Lon Chaney Overview:

Legendary actor, Lon Chaney, was born Leonidas Frank Chaney on Apr 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, CO. Chaney died at the age of 47 on Aug 26, 1930 in Hollywood, CA and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery (Glendale) in Glendale, CA.

Lon Chaney

Early Life and Career

Lon Chaney was born Leonida Frank Chaney on April 1st, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado and was one of four child born to Frank and Emma Chaney. Both of his parents were deaf; so the young Chaney learned to communicate through pantomime, hand gestures and sign language at a very young age. Sometime in his early teens he was introduced to the world of the theater and worked in the props department at his local opera house. In 1902 he began his life as a performer and started acting in amateur plays. It wasn't long before he was traveling the countryside, performing with popular vaudeville and theater acts. In 1905 he met fellow performer, 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton. The two began performing together and soon after would eventually marry. A year later, the couple welcomed their only son, Creighton Chaney (later known as Lon Chaney, Jr.). Their union, however, would prove to be a difficult one and in 1913 Cleva entered the Majestic Theater, where Lon was working, and attempted suicide by drinking mercuric chloride. Although she failed in killing herself, she did manage to kill her singing career with the lethal liquid by permanently damaging her singing voice. The two soon divorced. After such a public scandal, Chaney was forced out of the theater and joined the rapidly growing motion picture industry.

Early Film Career

The earliest years of Chaney's film career are a bit hazy but sometime in 1913 he was hired by universal studios as a contract player. His first confirmed film that he appeared in was the 1913 short The Ways of Fate as an extra. For the next five years Chaney would build his reputation not only as an actor but as a makeup artist as well. Because of his time in the theater, Chaney had mastered many forms of make-up and saw the medium of film as a way of expanding this art. During his tenure at Universal, Chaney also wrote and directed a small number of films, allowing him to better understand the being the scenes mechanizations that go into making a movie. During his time at Universals he would appear in well over 50 films, masterfully changing his appearance in every one.  Although by 1917 he was one of the most prominent actors at Universal studios, Chaney didn't  feel his salary matched his worth and asked for more money. When the studio refused, Chaney simply walked away. For over a year he struggled to find steady work, taking whatever came his way. He began to pick up steam when William S. Hart cast Chaney as the villain in Riddle Gawne. Chaney received some positive critical attention and is now considered one of his early career breaks.

Big Break

Hollywood finally began to take more notice of the actor in 1919 when Chaney landed a role in the George Loane Tucker, The Miracle Man. In the picture Chaney plays The Frog, a con man that feigns being crippled to fool his gangs next mark, a faith healer. The film was an incredible success, well received by both audiences and critics. It would go to be the second highest grossing film of 1919, making over 3 millions dollars at the box. Due to the film's popularity, Chaney was launched into stardom, gaining some more freedom over the trajectory of his career. He continued to expand his skills as a make-up artist, showing his versatility by creating make-up for more conventional films as well as horror. In 1920 Chaney starred in the crime drama The Penalty as an amputated criminal. To create the effect of leglessness, Chaney created a complex and painful device in which his knees where placed in wooden buckets while his legs and feet where strapped to the back of his thighs. The film was massive success, making Chaney one of America's most prominent character actors.

Now recognizable name on the theater marquee, Chaney continued his restless pace. In 1920 he appeared in the big screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's buccaneering tale Treasure Island. In the film he played the dangerous blind beggar named Pew. The next year he starred in four films For Those We Love, Bits of Life, The Ace of Hearts, and Voices of the City. In 1922 he appeared in another literature adaptation, this time Dickens Oliver Twist, making himself nearly unrecognizable as the grotesque Fagin. That same year he also appeared in the Tom Forman drama Shadows, again, appearing unrecognizable as the Chinese immigrant, Yen Sin. In 1923 Chaney starred in one of his best-remembered films of the silent era: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the picture Chaney played Quasimodo, the grotesque and tortured bell-ringer of Notre Dame. With nothing but wax, false teeth, grease-paint and a little bit of know-how, Chaney was able to create a character that looked like he had just jumped off the pages and landed on the movie screen. The film was an incredible hit, acting now only as Universal Studios biggest hit of the year, but also their highest grossing silent film of all time. Although he had been a well-established character actor before the film's release, The Hunchback of Notre Dame helped launch Chaney into full-fledged stardom.


After the release of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Chaney acquired his most famous of titles: The Man of a Thousand Faces. Whether a pirate or a circus clown, a Mandarin or Russian, his ability to transform himself into any character with just the content of his make-up kit was nothing short of amazing.  Now one of America's biggest silent screen stars, Chaney moved from Universal Studios to the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corporation. There he starred in one of their first films under the new MGM label, He Who Gets Slapped. In the film Chaney plays a former inventor whose life fell to ruin and now works as a clown who gets slapped by other clowns. The film was huge hit and helped establish the fledgling new company. The next year Chaney starred as another grotesque outsider as The Phantom in the big screen adaption of the Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera. Because Chaney's skills as a make-up artist were so known to United States audiences, MGM used it as part of their marketing plan and kept Chaney's Phantom make-up hidden right up until the premier of the film. The results were breathtaking. To create the look, Chaney painted his eye sockets black, creating the illusion of a shadow to match the characters scull-like description. He then pulled back his nose, securing it with a wire and painted the nostrils black. His final touch was to add a pair of false teeth. Audiences were reported to have fainted when the Phantom was unmasked, revealing the haunting, skeletal-like face that perfectly matched the descriptions in the books. The film was another major hit, making over 2 million dollars at the box office.

Later Career and Life

Chaney continued to star in a series of hit at MGM. In 1925 he played scheming side-show ventriloquist in the Tod Browning hit The Unholy Three and would work with Browning the next year for the crime drama The Blackbird. In 1927 he would work with Browning in The Unknown, playing Alonza, an armless side-show attraction with a hidden secret: he has arms and is a criminal on the run. The film features a young Joan Crawford as the object of Chaney's affection. The next year Chaney would star in another circus themed drama Laugh, Clown, Laugh. The next year he starred in William Nigh film Thunder. While filming the latter picture, Chaney developed walking pneumonia and soon after was diagnosed with Lung Cancer. Although he immediately went for aggressive treatment, his condition only worsened. Despite his illness, he still worked on his next film, a full-sound re-make of his 1925 film The Unholy Three. The film marked Chaney's first and only sound film, as he would die just weeks after its release. Lon Chaney died on August 26th, 1930 of a throat hemorrhage. He was 47 years old. 

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures. In addition, Chaney was immortalized on a US postal stamp in 1994. Chaney was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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Lon Chaney Quotes:

Lucille Balfour: I'm terribly frightened, Sir James! A voice keeps calling to me from the garden!
Lucille Balfour: It sounded exactly like my father calling... 'Lucy, Lucy'!
Professor Edward C. Burke: Now, don't worry, Miss Lucille. If it really is anything... we'll take care of it.

Blizzard: Don't grieve, dear - death interests me.

Tito Beppi: [Last Lines] The comedy... is... ended!
[Flik/Tito dies onstage in Simon's arms]
Young girl: [watching from offstage] That's Flik on the floor.
Young boy: [watching from offstage] He's playing that he's dead.

read more quotes from Lon Chaney...

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