Leonidas Frank Chaney was born 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 Scottish, English, and Irish descent. Her father, Jonathan Ralston Kennedy, founded the "Colorado School for the Education of Mutes" (now, Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind) in 1874, and Chaney's parents met there. 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 only child , Creighton Chaney (later known as 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 Dillshow, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride. 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 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 1917 Universal presented Chaney, Dorothy Phillips, and William Stowell as a team in The Piper's Price. In succeeding films, the men alternated playing lover, villain, or other man to the beautiful Phillips. They would occasionally be joined by Claire DuBrey nearly making the trio a quartet of recurring actors from film to film. So successful were the films starring this group that Universal produced fourteen films from 1917 to 1919 with Chaney, Stowell, and Phillips. The films were usually directed by Joe De Grasse or his wife Ida May Park, both friends of Chaney's at Universal. When Chaney was away branching out on films such as Riddle Gawne and The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin, Stowell and Phillips would continue on as a duo until Chaney's return. Stowell and Phillips made The Heart of Humanity (1918), bringing in Erich von Stroheim for a part as the villain that could easily have been played by Chaney. Paid in Advance (1919) was the group's last film together, for the chiseled featured Stowell was sent to Africa by Universal to scout locations for a movie. En route from one city to another, Stowell was in the caboose when it was hit by the locomotive from another train; he was killed instantly. The majority of these films are lost but a few, including Triumph and Paid in Advance survive in private collections or unrestored in European or Russian archives.
In 1919, Chaney had a breakthrough performance as "The Frog" in George Loane Tucker's The Miracle Man. The film displayed not only Chaney's acting ability, but also 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.
He exhibited great 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 also 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 utilized 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 these 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 an autobiographical article published in 1925 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."
In his 1925 Movie magazine article, Chaney referred to his expertise in both make-up and contorting his body to portray his subjects as "extraordinary characterization." 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.
As "Mr. Wu
," conducting an orchestra of women.
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 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purposefully fostering a mysterious image, and he reportedly intentionally 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 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 on August 26, 1930. His death was deeply mourned by his family, the film industry, and 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 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.
The Phantom of the Opera
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 byBela 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".
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 most important 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 The New Scooby Doo Movies entitled "The Exterminator" 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).
Chaney is the subject of a documentary feature called Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000), produced by silent film expert Kevin Brownlow and narrated byKenneth Branagh.