town of Hammondsport on Keuka Lake in western New York state, Champlin knew at age 10 that he wanted to be a writer. He attended Harvard for a year before joining the Army Enlisted Reserve Corps in 1944. In Germany, he was wounded in the hip with mortar shrapnel and discharged in spring 1946.

Champlin returned to Harvard in fall 1946 for two years, graduated cum laude and earned an interview with a recruiter from Life magazine. He moved to New York City to begin a 17-year association with Life and Time magazines, for which Champlin covered, as he once put it, “earthquakes, politics and other disasters.”

He worked in Time-Life bureaus in Chicago, Denver, New York, Los Angeles and London, an experience he wrote about in his last book, 2006’s A LIFE in Writing.

While writing for Time in London, Champlin was recruited by Otis Chandler, former Times publisher, to join the newspaper as entertainment editor and columnist.

In 1972, Champlin hosted PBS’ Film Odyssey, which each week showed classic foreign films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari paired with relevant interviews from such filmmakers as Alfred Hitchcock. He later hosted celebrity interviews on Bravo.

He and fellow Times columnist Art Seidenbaum co-hosted the KCET show Citywatchers, which covered cultural issues across Los Angeles, in the early 1970s.

A cornet player influenced by Bix Beiderbecke and Duke Ellington, Champlin also wrote about jazz for the Times and in album liner notes. He was named the “Grand Emperor of Jazz” of the Sacramento Jazz Festival in 2001.

In addition to Charles Jr., survivors include his wife of 66 years, Peggy, and their other children Katy, John, Judi, Susan and Nancy; 13 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren, with another due in December.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4