Lon Chaney

Active - 1913 - 2013  |   Born - Apr 1, 1883   |   Died - Aug 26, 1930   |   Genres - Drama, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Even after 65 years, the phrase "Man of a Thousand Faces" brings to mind only one name: Lon Chaney Sr. The son of deaf-mute parents, he learned at an early age to rely on pantomime as a communication skill. The stagestruck Chaney worked in a variety of backstage positions at the opera house in his hometown of Colorado Springs; he was eventually allowed to appear on stage, and, before his 17th birthday, was on tour with a play he'd co-written with his brother. Sensitive about his youth and plain features, Chaney hid behind elaborate makeup when appearing on-stage. Forced into single parenthood after divorcing his first wife Cleva Creighton (the mother of his son Creighton, Lon Chaney Jr.), Chaney had to find a more steady source of income than the theater. He began picking up extra work at Universal Studios in 1912, making himself valuable -- and ultimately indispensable -- with his expertise with character makeup. He rose from featured player to star at Universal between 1913 and 1920, sometimes doubling as director and scriptwriter. Chaney's breakthrough film was 1919's The Miracle Man, in which he played a phony cripple. It was the first of many films in which he underwent severe physical discomfort to achieve a convincing screen effect; in The Penalty (1920), for example, he not only bound his legs to play a double amputee, but also contrived to jump from great heights and land on his knees. As Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney wore a rubber hump weighing as much as 70 pounds, and the film made him a bona fide star.

After Universal's Phantom of the Opera (1925), the actor moved to MGM, where he starred in several highly successful Grand Guignol horror films directed by Tod Browning. Some of Chaney's best work during this period was actually done without makeup, in such bread-and-butter vehicles as Tell It to the Marines (1926) and The Big City (1928). Offscreen, he was a loner, preferring to live far from Hollywood with his son and second wife. When sound pictures took hold in 1929, Chaney initially refused to participate, concerned that he'd have to come up with a different voice for each performance; he finally acquiesced with 1930s The Unholy Three (a remake of his 1925 silent film success), in which he not only utilized four different vocal characterizations but also proved to be a superior performer in his natural voice.), but a growth in his throat developed into bronchial cancer. He died in 1930 at the age of 47; in his last days, his illness rendered him unable to speak, forcing him to rely on the pantomimic gestures of his youth in order to communicate with his friends and loved ones.

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