Brits Spied on Charlie Chaplin for the FBI

Newly released file reveals that silent film star Charlie Chaplin’s birthplace and true identity were called into question during the McCarthy era

Silent film star Charlie Chaplin was the target of a spying investigation conducted by British intelligence agency MI5, following a request from America's Federal Bureau of Investigation, according to papers released by Britain's National Archives on Friday.

The FBI asked MI5 for help in getting Chaplin banned from the United States for suspected Communist ties. Specifically, the FBI requested that the British agency look into the mysterious circumstances of Chaplin's birth — no record was found of his birth in England at the time — suggesting that his real name was Israel Thornstein and that he "may have been born in France." Ultimately the MI5 found no evidence of either allegation.

Read the MI5's file on Chaplin here.

The FBI also charged that Chaplin had made a covert donation to the American Communist Party in 1923.

Chaplin's MI5 file, which was opened in 1952, offers numerous newspaper clips, including from the Communist newspaper the Daily Worker, which praised Chaplin, saying, "His films have lampooned the great and the dictators, raised up the common man against the rich."

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However, the MI5 remained skeptical of the FBI's claims, and ultimately dismissed them.

"It may be that Chaplin is a communist sympathizer but on the information before us he would appear to be no more than a 'progressive,' or radical," the file, which was closed in 1958, concludes.

Chaplin denied ties to Communism, but was nonetheless banned from the United States in 1953, as McCarthyism raged in America. The "Great Dictator" actor opted not to appeal the decision and instead live in Switzerland, where he died in 1977 at the age of 88.