Lon Chaney (April 1, 1883 – August 26, 1930) was an American actor during the age of silent film. He is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, widely renowned for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup. Chaney is known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. His ability to transform himself using makeup techniques he developed earned him the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Lon Chaney was born Leonidas Frank Chaney in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, and as a child of deaf adults Chaney became skilled in pantomine. 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 and in 1906, their first child and only son, Creighton Chaney (a.k.a. Lon Chaney, Jr.) was born. The Chaneys continued touring, settling in California in 1910.
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.
By 1917 Chaney was a prominent actor in the studio, but his salary did not reflect this status. 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. So successful were the films starring this group that Universal produced fourteen films from 1917 to 1919.
In 1919, Chaney had a breakthrough performance as “The Frog” in 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 make-up 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 starred in the Tod Browning horror film, London After Midnight, considered one of the most legendary lost films of the era. 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.
Chaney’s most celebrated roles were that of 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 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.”
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 favourite films, earned him the affection of the US 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. 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. His death was deeply mourned by his family, the film industry and by his fans. The US Marine Corps provided a chaplain and Honour Guard for his funeral. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California.