skip navigation
Lon Chaney Profile
Remind Me

Lon Chaney - 8/15

Today, Lon Chaney is often classified as a "horror" actor, or someone who could do practically anything with make-up. But in truth, Chaney was Hollywood's first character star. While he may be best remembered for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) or The Phantom of the Opera (1925), his other performances, many of which did not involve elaborate make-ups, are equally remarkable and important.

Chaney was born to deaf parents in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on April 1, 1883. His maternal grandparents founded Colorado's first deaf school in 1874. Chaney was forced to withdraw from school in the fourth grade to care for his invalid mother and younger siblings. This experience contributed to the talents that would later knight him as one of the screen's greatest pantomimists. He began mimicking to cheer his mother, friends and neighbors. At age 14, Chaney found a job at the local Opera House as a 25 cents-a-night prop boy.

At 19, Chaney made his acting debut in a musical comedy called The Little Tycoon. The local newspaper noted, "As a comedian, he (Chaney) is irresistible, and it would be hard to find his equal in dancing among many first class vaudeville performers." For the next 12 years, Chaney toured with many musical comedy troupes throughout the Midwest and West Coast. While performing in Oklahoma City in 1905, he met Cleva Creighton, a stage-struck girl of 16 with a beautiful singing voice, and they quickly fell in love. The following year Chaney's only son, Creighton (better known as Lon Chaney, Jr.), was born.

From 1910 to 1913, the Chaneys performed with several musical comedy troupes in California, with Chaney not only performing but also serving as stage manager, choreographer and wardrobe supervisor. By 1912, Cleva had become popular as a cabaret singer, but her rise in popularity and a growing dependence on alcohol caused numerous problems, culminating with a suicide attempt in the wings of a Los Angeles theatre while Chaney performed onstage. Chaney filed for divorce and was given custody of his young son. In 1915, he married Hazel Hastings, a former chorus girl.

With a son to support and his chances of employment in the theatrical world at an end, Chaney turned to the growing motion picture industry. Starting out at Universal Studios as an extra, he gradually worked his way up to bit and supporting parts. While he played an occasional leading man, Chaney found his niche in character roles, often turning to his make-up case for help.

Chaney scored his first big success as the fake cripple in the critically acclaimed The Miracle Man (1919). He created another strong performance as the double-amputee crime boss in Goldwyn's The Penalty (1920). Chaney did not use special effects to appear legless, but devised a leather harness that allowed him to strap his legs behind him and actually walk on his knees.

For the next three years, Chaney's reputation as Hollywood's leading character actor grew, earning him the soubriquet The Man of a Thousand Faces, because of his uncanny talent with make-up. A popular joke of the time was, "Don't step on that spider, it might be Lon Chaney!"

But it was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) that brought Chaney to worldwide stardom. His portrayal of Quasimodo stunned critics and the public alike; he was no longer a character actor, but Hollywood's character star. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was another triumph for Chaney. The film was one of 1925's biggest hits at the box office. Chaney then signed a long-term contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he reigned as one of the studio's top stars for the next five years. Chaney played a variety of roles as his popularity soared. In his most popular film at MGM, Tell It To the Marines (1927) - (earning more than $1.6 million worldwide, when the average ticket price was approximately 50 cents for adults), he wore no make-up whatsoever, playing a tough Marine sergeant.

In 1930, Chaney was one of the last silent film stars to make a talking picture debut in a remake of his silent success, The Unholy Three. When the film premiered in July of that year, Chaney's success in talking pictures was assured unlike many other silent screen stars, and the studio had plans for several new projects.

Away from the camera, Chaney indulged in his hobbies of fly fishing, making home movies, camping in the Sierras, attending prizefights, cooking and reading. Even though Chaney never completed a formal education, he was asked to author Encyclopedia Britannica chapter on movie make-up for its 14th edition (1929). He was also an authority on penology and wrote extensively on the subject.

On August 26, 1930, just seven weeks after the release of his only talking picture, Chaney died in a Los Angeles hospital of lung cancer. At the time of his funeral, the studios observed a moment of silence for the star, and many movie theaters held their own memorial services. At a moving tribute in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where Chaney's The Unholy Three was being shown, the entire audience rose and stood in a moment of silence as the opening credits flashed on the screen. Each subsequent screening found the same tribute repeated.

Here is a Filmography of Lon Chaney's existing films:

Bondage (1917)
Anything Once (1917)
The Scarlet Car (1917)
Broadway Love (1917)
The Grand Passion (1917)
The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin (1918)
Fast Company (1918)
A Broadway Scandal (1918)
Riddle Gawne (1918)
That Devil, Bateese (1918)
The Talk of the Town (1918)
Danger - Go Slow (1918)
The Wicked Darling (1919)
The False Faces (1919)
A Man's Country (1919)
Paid in Advance (1919)
The Miracle Man (1919)
When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)
Victory (1919)
Daredevil Jack (1920)
Treasure Island (1920)
The Gift Supreme (1920)
Nomads of the North (1920)
The Penalty (1920)
Outside the Law (1921)
For Those We Love (1921)
Bits of Life (1921)
Ace of Hearts (1921)
The Trap (1922)
Voices of the City (1922)
Flesh and Blood (1922)
The Light in the Dark (1922)
Shadows (1922)
Oliver Twist (1922)
Quincy Adams Sawyer (1922)
A Blind Bargain (1922)
All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923)
While Paris Sleeps (1923)
The Shock (1923)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
The Next Corner (1924)
He Who Gets Slapped (1924)
The Monster (1925)
The Unholy Three (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Tower of Lies (1925)
The Blackbird (1926)
The Road To Mandalay (1926)
Tell It To the Marines (1927)
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)
West of Zanzibar (1928)
Where East Is East (1929)
Thunder (1929)
The Unholy Three (1930)

*Chaney also appeared in more than 20 short films - Films in Bold will Air on TCM in August