Lon Chaney born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The son of mute parents Frank Chaney an English man and Emma Kennedy-Chaney an Irish woman had to learn to communicate through pantomime, sing language and facial expression. His father a barber who worked at the Phil Strubels Barber Shop, where he was called two names Dummy Chaney or the Millionaire barber, who cut and shave hair for town patrons. His mother was ill bed ridden from rheumatism at age ten and he would quit school to care for the household. Lon was a good entertainer; he would act out skits by using sign language and pantomime, and would silently mimic the town patrons that he’d always observed.
He took on a job as a tour guide for Pikes Peak, where he would develop a love for the outdoor life. As for learning the art of interior decorating, he was hired by his older brother John Chaney, as a property boy, painter, and stagehand at Colorado Springs Opera House. On a tour of his own, he watched many great performers and therefore have a love for the theater. At the age of 19, he traveled on the road as an actor that he would star in a play co-written by his brother The Little Tycoon. Lon then owns the company, on tour to Oklahoma City and meets Cleva Creighton, a sixteen-year-old actress who auditioned for a part in a show, she was picked by the touring company because of her beautiful signing voice, and then the following year she was pregnant. Chaney, Cleva, and Creighton move to Oklahoma to raise a family, Chaney goes back to home decor type work to support his family. Although, for his love of acting he returned to stage in vaudeville shows and Oklahoma City. The family toured shows in the United States and Canada, they were broke without money and food.
They would perform on street corners for money and in bars Lon would perform for patrons and little Creighton their son would collect the money and would take food from the audience while they weren’t looking. In 1910, the Chaney’s move to California and Lon found himself employed in various opportunities such as a stage manager, actor, and choreographer working with Kolb and Dill. Chaney went all over California to San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles doing stage shows. Cleva was a famous singer in the Cabaret shows and was becoming quite popular, however, the couple had troubles in their marriage and had suffered even more when Cleva attempted suicide by swallowing an vital of poison that damaged her vocal chords, soon the incident had an effect on Chaney’s career and the marriage only leading to a saddened divorce and little Creighton had been placed in a temporary home for children. Chaney had turned to the flourishing of silent movies, landing in Universal Film Manufacturing Company where he received his first screen credit in the short film reel Poor Jakes Demise.
In November of 1915, Lon remarries an old acquaintance he met when he worked with Kolb and Dill named Hazel Hastings a chorus girl, and then Creighton would return home to stay with his father and new stepmother. Lon and Hazel led a discrete life away from Hollywood. He had built a stone cabin in the remote wilderness of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains near Big Pine, California. In 1917, he befriends the husband and wife director team Joseph DeGrrasse and Ida May Parke, who gave him a substantial parts in their pictures. Lon had over a hundred film credits, he asked Universal for a raise but had been refused.
He was told by studio executive William Sistrom, “you’ll never be worth more than a hundred dollars a week.” Chaney then left the studio but times had been tough as an actor. Opportunity struck up for him, a western movie star by the name of William S. Hart had contacted him for a role to play a villain opposite in Riddle Gawne, which he had received acclamation for his performance in this role and it would be his first break.
In 1918, Earning $5 a day at Universal, asking studio manager William Sistrom asking $125 a week and a five year contract. In 1919, director George Leone Tucker aware of his potential, goes onto doing a role in George Loane’s Tuckers The Miracle Man, a con man who pretends to be a fake cripple with other criminals, is taken advantage of a blind faith healer. Chaney made over $2 million as one of the most famous character actors. In 1920, The Penalty directed by Wallace Worsley, Chaney undergoes the most explicit self-torture in order to achieve a desired effect and a reputation as a masochist, he plays a villainous cripple man who’s legs are bound in a harness, his knees are into leather stumps and legs with his feet bound at the thighs. This was an strainous situation for the actor, his circulation was cut to his legs, in his performance in the Hunchback of Notre Dame he wears a lump and harness that had weighed excess of 50 pounds, twisting his torso to feel the pain of Quasimodo, a performance that earned him widely success. Chaney was shy when it came to attending movie premieres and giving interviews, he disliked autographs and making personal appearances, even answering fan mail.
The fan mail averaged 20,000 a week but there was never a reply from him. The only mail he ever answered was from prisoners and would help some of them find work after their release. The avoidance of publicity led him to be unfairly labeled as strange and unfriendly. Although, to those who knew him always described him as a good, loving husband, father, and friend. In 1924, his next film role in Metro-Goldwin’s He who gets slapped a circus melodrama about a clown who was an achieved scientist that come to the circus who has had everything taken from him, the film lead to Chaney getting contracts from MGM Studios for the next 5 years and would gross $16.2 million. In 1925, Lon stars in The Phantom of the Opera as Erik the phantom that makes strangely pipe organ music and is full of fury and despair. Mary Philbin had co-starred who played Christine and sneaks up behind him and removes his mask. He played a carnival knife thrower Alonzo the Armless in the 1927 film The Unknown with Joan Crawford. In characters such as Quasimodo and the phantom that are the most horrorified looking characters, created by a cruel hand of fate and are outcast by everyday people. London After Midnight, he plays a spooky vampire with dark eyes, rows of pointed teeth, and a huge top hat. Mr. Wu a Chinese laundryman named Yen Sin is cast ashore on the shore of a small fishing town, he struggles to survive while faced with prejudice from the other villagers.
Chaney’s words “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice.” Lon Chaney tells his cinematographer Virgil Miller “Virgil, make me looks frightening and repulsive, but at the same time make the audience love me.” In 1929, during the filming Thunder in the winter of 1929, Chaney developed pneumonia. During the filming in Tell It to the Marines, his health was affected by which his spine was contorted. He said later, “I can’t play these crippled roles anymore, the trouble with my spine is worse every time I do one, and it’s beginning to worry me.” Thunder a railroad story set in the snowbound Northwest of America was used with artificial snow that had been lodged into Lon Chaney’s throat and had worsened the condition. Chaney went to the hospital and his tonsils were removed, but his throat continued to trouble him.
In 1930, Chaney’s last film of the remake with sound in The Unholy Three, his only talking film that would showcase his voice and claimed all five voice characters to be his own. Lon Chaney was appalled of the thought of talking movies and stood strongly on sticking with his original standards on makeup and the art of pantomime and did not do very well in talking movies. He feared that talking films would end the careers of silent film actors and their voices would disappointment the public and would be the end of pantomime. Audiences were just as impressed by Chaney’s versatility with his voice. His last role in 1930 was the only one talking film he made The Unholy Three where he played crooked ventriloquist. However, MGM did not go on with the production and the film remained an honor of one of the greatest actors in the industry.
On August 26, 1930, Lon Chaney had died from throat hemorrhage at the age of 47; he was buried in Forrest Lawn Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Among those who attended his funeral were family and friends, and fans across the world and the studios in Hollywood stopped work for five minutes in his honor. Throughout the service, members from the U.S. Marine Corps also made an attendance. His portrayal as a tough Marine drill sergeant is one of his favorite films had gained him the deepest respect of the US Marine Corps. His obituary in The New York Times made a joke “Don’t step on that spider, it may be Lon Chaney.” An actor’s legacy had grew and left an inspiration to new artists and fans.
“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 character actors of the early cinema. He is best remembered for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with film makeup. _ The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz
“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 there’s some part of you that’s grotesque, that the world will turn away from them.” _ Ray Bradbury
“The most emotionally compelling scene I’ve ever seen an actor do.”_ Burt Lancaster
“The most intense, exciting individual I’d ever met, a main mesmerized into part.” _ Joan Crawford
The Hunchback of Notre Dame as “murderous, hideous, and repulsive.” _ Variety
He wrote a preface to Cecil Holland’s textbook of screen make-up and the author of the chapter on screen make-up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. A hundred and fifty variety of roles with characters such as a Chinese Mandarin, Drill Sergeant, Knife Thrower, Russian Peasant, Gangster, Clown, Police Detective, Train Conductor, or a Yard Inspector, whether they be villainous, peculiar, and morbid. They will forever be memorable performances on the silent screen. Tell it to the Marines (1926), Mr. Wu (1927), The Unknown (1927), Mockery (1927), London after Midnight (1927), The Big City (1928), Laugh Clown Laugh (1928), While the City Sleeps (1928), and Thunder (1929).