Lon Chaney, Jr. (February 10, 1906 – July 12, 1973), born Creighton Tull Chaney, was an American character actor. He was best known for his roles in monster movies and as the son of legendary silent film actor, Lon Chaney. He is notable for portraying Lennie Small in ‘Of Mice and Men’ and Larry Talbot The Wolf Man’.
Creighton was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the son of silent film star Lon Chaney and Frances Cleveland Creighton Chaney, a singing stage performer who traveled in road shows across the country with Creighton. His parents’ troubled marriage ended in divorce in 1913 following his mother’s scandalous public suicide attempt in Los Angeles. Young Creighton lived in various homes and boarding schools until 1916, when his father (now employed in films) married Hazel Hastings and could provide a stable home. Many articles and biographies over the years report that Creighton was led to believe his mother had died while he was a boy, and was only made aware she lived after his father’s death in 1930. Lon always maintained he had a tough childhood.
From an early age, he worked hard to get out of his famous father’s shadow. In young adulthood, his father discouraged him from show business, and he attended business college and became successful in a Los Angeles appliance corporation.
It was only after his father’s death that Chaney started acting in movies, beginning with an uncredited role in the 1932 film ‘Girl Crazy’. He appeared in films under his real name until 1935, when he began to be billed as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” From 1942 onward, he was billed simply as “Lon Chaney,” although the “Jr.” was often added by others when they referred to him. Chaney first achieved stardom and critical acclaim in the 1939 feature film version of Of Mice and Men, in which he played Lennie Small. Chaney was asked to test for the role of Quasimodo for the 1939 remake of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, however, the role went to Charles Laughton.
With his third-billed character role in ‘One Million B.C.’ as Victor Mature’s caveman father, Chaney began to be viewed as a character actor in the mold of his father. He had in fact designed a swarthy, ape-like Neanderthal make-up on himself for the film, but production decisions and union rules prevented him from following through on emulating his father in that fashion. Put under contract by Universal Pictures Co. Inc., Chaney was cast in ‘Man Made Monster’, a science-fiction horror thriller originally written with Karloff in mind. This lead to Chaney’s signature role in ‘The Wolf Man’, a role which would typecast him for the rest of his life.
He maintained a career at Universal horror movies over the next few years, replaying the Wolf Man in ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’, ‘House of Frankenstein’, ‘House of Dracula’, ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’, Frankenstein’s monster in ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’, Kharis the mummy in ‘The Mummy’s Tomb’, ‘The Mummy’s Ghost’ and ‘The Mummy’s Curse’. He also played the title character in ‘Son of Dracula’. Chaney is thus the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s major monsters: the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and the vampire son of Count Dracula. Universal also starred him in a series of psychological mysteries associated with the ‘Inner Sanctum’ radio series. He also played western heroes, such as in the serial ‘Overland Mail’, but the imposing 6-foot 2-inch, 220-pound actor more often appeared as heavies. After leaving Universal, where he made 30 films, he worked primarily in character roles in notable films like ‘High Noon’, and in more prominent roles in lower-budget films and television shows.
One of his most talked-about roles was a live television version of ‘Frankenstein’ on the anthology series ‘Tales of Tomorrow’, for which he allegedly showed up drunk. During the live broadcast, Chaney, playing the Monster, apparently thought it was just a rehearsal and he would pick up furniture that he was supposed to break, only to gingerly put it back down while muttering, “I saved it for you.”
He became quite popular with baby boomers after Universal released its back catalog of horror films to television in 1957 and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine regularly focused on his films.
In the 1960s, Chaney’s career ran the gamut from horror productions such as Roger Corman’s ‘The Haunted Palace’ and b-movie fodder such as ‘Hillbilly’s in a Haunted House’ and ‘Dr. Terror’s Gallery of Horror’s’ (both 1967). His bread-and-butter work during this decade was television — where he made guest appearances on everything from ‘Wagon Train’ to ‘The Monkees’ — and in a string of supporting roles in low-budget Westerns for Paramount. In 1962 Chaney got a brief chance to play Quasimodo in a simulalcrum of his father’s make-up, as well as return to his roles of the Mummy and the Wolf Man on the television series ‘Route 66’ with friends Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Also during this era, he starred in Jack Hill’s ‘Spider Baby’ (filmed 1964, released 1968), for which he also sang the title song.
In later years he battled throat cancer and chronic heart disease among other aliments after decades of heavy drinking and smoking. In his final horror film, ‘Dracula vs. Frankenstein’ (1971), directed by Al Adamson, he played Groton, Dr. Frankenstein’s mute henchman.
Chaney died of heart failure at age 67 on July 12, 1973 in San Clemente, California. His body was donated for medical research.
During the forties, the most successful of the new series of Universal Horror movies was ‘The Wolf Man’ (1941), which also established Lon Chaney, Jr., as the new leading horror actor for the studio, following in his father’s foot steps.
In 1943, the studio created a remake of ‘Phantom of the Opera’, this time starring Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster in a film that was as much musical as horror. Claude Rains played the Phantom.
The Frankenstein and Wolf Man series continued with ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ (1942) and ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’ (1943) while ‘Son of Dracula’ (1943) featured Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Count. The Mummy, too, continued to rise from the grave in ‘The Mummy’s Hand’ (1940) and ‘The Mummy’s Tomb’ (1942). Eventually, all of Universal’s monsters, except the Mummy and Invisible Man, would be brought together in ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944) and ‘House of Dracula’ (1945), where Dracula was played by John Carradine. As the decade drew to a close the comedy ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948) proved an instant hit for the studio, with Bela Lugosi starring alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster.
The original movies such as Dracula and Frankenstein were re-released as double features in many theatres, before eventually premiering on syndicated American television in 1957 (as part of the famous Shock Theater package of Universal Monster Movies).
Soon dedicated magazines such as Famous Monsters in Filmland would help propel these movies into lasting infamy.