News Column

Now a medical professor, 50 years ago he was in 'Charade'

December 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 04--Thomas Chelimsky did not become a movie star.

A brush with Elizabeth Taylor helped steer the former child actor away from film, and he chose a career path that led to his becoming professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2011.

But that encounter would never have happened if not for his first and only film appearance, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in "Charade," released 50 years ago Thursday.

Chelimsky, 56, was a 61/2-year-old boy living in Paris when his mother responded to an ad looking for a boy who spoke English with a French accent to appear in the film being directed by Stanley Donen.

His parents -- both artists and Americans -- thought the audition would "be a Saturday afternoon fun thing" to do, Chelimsky said in an interview Wednesday. He was one of 1,500 children who auditioned.

"We did not go in with any expectations, and we didn't leave with any," he said.

But two months later, he got a callback, and Donen, who previously directed "Singin' in the Rain" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," asked screenwriter Peter Stone if he could change the age of the character from 9 to 6.

"They rewrote the whole script to have me in it," said Chelimsky. "That's kind of an honor."

His teachers at the Alsatian School "were against me doing this. They felt it was not scholastically serious."

But every afternoon for the next six months, Chelimsky was on the set filming.

Pointing pistol at Hepburn

"Charade" is a screwball romantic caper film with bandits in pursuit of a fortune that Hepburn's late husband has hidden in the form of rare stamps. Grant is the suave but secretive man who helps her. It turns out that Chelimsky, as the stamp-collecting son of Hepburn's girlfriend, has traded the stamps for others he found more interesting.

Because the film's copyright was never registered, it went into public domain immediately after release and can be seen on YouTube. Grant and Hepburn received Golden Globe nominations for their performances, and the haunting theme song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer was nominated for an Oscar.

Chelimsky said he is in "probably a half-dozen to a dozen" scenes, including the opening sequence at a ski lodge in which he shoots Hepburn in the face with a water pistol.

"Don't tell me," she says. "You didn't know it was loaded."

Later, Grant catches the boy "throwing snowballs at Baron Rothschild." The scene ends with Chelimsky shooting Grant with the squirt gun. "Clever fellow," Grant says. "Almost missed me."

Chelimsky said he was "a very gregarious kid" who "loved to be with people" and "pretty much got along with everybody" during filming. His best friends on the set were screenwriter Stone, "who taught me how to fold and fly paper airplanes" and veteran character actor Ned Glass, who played one of the men after the riches.

He recalls Hepburn as being "as advertised. She loved kids. She loved me. We got along quite well."

During breaks in filming, Chelimsky and his father would stay in her quarters. Years later, she visited the hospital where he worked. Because he couldn't be there he left her a video message, and she left him one in reply.

Chelimsky said Grant was "very cool and collected. I've been told that he never wanted kids, but after he met me...he had one a year later. I've been told I was the inspiration."

Donen, he said, "was just outstanding. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted and described it to you in simple terms so you could understand it." Yet he required "multiple, multiple takes."

In one scene, Donen "wanted me to turn very slowly because he wanted to maintain suspense. It's not easy for a kid to be slow." In a tense scene, Chelimsky kept breaking into a nervous smile: "If you look at the film you can see it."

He has kept in touch with Donen, who is now 89.

Leaving showbiz

Later, Chelimsky was in a French TV series and had the lead in a French play. Chelimsky's sister, cardiologist Catherine Fallick, had a role in Donen's 1967 film "Two for the Road," which also starred Hepburn.

He was supposed to play a child in Taylor's 1965 film "The Sandpiper," but the atmosphere was so chaotic, "my mom walked me off the set."

"There was something magical about the 'Charade' set, which was really unusual about movies in general," Chelimsky recalled. "It was very collaborative and not competitive. People were really friendly and they all loved me."

But the turbulent "Sandpiper" set made them realize "Hollywood was really not that way."

Chelimsky's family moved to Washington when he was 13 or 14 and, when he was a junior in college, he decided "medicine might be something I'd be interested in." He attended Harvard University and Washington University medical school, and later became director of University Hospitals of Cleveland Pain Center.

On his first date with his wife, a pediatric gastroenterologist he met while at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., "I told her about this movie I was in, and she later told me she thought I was totally making it up."

As a boy, Chelimsky didn't see the adult-themed "Charade" until his father arranged a private screening. He said he hasn't watched the entire film in a decade but still hears from its fans, who send him memorabilia to autograph.

Chelimsky said he received $1,500 for his performance in the 1963 film.

"They weren't going to pay me at all," he said. "They thought I was a volunteer."

And they promised that Chelimsky would receive all the stamps from the film.

"But instead," he said, "they threw them away."

Email: ddudek@journalsentinel.com

Keep up with movies on Dudek's blog, The Dudek Abides: jsonline.com/dudek.

Twitter: @TheDudekAbides

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