Hand color tinted photo of Lon Chaney Sr. from the 1919 movie, The Miracle Man
Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney (April 1, 1883 – August 26, 1930), nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” was an American actor during the age of silent films. He was one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema. He is best remembered for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with film makeup.
Leonidas Frank Chaney was born Leonidas Frank Chaney in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Frank H. Chaney and Emma Alice Kennedy; his father had mostly English and some French ancestry, and his mother was of Irish descent. Both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, and as a child of deaf adults Chaney became skilled in pantomime. He entered a stage career in 1902, and began traveling with popular Vaudeville and theater acts. In 1905, he met and married 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton (Frances Cleveland Creighton) and in 1906, their first child and only son, Creighton Chaney (a.k.a. Lon Chaney, Jr.) was born. The Chaneys continued touring, settling in California in 1910.
Marital troubles developed and in April 1913, Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where Lon was managing the Kolb and Dill show, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercury bichloride. The suicide attempt failed and ruined her singing career; the ensuing scandal and divorce forced Chaney out of the theater and into film.
The time spent there is not clearly known, but between the years 1912 and 1917, Chaney worked under contract for Universal Studios doing bit or character parts. His skill with makeup gained him many parts in the highly competitive casting atmosphere. During this time, Chaney befriended the husband-wife director team of Joe De Grasse and Ida May Park, who gave him substantial roles in their pictures, and further encouraged him to play macabre characters.
Chaney also married one of his former colleagues in the Kolb and Dill company tour, a chorus girl named Hazel Hastings. Little is known of Hazel, except that her marriage to Chaney was solid. Upon marrying, the new couple gained custody of Chaney’s 10-year-old son Creighton, who had resided in various homes and boarding schools since Chaney’s divorce in 1913.
By 1917 Chaney was a prominent actor in the studio, but his salary did not reflect this status. When Chaney asked for a raise, studio executive William Sistrom replied, “You’ll never be worth more than one hundred dollars a week.”
After leaving the studio, Chaney struggled for the first year as a character actor. It was not until 1918 when playing a substantial role in William S. Hart’s picture, Riddle Gawne, that Chaney’s talents as a character actor were truly recognized by the industry.
In 1919, Chaney had a breakthrough performance as “The Frog” in George Loane Tucker’s The Miracle Man. The film not only displayed Chaney’s acting ability, but his talent as a master of makeup. Critical praise and a gross of over $2 million put Chaney on the map as America’s foremost character actor.
Chaney is chiefly remembered as a pioneer in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. His ability to transform himself using self-invented makeup techniques earned him the nickname of “Man of a Thousand Faces.” In an autobiographical 1925 article published in Movie magazine, Chaney referred to his specialty as “extraordinary characterization.”
He also exhibited this adaptability with makeup in more conventional crime and adventure films, such as The Penalty, in which he played an amputee gangster. Chaney appeared in 10 films directed by Tod Browning, often portraying disguised and/or mutilated characters, including carnival knife-thrower Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927) opposite Joan Crawford. In 1927 Chaney co-starred with Conrad Nagel, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall and Polly Moran in the Tod Browning horror film, London After Midnight, considered one of the most legendary lost films. His final cinema role was a sound remake of his silent classic, The Unholy Three (1930), his only “talkie” and the only film in which Chaney displayed his versatile voice. The actor signed a sworn statement declaring that five of the key voices in the film (the ventriloquist, the old woman, a parrot, the dummy and the girl) were his own.
In Quasimodo, the bell ringer of Notre Dame, and Erik, the “phantom” of the Paris Opera House, Chaney created two of the most grotesquely deformed characters in film history. However, the portrayals sought to elicit a degree of sympathy and pathos among viewers not overwhelmingly terrified or repulsed by the monstrous disfigurements of the characters, who were victims of fate.
“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice,” Chaney wrote in Movie magazine. “The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”
“He was someone who acted out our psyches. He somehow got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on-screen,” Ray Bradbury once explained. “The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”
Chaney’s talents extended beyond the horror genre and stage makeup. He was also a highly skilled dancer, singer and comedian. Many who did not know Chaney were surprised by his rich baritone voice and his sharp comedic skills.
Chaney and his second wife Hazel led a discreet private life distant from the Hollywood social scene. Chaney did minimal promotional work for his films and for MGM Studios, purposefully fostering a mysterious image, and he reportedly purposely avoided the social scene in Hollywood.
In the final five years of his film career (1925-1930), Chaney worked exclusively under contract to MGM, giving some of his most memorable performances. His portrayal of a tough-as-nails marine drill instructor in Tell It to the Marines (1926), one of his favorite films, earned him the affection of the US Marine Corps, who made him their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. He also earned the respect and admiration of numerous aspiring actors, to whom he offered mentoring assistance, and between takes on film sets he was always willing to share his professional observations with the cast and crew.
During the filming of Thunder in the winter of 1929, Chaney developed pneumonia. In late 1929 he was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer. This was exacerbated when artificial snow, made out of cornflakes, lodged in his throat during filming and quickly created a serious infection. Despite aggressive treatment, his condition gradually worsened, and seven weeks after the release of the remake of The Unholy Three, he died of a throat hemorrhage. His death was deeply mourned by his family, the film industry and by his fans. The US Marine Corps provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California, next to the crypt of his father. His wife Hazel was interred there upon her death in 1933. For unknown reasons, Chaney’s crypt has remained unmarked.
In 1957, Chaney was the subject of a biopic titled Man of a Thousand Faces, and was portrayed by James Cagney. Though much of the plot was fictional, the film was a moving tribute to Chaney and helped boost his posthumous fame. During his lifetime, Chaney had boasted he would make it difficult for biographers to portray his life, saying that “between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney.” This was in line with the air of mystery he purposefully fostered around his makeup and performances.
Lon Chaney has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1994, he was honored by having his image designed by noted caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, placed on a United States postage stamp. The stage theater at the Colorado Springs Civic Auditorium is named after Lon Chaney.
In 1929, Chaney built an impressive stone cabin in the remote wilderness of the eastern Sierra Nevada, near Big Pine, California, as a retreat. The cabin (designed by architect Paul Williams) still stands, and is preserved by the Inyo National Forest Service.
Chaney’s son Creighton, renamed Lon Chaney, Jr., became a film actor after his father’s death, and is best remembered for roles in horror films, especially The Wolf Man. The Chaneys appeared on US postage stamps as the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, with the set completed by Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy. He and his son are mentioned in the Warren Zevon song “Werewolves of London”.
Many of Chaney’s colleagues held him in high regard and he would often give advice and help actors who were just beginning their careers. He was also greatly respected by the film crews and studio employees with whom he worked.
Following his death, Chaney’s famous makeup case was donated by his wife Hazel to the Los Angeles County Museum, where it is sometimes displayed for the public. Makeup artist and Chaney biographer Michael Blake considers Chaney’s case the central artifact in the history of film makeup.
In 1978, Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS wrote a song about Lon Chaney called “Man of 1,000 Faces” for his first solo album. Simmons had been influenced by the old black and white classic horror movies growing up in New York City.
An episode of Scooby Doo Movies has a tribute to Lon Chaney as mysterious master of disguise actor “Lorne Chumley” and his butler “Otto” (as a tribute to Erich von Stroheim).