The New York Times

September 26, 2011

Mo Rothman Dies at 92; Revived Interest in Charlie Chaplin

Mo Rothman, a film executive and entrepreneur who was instrumental in reviving interest in Charlie Chaplin’s movies in the 1970s, and who orchestrated the aging star’s triumphant return to the United States in 1972 after a bitter, self-imposed exile of 20 years, died on Sept. 15 in Los Angeles. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Lyn. Mr. Rothman, an experienced distributor of American films to overseas audiences and an instinctive publicist, had become an independent operator in 1971 when he and the 82-year-old Chaplin met at the star’s 38-acre Swiss estate and signed a $7 million deal for distribution rights to some of Chaplin’s most famous work, including “City Lights,” “Modern Times,” “The Gold Rush,” “Limelight,” and “The Great Dictator.”

It was a deal that Mr. Rothman parlayed into “one of the greatest P.R. coups, and personal rehabilitations” in the history of the film industry, said Jeffrey Vance, the author of a 2003 biography, “Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema.” Mr. Vance added: “Rothman is the guy who re-made Chaplin.”

Chaplin, who owned almost all the films he ever made and guarded their distribution rights, had lost a lot of his American audience after leaving the country in the 1950s, when his left-leaning political views had made him a target of McCarthy-era investigations and two early marriages (to 16-year-old girls) had produced civil suits questioning his moral character.

When Chaplin, a British citizen, left for Switzerland in 1952 after residing in the United States for 40 years, Attorney General James P. McGranery told reporters that he would not be allowed to return unless he could prove his “moral worth.”

Chaplin announced soon afterward that he would never return.

In 1971, with film schools and an avant-garde movement newly interested in Chaplin’s movies, Chaplin and his business advisers decided to reclaim the American audience by making his films widely available again.

But he still had no plans to return to the United States.

It was Mr. Rothman’s great insight that the return of Chaplin — old, frail and confused but still capable of the Little Tramp’s quizzical poignancy — would create a publicity frenzy.

At Mr. Rothman’s urging, Chaplin agreed to visit the United States to promote his films. The visit, beginning on April 2, 1972, created the stir Mr. Rothman had hoped for, first at the Lincoln Center Film Society, where Chaplin received a sustained, emotional ovation in Philharmonic Hall on the opening night of a tribute to his films, then at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where he received an honorary Oscar. Time magazine put him on its cover. Chaplin died five years later.

“There was never any guarantee that people would want to see these old silent black-and-white movies,” said Mr. Vance, who interviewed Mr. Rothman in 1998 for his book. “But he had a sense that Chaplin should be seen again. And it made him a very wealthy man, I might add.”

Moses Rothman was born on Jan. 14, 1919, in Montreal, one of four children of Meyer and Molly Rotman. (He changed his last name for professional reasons.) His father was a kosher butcher.

During World War II, he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed in Dublin, where he met an American with ties to the movie business. “This fellow told him to come to New York after the war to see about a job,” said Lyn Rothman. “And he did, much to his parents’ dismay.”

Besides his wife, Mr. Rothman is survived by three children from previous marriages: Keith, Nicole and Monique; his stepchildren Sebastian and Arabella; and seven grandchildren.

Beginning in the late 1940s, Mr. Rothman worked for United Artists and later for Columbia Pictures in marketing assignments that took him to Singapore, South America, Paris and London.

He met Chaplin in 1953, when Mr. Rothman was in charge of European distribution for “Limelight,” considered Chaplin’s valedictory American film. The movie flopped in the United States but was a success in Europe.

In 1972, when  Chaplin’s visit caused a frenzy of public attention and acclamation, The New York Times noted Mr. Rothman’s behind-the-scenes role. It described his assertive, hands-on style of stage management  — “abrupt and ingratiating five times in three minutes” — as a kind of performance in its own right, evoking the manner of “the Hollywood tycoon of the 1930s.” 

The article quoted Mr. Rothman as saying that “Modern Times” would be opening in 40 cities the following week. “Chaplin is going to be with you in the theaters of America, all across America,” he said, adding, “We’ve got the colleges and universities going. That’ll be a gold mine.”