Lon Chaney, Jr. (February 10, 1906 - July 12, 1973), born Creighton Tull Chaney, was an American character actor. He was best known for his roles in monster movies and as the son of famous silent film actor, Lon Chaney. He is notable for playing Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man movies.
Originally credited in films as Creighton Chaney, he was first credited as "Lon Chaney, Jr." in 1935. Chaney had English, French and Irish ancestry.
Early lifeCreighton was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of silent film star Lon Chaney and Frances Cleveland Creighton Chaney, a singing stage performer who traveled in road shows across the country with Creighton. His parents' troubled marriage ended in divorce in 1913 following his mother's scandalous public suicide attempt in Los Angeles. Young Creighton lived in various homes and boarding schools until 1916, when his father (now employed in films) married Hazel Hastings and could provide a stable home. Many articles and biographies over the years report that Creighton was led to believe his mother had died while he was a boy, and was only made aware she lived after his father's death in 1930.
From an early age, he worked hard to get out of his famous father's shadow. In young adulthood, his father discouraged him from show business, and he attended business college and became successful in a Los Angeles appliance corporation.
It was only after his father's death that Chaney started acting in movies, beginning with an uncredited role in the 1932 film Girl Crazy. He appeared in films under his real name until 1935, when he began to be billed as "Lon Chaney, Jr." (and would appear as "Lon Chaney" later in his career). Chaney was asked to test for the role of Quasimodo for the 1939 remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The role went to Charles Laughton. In his final years, Chaney would get a brief chance to play Quasimodo, and return to the roles of the Mummy, and the Wolfman on the 1960s television series Route 66 with friends Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.
Chaney first achieved stardom and critical acclaim in the 1939 feature film version of Of Mice and Men, in which he played Lennie Small.
In 1941, Chaney starred in the title role of The Wolf Man for Universal Pictures Co. Inc., a role which would typecast him for the rest of his life. He maintained a career at Universal horror movies over the next few years, replaying the Wolf Man in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Frankenstein's monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, Kharis the mummy in The Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Ghost and The Mummy's Curse. He also played the title character in Son of Dracula. Chaney is thus the only actor to portray all four of Universal's major monsters: the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and the vampire son of Count Dracula. Universal also starred him in a series of psychological mysteries associated with the Inner Sanctum radio series. He also played western heroes, such as in the serial Overland Mail, but the imposing 6-foot 2-inch, 220-pound actor often appeared as heavies. After leaving Universal Studios, where he made 30 films, he worked primarily in character roles in low-budget films.
He also established himself as a favorite of producer Stanley Kramer, taking key supporting roles in the western High Noon (1952) (starring Gary Cooper), Not as a Stranger (1955), a hospital melodrama featuring Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra, and The Defiant Ones (1958, starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier). Kramer told the press at the time that whenever a script came in with a role too difficult for most actors in Hollywood, he called Chaney.
One of his most talked about roles was a live television version of Frankenstein on the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow, for which he showed up drunk. During the live broadcast, Chaney, playing the Monster, was so drunk that he thought it was just a rehearsal and he would pick up furniture that he was supposed to break only to gingerly put it back down while muttering, "Break later."
He became quite popular with baby boomers after Universal released its back catalog of horror films to television in 1957 and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine regularly focused on his films. In 1957, Chaney went to Ontario, Canada, to costar in the first ever American-Canadian television production, as Chingachgook in Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, suggested by James Fenimore Cooper's stories. The series ended after 39 episodes.
In the 1960s, Chaney's career ran the gamut from horror productions, such as Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace and big-studio Westerns such as 1967's Welcome to Hard Times, to such bottom-of-the-barrel fodder as Hillbillys in a Haunted House and Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors (both 1967). His bread-and-butter work during this decade was television where he made guest appearances on everything from Wagon Train to The Monkees and in a string of supporting roles in low-budget Westerns produced by A. C. Lyles for Paramount. During this era, he starred in Jack Hill's Spider Baby (filmed 1964, released 1968), for which he also sang the title song. He appeared in a 1958 episode of the western series Tombstone Territory titled "The Black Marshal from Deadwood."
In later years he battled throat cancer and chronic heart disease after decades of heavy drinking and smoking. In his final horror film, Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), directed by Al Adamson, he played Groton, Dr. Frankenstein's mute henchman. He filmed his part in the spring of 1969, and shortly thereafter filmed his final film role, also for Adamson, in The Female Bunch. Due to illness he retired from acting to concentrate on a book about the Chaney family legacy, A Century of Chaneys, which remains to date unpublished in any form. His grandson, Ron Chaney, was working on completing this project.
Personal lifeMarried twice, Chaney had two sons, Lon Ralph Chaney (born July 3, 1928) and Ronald Creighton Chaney (born March 18, 1930), both now deceased. He is survived by a grandson, Ron Chaney, who attends film conventions and discusses his grandfather's life and film career. Ron Chaney was featured on the CBS News Sunday Morning program on October 29, 2006.
Chaney seemed to have been well-liked by his co-workers "sweet" is the adjective that most commonly emerges from people who acted with him yet he was capable of intense dislikes. For instance, he and frequent co-star Evelyn Ankers did not get along at all despite their undeniable on-camera chemistry. Chaney is also said to have had a belligerent relationship with actor Martin Kosleck; years after the fact, Kosleck explained this as a case of jealousy over Kosleck's (self-described) superior talent. Chaney had run-ins with actor Frank Reicher (whom he nearly strangled on camera in The Mummy's Ghost) and director Robert Siodmak (over whose head Chaney broke a vase).
DeathAt the age of 67, Chaney died on July 12, 1973, of heart failure in San Clemente, California. His body was donated for medical research.
He was honored by appearing as the Wolf Man on one of a 1997 series of United States postage stamps depicting movie monsters.
Photograph is from the 1943 movie, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and was Hand Color Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.