01 Apr 1883 1
Colorado Springs, CO 1
26 Aug 1930 1
Los Angeles, CA 1

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Personal Details

Full Name:
Leonidas Frank Chaney 1
Also known as:
Lon Chaney Sr 1
01 Apr 1883 1
Colorado Springs, CO 1
Male 1
26 Aug 1930 1
Los Angeles, CA 1
Cause: Lung Cancer 1
Burial Place: Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale CA 1
Mother: Emma Alice Kennedy 1
Father: Frank H. Chaney 1
Actor 1
Race or Ethnicity:
French, Scottish, English, and Irish 1

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Dubbed 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' and the first great master of horror before it became a formalized genre in the 1930s. The child of deaf-mute parents, Chaney learned the expressive use of pantomime to communicate, and developed a remarkable sensitivity to the pain of the outsider which added humanity and pathos to the gallery of grotesque and deformed characters which he created. After a brief career in theater as a comic, dancer and stage hand, he went to Hollywood in 1912 and appeared in numerous shorts and features (some by Allan Dwan) as Western villains and "exotics" (often as more than one character in a film) before starring in his first of many collaborations with horror master, Tod Browning, "The Wicked Darling" and winning recognition in his first major role, as a bogus cripple in "The Miracle Man" (both 1919). Renowned for his artistry with makeup and the great, almost masochistic, lengths he would go to create the grotesque bodies that hid the tortured, often sensitive and injured souls of his characters, Chaney bound his legs behind him and walked on his knees in "The Penalty" (1920), strapped his arms tightly to his body to play the part of an armless knife thrower in "The Unknown" (1927), and wore enormous painful teeth to create a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927; in which he also played a detective). In "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) he wore a 40lb-hunch in a 30lb harness strapped to his back, covered his eyeball with an eggshell membrane to look sightless, and contorted his body in a straightjacket. (When he appeared in "Tell It To the Marines" in 1926 without any makeup, one critic wrote that he didn't look quite natural.) More than merely a master of disguise and horror, Chaney's genius was in communicating the man behind the monster: the hunger for acceptance, the unrequited love and sexual frustration, and the pain caused by society's cruelty that fuels his monsters' desire for revenge, which is most eloquently conveyed in his definitive "Phantom of the Opera" (1925). His son, Creighton, a novice in films when his father died, changed his name to Lon Chaney Jr and worked mainly in B horror films, but it was James Cagney who played Chaney Sr in his film biography, "The Man of 1,000 Faces" (1957).

Lon Chaney, Sr

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.[2] 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.[4][5]

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 NagelMarceline DayHenry 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.[6][7] 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 OperaHe Who Gets SlappedThe 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.[8] 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.

Woodland Daily Democrat (Woodland, California) 26 Aug 1930, Tue • Page 1

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) 26 Aug 1930, Tue • Page 3

Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California) 26 Aug 1930, Tue • Page 3

Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces

When we think of the silent film era, we think of actors like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Clara Bow, stars who created trademark personas and spent their entire careers testing the limits of those characters. They perfected what they had created, but rarely attempted other roles. For many in the industry, both then and now, this type of career is considered the pinnacle of success, but for one actor it was the antithesis of the his art. For Lon Chaney, the art of acting was the art of continual transformation, and it came from a desire to become someone else, to leave his own skin and enter another’s.

Born on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Leonidas Chaney was one of four children born to deaf parents (his maternal grandparents founded Colorado’s first deaf school in 1874). As a result, Chaney learned how to communicate with his hands and face while growing up, expressing a variety of emotions without ever uttering a single word. At an early age, he was familiar with what it was like to be an outsider, to be at once a part of the everyday world and simultaneously distanced from it. This, more than anything, informed his choice of roles and provided him with the sensitivity to perform each of them extraordinarily well.

In his early teens, Chaney was introduced to the theater and worked as a prop boy at the local Opera House. In 1902, at age nineteen, he made his theatrical debut in an amateur play, and soon after joined a traveling musical comedy troupe. During this period, Chaney’s ability as a graceful dancer and developing comic actor began to take shape. In 1905, while playing in Oklahoma City, he met a young singer named Cleva Creighton. The two traveled and performed together, and were soon married. The following year Cleva gave birth to Creighton Chaney (or, Lon Chaney, Jr.). The couple’s early married years were rocky, and in 1913 Cleva attempted suicide by drinking poison in the wings of the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles, California, where her husband was performing. Though she lived, her vocal cords were permanently damaged and her singing career was finished. Soon after, Chaney filed for divorce and won custody of his son. The stigma of such a public tragedy forced Chaney to leave the theater, and he entered the growing industry of motion pictures.

It is unknown how many films Chaney made during his career (the official count stands at 157), given that he appeared as an extra in numerous films at Universal Studios. He was so adept at changing his appearance with makeup — a trade he learned during his many years on the stage — that Chaney forsook the leading-man roles and went for character roles instead. During his five years at Universal, Chaney essayed numerous types of characters, a trait that would later make him famous, and occasionally wrote and directed as well. In 1919, he made his mark in “The Miracle Man,” in which he played a bogus cripple who, along with other criminals, takes advantage of a blind faith healer only to be swayed by the goodness of the patriarch. After this performance, Hollywood began to notice Chaney. One of his other impressive roles during this period was as the legless criminal in “The Penalty” (1920). To simulate a double-amputee, Chaney devised a leather harness with stumps that allowed him to strap his legs behind him and walk on his knees.

Two of Chaney’s best-remembered films are also considered classics of the silent era: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “Phantom of the Opera” (1925). In both films, Chaney dominates the subject matter and etches a distinctive personality. He was capable of not only repelling audiences with his character’s visage but generating a tremendous amount of empathy with them as well. In both films, Chaney completely distorted his own face by using wax, false teeth and greasepaint. To become the hunchback Quasimodo, he faithfully copied Victor Hugo’s description. When Chaney was finished with the makeup, it was as if the hunchback of Hugo’s book had walked directly off the pages. The same was true for the Phantom. Chaney carefully recreated the details of the Phantom’s face (described as a living skull) onto his own by using several tricks of the makeup trade. He once said that “the success of the makeup relied more on the placements of highlights and shadows, some not in the most obvious areas of the face.”

By 1923, Chaney was known a “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his ability to transform himself into any type of character. His roles ranged from pirate, to Chinese shipwreck survivor, to tough Marines sergeant, to Russian peasant during the Russian revolution, to Mandarin, to circus clown, to crusty railroad engineer, to Fagin in “Oliver Twist” (1922). His gift for playing a vast array of characters even made him the subject of a popular joke at the time: “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!”

Chaney’s collaboration with director Tod Browning was a successful one for both artists. Working together at Universal Studios in 1919, the duo hit their stride while both were under contract to MGM Studios. Browning, a former sideshow performer and vaudevillian, crafted stories that were a combination of the macabre and tragic romance. With Chaney, Browning often came up with an idea of a character and then used that character to fashion a story, as he did for what is considered to be one of the best films the two artists ever made, “The Unknown” (1927). Chaney plays Alonzo, an armless knife thrower, who hides out from the police in a local circus. Actor Burt Lancaster once commented on Chaney’s performance that in one particular scene, Chaney gave “one of the most compelling and emotionally exhausting scenes I have ever seen an actor do.”

Chaney was very press-shy, making a rare attendance at a movie premiere, granting few interviews, and often claiming that “between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney.” Mostly, this was done as a publicity ploy on Chaney’s part to keep the public guessing and coming back for more in his next film. Away from the camera, Chaney was an avid fly-fisherman, enjoyed camping with his second wife, and entertained a small circle of friends in his Beverly Hills home. He was often described as looking more like a modest businessman than a major movie star. He was extremely helpful to struggling actors (he once gave a then-unknown Boris Karloff some helpful advice), as well as being a champion of the crew members on the studio lot. Once, he was seen placing some baby birds back into the nest out of which they had fallen, and begged a witness not to tell anyone: “I will never hear the end of it. Everyone thinks I am so hard-boiled!”

When he died at the age of 47, Chaney had acted in more than 150 films and was arguably the most beloved film star of the late 1920s. He was not only a great actor, but he had become an authority on the art of make-up, helping everyone from Will Rogers to Jack Dempsey. He even wrote the ‘make-up’ entry for the 1929 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (He was also a recognized authority on penology and authored many articles on the topic.) Unlike so many of his peers, Chaney entered the world of sound films with the same grace and proficiency he had shown throughout his career. Seven weeks after completing what would be his only talking picture, Chaney died. All throughout Hollywood, studios observed a moment of silence in his honor. Fellow actor Wallace Beery, who said that Chaney “was the one man I knew who could walk with kings and not lose the common touch,” flew his plane over the funeral and dropped wreaths of flowers. Despite his untimely death, Chaney left an unmistakable mark on Hollywood cinema and gave us a glimpse into the souls of outsiders who were different from the rest.

Special thanks to Michael F. Blake for sharing his expert knowledge of Lon Chaney with American Masters Online.

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