En route to Los Angeles where he would be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Charlie Chaplin spent four days in New York City in early April of 1972, where he was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at a gala event to benefit the organization. Martin E. Segal reflects on bringing Chaplin back to America.

It has been suggested to me that some may find it interesting to learn of the circumstances that brought Charlie Chaplin back to the United States in 1972 after 20 years in exile. Here is a somewhat abbreviated history.

At a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1971, Brendan Gill, one of our directors and film critic for The New Yorker, mentioned he had heard that Charlie’s wife, Oona, was eager to return to the U.S. She had fled to Europe with Chaplin when she was only 17 after her father, Eugene O’Neill, had disowned her. Gill suggested that, as the Film Society’s President and CEO, I should look into the possibility of somehow convincing Chaplin to return. The carrot would be a grand gala in his honor at Lincoln Center.

To accomplish a feat such as this, I knew I would need allies, and was fortunate to make the acquaintance of Mo Rothman and Rachel Ford, Chaplin’s business partner and executive assistant respectively. Not only did both have Chaplin’s ear, but both were very supportive of the Film Society’s invitation.

After several strategy sessions with Rothman, on February 7, 1972, my wife, Edith, and I had dinner with the Chaplins in London. After a wonderful meal, lots of champagne, and enough delightfully amusing stories to last a lifetime, Chaplin finally said yes! The date for the gala and Chaplin’s return was set.

At 2:00 AM that night, I answered a ringing telephone and found myself on the line with Arthur Gelb, then managing editor of The New York Times and friend whom I had kept abreast of the negotiations. Gelb told me that one of his reporters, McCandlish Phillips, was writing a story about Chaplin’s return for tomorrow’s paper, and that that story was appearing on the front page.

Charlie and Oona arrived at JFK and were met by David Rockefeller, Jr. (who served with distinction as Chairman of the Gala), Candice Bergen (a photographer assigned by Life magazine), and me. Charlie waved to the hundreds of journalists and photographers cordoned off some distance away, and climbed into the limousine we had waiting. While in New York, the city – led by Mayor John V. Lindsay – gave the Chaplins a truly royal welcome.

The gala, which took place on the evening of April 4, 1972, consisted of a brief program that included a screening of a brand-new print of The Kid (with new music written by Chaplin himself). Charlie and Oona sat in a box facing the stage, and when the lights came up, the audience rose to its feet and greeted them with warm, thunderous applause. After reducing us to tears so many times over the years, we finally had the opportunity to return the favor. As he wiped the tears from his eyes, he simply repeated the words “thank you.”

That evening was the first in what would become an annual event in which the Film Society of Lincoln Center honors the legends of cinema. Several years ago, the Film Society decided to name the recognition, most appropriately, the Chaplin Award – in honor of the greatest actor and director in film.

Martin E. Segal was one of the founders of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and served as President of the Board from 1969 – 1977. He later served as President Emeritus and member of the Board of Directors. He passed away in 2012.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center will honor Morgan Freeman at the 43rd annual Chaplin Award Gala on April 25, 2016.