RIP Jack Oakie (January 23, 1978)

Oakie and Chaplin on the set of The Great Dictator.

Oakie describes below being approached for a role in The Great Dictator by Syd Chaplin when both men were returning to America from Europe aboard the Ile de France:

“Charlie’s working on an idea for a picture about Hitler,” Sid said. And in afterthought I remember that he used to look me over as if her were trying to guess my weight. Never dreaming that he would ever send for me, because I wasn’t German and felt sure there was nothing in a Hitler picture that I could play. I cheerfully joked about the idea.

“Sounds good to me, Sid. After all, Hitler’s been trying to imitate Charlie wearing his mustache.”1

So when Charlie did send word that he wanted to speak to me I could hardly believe it. I began guessing that perhaps with my rotund build he was considering me for a character like Goering.

“Oakie,” he said, “I’ve been watching you, and I hear you have a reputation for being a wise-cracker. How would you like to be in a picture about Hitler?”

“What would I play, Charlie?” I asked.

“Goering?”

“No! Oakie, I want you to play Mussolini,” he said.

“Mussolini!” I couldn’t believe it. “Charlie, you must be kidding.”

“No, Oakie, I’m not kidding. I want you to play Mussolini.”

“Charlie, I’m Scotch-Irish,” I protested, almost talking myself out of the job.  “You want an Italian to play Mussolini.”

“What’s so funny about an Italian playing Mussolini?” he asked.

“Charlie,” I said as fast as I could, “I’m your man!”

“Good, good,” he said. He could see how thrilled I was. “Good!” he said again and meekly raised his left palm, Nazi fashion, and saluted me. He kept his elbow tucked into his waist and held his hand below shoulder level. It was the sheepish salutation he used all through the picture. (Jack Oakie, “When Your Boss Is Charlie Chaplin,” Saturday Evening Post, April 1978)

 With Paulette Goddard & CC at the New York premiere of The Great Dictator.
Chaplin is giving a Hynkel salute to the crowd.

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1A different version of the story of Syd recommending Jack for the role is told in an article in the Los Angeles Times from September 1940. In that version, they are talking at a Hollywood party when Syd asks Jack: “Stick out your jaw again that way, will you?…I want you to come around and see Charlie tomorrow, I’ve got an idea.” (Stein, Syd Chaplin)

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