Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney
Chaney during the production of The Miracle Man, 1919
Born Leonidas Frank Chaney
(1883-04-01)April 1, 1883
Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
Died August 26, 1930(1930-08-26) (aged 47)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Lung cancer
Resting place Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Occupation Actor, director, screenwriter
Years active 1902–1930
Spouse(s) Cleva Creighton (m. 1905; div. 1913)
Hazel Hastings (m. 1915–30) (his death)
Children Creighton Tull Chaney (later known as Lon Chaney, Jr.)
Website .comlonchaney

Leonidas Frank "Lon" Chaney (April 1, 1883 – August 26, 1930) was an American stage and film actor, director and screenwriter. He is regarded as one of the most versatile and powerful actors of early cinema, renowned for his characterizations of tortured, often grotesque and afflicted characters, and his groundbreaking artistry with makeup.[1] Chaney is known for his starring roles in such silent horror films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His ability to transform himself using makeup techniques he developed earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces."


  • Early life 1
  • Career 2
  • Death 3
  • Legacy 4
  • Honors 5
  • Filmography 6
    • Short subjects 6.1
    • Feature films 6.2
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Frank H. Chaney and Emma Alice Kennedy; his father was of English and French ancestry, and his mother was of Scottish, English, and Irish descent. Chaney's maternal grandfather, 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, Chaney, then 22, met and married 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton (Frances Cleveland Creighton) and in 1906, their only child, a son, Creighton Tull Chaney (later known as Lon Chaney, Jr.) was born. The Chaneys continued touring, settling in California in 1910.

The Penalty (1920)

Marital troubles developed and on April 30, 1913, Cleva went to the Majestic Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where Lon was managing the Kolb and Dill show, and attempted suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride.[3] The suicide attempt failed but it ruined her singing career as a result; 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 from Cleva in 1913.[4]


As a Chinese immigrant in Shadows (1922)

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.[5][6]

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 makeup in more conventional crime and adventure films, such as The Penalty (1920), in which he played an amputee gangster. Chaney appeared in ten 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 and sought after lost films.[7] His final film 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. Chaney 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.[8]

As 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.[9][10] 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.

In a 1925 autobiographical article for Movie magazine, Chaney wrote, "I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. 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." 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.

Ray Bradbury once said of Chaney, "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. 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."

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.[11]

In the final five years of his film career (1925–1930), Chaney worked exclusively under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 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 The Unknown, Joan Crawford stated that she learned more about acting from watching Chaney work than from anyone else in her career. "It was then," she said, "I became aware for the first time of the difference between standing in front of a camera, and acting."[12]

Conducting a women's orchestra as "Mr. Wu" (1927)


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.[13] 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 Tuesday, August 26, 1930 in Los Angeles, California.[1] His funeral was held on August 28 in Glendale, California. Honorary pallbearers included Paul Bern, Hunt Stromberg, Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Tod Browning, Lew Cody, and Ramon Novarro. The U.S. Marine Corps provided a chaplain and Honor Guard for his funeral. While his funeral was being conducted, all film studios and every office at MGM observed two minutes of silence in his honor.[11][14]

The unmarked crypt of Lon Chaney, in the Great Mausoleum, Forest Lawn Glendale.

Chaney was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California, next to the crypt of his father.[14] His wife Hazel was interred there upon her death in 1933. For unknown reasons, Chaney's crypt has remained unmarked.[15]


In 1957, Chaney was the subject of a biopic titled Man of a Thousand Faces, and was portrayed by James Cagney.[16] The film is a largely fictionalized account as Chaney was notoriously private and hated the Hollywood lifestyle. He never revealed personal details about himself or his family, once stating "Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney."[11]

Chaney's son Creighton, who later changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr., became a film actor after his father's death.[17] Chaney, Jr. is best remembered for roles in horror films, most notably as the title character in The Wolf Man (1941).[18] In October 1997, both Chaneys appeared on commemorative US postage stamps as the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, with the set completed by Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy.[19] Chaney and his son are mentioned in the Warren Zevon song "Werewolves of London".

Chaney is also the subject of the 2000 documentary feature, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces. The film was produced by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow and narrated by Kenneth Branagh.[20]


Lon Chaney High Sierra House

Lon Chaney has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located on Hollywood Boulevard.[21] In 1994, Al Hirschfeld's caricature of Chaney was featured on a commemorative United States postage stamp.[22]

In 1929, Chaney built a 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. Following his death, Chaney's famous makeup case was donated to the Los Angeles County Museum by his widow Hazel. The case is occasionally displayed for the public. The stage theater at the Colorado Springs Civic Auditorium is also named after the actor.


Short subjects

1923 Lon Chaney portrait
Year Title Role Notes
1912 The Honor of the Family Unconfirmed/disputed
Lost film
1913 The Ways of Fate Unconfirmed/disputed
Lost film
1913 Suspense Unconfirmed/disputed
1913 Poor Jake's Demise The Dude
1913 The Sea Urchin Barnacle Bill Lost film
1913 The Blood Red Tape of Charity Marx, a Gentleman Thief Lost film
1913 Shon the Piper Clansman Unconfirmed/disputed
Lost film
1913 The Trap Lon Lost film
1913 The Restless Spirit The Russian Count Uncredited
Lost film
1913 Almost an Actress Cameraman Lost film
1913 An Elephant on His Hands Eddie's Uncle Lost film
1913 Back to Life The Rival Lost film
1913 Red Margaret, Moonshiner Lon Alternative title: Moonshine Blood
Lost film
1913 Bloodhounds of the North Mountie Lieutenant Lost film
1914 The Lie Young MacGregor Lost film
1914 The Honor of the Mounted Jacques Laquox Lost film
1914 Remember Mary Magdalen The Half-Wit Lost film
1914 Discord and Harmony Lon - the Sculptor Lost film
1914 The Menace to Carlotta Giovanni Bartholdi Writer
Alternative title: Carlotta, the Bead Stringer
Lost film
1914 The Embezzler J. Roger Dixon Lost film
1914 The Lamb, the Woman, the Wolf The Wolf Lost film
1914 The End of the Feud Wood Dawson Lost film
1914 The Forbidden Room John Morris Lost film
1914 The Tragedy of Whispering Creek The Greaser Writer
Alternative title: The Mystery of Whispering Creek
1914 The Unlawful Trade The Cross Blood Lost film
1914 Heart Strings Unconfirmed
Alternative title: Heartstrings
1914 The Old Cobbler Wild Bill Lost film
1914 The Hopes of Blind Alley The Vendor Lost film
1914 A Ranch Romance Raphael Praz Lost film
1914 Her Grave Mistake Nunez Lost film
1914 By the Sun's Rays Frank Lawler - the Clerk
1914 The Trey o' Hearts One of Judith's Henchmen Uncredited
Lost film
1914 The Oubliette Chevalier Bertrand de la Payne Alternative title: The Adventures of François Villon #1: The Oubliette
1914 A Miner's Romance John Burns Lost film
1914 Her Bounty Fred Howard Lost film
1914 The Higher Law Sir Stephen Fitz Allen Alternative title: The Adventures of François Villon #2: The Higher Law
Lost film
1914 Richelieu Baradas Lost film
1914 The Pipes o' Pan Arthur Darrell Lost film
1914 Virtue Is Its Own Reward Duncan Bronson Lost film
1914 Her Life's Story Don Valesquez Lost film
1914 Lights and Shadows Bentley Lost film
1914 The Lion, the Lamb, the Man Fred Brown - the Lion Alternative title: Woman Finds Love in Untarnished Manhood
Lost film
1914 A Night of Thrills The Visitor Lost film
1914 Her Escape Pete Walsh - Pauline's Brother Writer
Lost film
1915 The Sin of Olga Brandt Stephen Leslie Lost film
1915 The Star of the Sea Tomasco Lost film
1915 A Small Town Girl The Procurer Lost film
1915 The Measure of a Man Lt. Jim Stuart
1915 The Threads of Fate The Count Lost film
1915 When the Gods Played a Badger Game Joe - the Property Man Lost film
1915 Such Is Life Tod Wilkes Lost film
1915 Where the Forest Ends Paul Rouchelle Lost film
1915 Outside the Gates Perez Lost film
1915 All for Peggy Seth Baldwin Lost film
1915 The Desert Breed Fred Lost film
1915 Maid of the Mist Lin - Pauline's Father Lost film
1915 The Grind Jerry Lost film
1915 The Girl of the Night Alternative titles: What's in a Theory, Her Chance
Lost film
1915 The Stool Pigeon Director
Lost film
1915 For Cash
Lost film
1915 An Idyll of the Hills Lafe Jameson Lost film
1915 The Stronger Mind The Crook's Pal Lost film
1915 The Oyster Dredger Writer, director
Lost film
1915 Steady Company Jimmy Ford Lost film
1915 The Violin Maker Pedro - the Violin Maker Director
Lost film
1915 The Trust Jim Mason Director
Alternative title: The Truce
Lost film
1915 Bound on the Wheel Tom Coulahan Lost film
1915 Mountain Justice Jeffrey Kirke Lost film
1915 Quits Frenchy Lost film[23]
1915 The Chimney's Secret Charles Harding Writer, director
Lost film
1915 The Pine's Revenge Black Scotty Lost film
1915 The Fascination of the Fleur de Lis Duke of Safoulrug
1915 Alas and Alack The Fisherman and Hunchback Fate
1915 A Mother's Atonement Ben Morrison
1915 Lon of Lone Mountain Lon Moore Lost film
1915 The Millionaire Paupers Martin - the Landlord
1915 Under a Shadow DeSerris Lost film
1915 Father and the Boys Tuck Bartholomew Lost film
1915 Stronger Than Death Attorney Lost film
1916 Dolly's Scoop Dan Fisher
1916 The Grip of Jealousy Silas Lacey
1916 Felix on the Job Tod
1916 Accusing Evidence
1917 The Mask of Love Marino

Feature films

Year Title Role Notes
1914 Damon and Pythias Unconfirmed
1916 The Grip of Jealousy Silas Lacey
1916 Tangled Hearts John Hammond
1916 The Gilded Spider Giovanni Alternative title: The Full Cup
1916 Bobbie of the Ballet Hook Hoover
1916 The Grasp of Greed Jimmie
1916 The Mark of Cain Dick Temple
1916 If My Country Should Call Dr. George Ardrath
1916 The Place Beyond the Winds Jerry Jo
1916 The Price of Silence Edmond Stafford
1917 The Piper's Price Billy Kilmartin
1917 The Girl in the Checkered Coat Hector Maitland
1917 The Flashlight Henry Norton/Porter Brixton Alternative title: The Flashlight Girl
1917 A Doll's House Nils Krogstad
1917 Fires of Rebellion Russell Hanlon
1917 The Rescue Thomas Holland
1917 Pay Me! Joe Lawson
1917 Triumph Paul Neihoff
1917 The Empty Gun Frank
1917 Bondage Seducer Uncredited
1917 Anything Once Waught Moore Alternative titles: The Maverick, Any Way Once
1917 The Scarlet Car Paul Revere Forbes
1918 The Grand Passion Paul Argos
1918 Broadway Love Elmer Watkins
1918 The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin Bethmann-Hollweg Lost film
1918 Fast Company Dan McCarty
1918 A Broadway Scandal "Kink" Colby Lost film
1918 Riddle Gawne Hame Bozzam
1918 That Devil, Bateese Louis Courteau Lost film
1918 The Talk of the Town Jack Langhorne
1918 Danger, Go Slow Bud
1919 The False Faces Karl Eckstrom
1919 The Wicked Darling Stoop Connors
1919 A Man's Country "Three Card" Duncan
1919 The Miracle Man The Frog
1919 Paid in Advance Bateese Le Blanc
1919 When Bearcat Went Dry Kindard Powers
1919 Victory Ricardo
1920 Daredevil Jack Royce Rivers
1920 Treasure Island Blind Pew/Merry Lost film
1920 The Gift Supreme Merney Stagg
1920 The Penalty Blizzard
1920 Nomads of the North Raoul Challoner
1920 Outside the Law Black Mike Sylva/Ah Wing
1921 For Those We Love Trix Ulner Lost film
1921 Bits of Life Chin Chow Lost film
1921 The Ace of Hearts Farallone
1922 Voices of the City O'Rourke Lost film
1922 The Trap Gaspard the Good Writer
1922 Flesh and Blood David Webster
1922 The Light in the Dark Tony Pantelli
1922 Oliver Twist Fagin
1922 Shadows Yen Sin, the Heathen
1922 Quincy Adams Sawyer Obadiah Strout Lost film
1922 A Blind Bargain Dr. Arthur Lamb/The Ape Man Alternative title: The Octave of Claudius
Lost film
1923 All the Brothers Were Valiant Mark Shore Lost film
1923 While Paris Sleeps Henri Santodos Lost film
1923 The Shock Wilse Dilling
1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame Quasimodo Makeup artist (uncredited)
1924 The Next Corner Juan Serafin Lost film
1924 He Who Gets Slapped Paul Beaumont/HE
1925 The Monster Dr. Ziska
1925 The Phantom of the Opera The Phantom Director, makeup artist (uncredited)
1925 The Unholy Three Echo, the Ventriloquist
1925 The Tower of Lies Jan Lost film
1926 The Blackbird The Blackbird/The Bishop Alternative title: The Black Bird
1926 The Road to Mandalay Singapore Joe
1926 Tell It to the Marines Sergeant O'Hara
1927 Mr. Wu Mr. Wu/Wu's Grandfather
1927 The Unknown Alonzo
1927 Mockery Sergei
1927 London After Midnight Professor Edward C. Burke Makeup artist (uncredited)
Lost film
1928 The Big City Chuck Collins Lost film
1928 Laugh, Clown, Laugh Tito
1928 While the City Sleeps Dan Coghlan
1928 West of Zanzibar Phroso
1929 Where East is East Tiger Haynes
1929 Thunder Grumpy Anderson
1930 The Unholy Three Echo Makeup artist (uncredited)


  1. ^ a b "Lon Chaney Dies After Brave Fight. On Road to Recovery, Screen Actor Is Stricken by Hemorrhage of the Throat. Was a Master of Makeup. Son of Deaf and Dumb Parents, He Began Career as Property Boy. Excelled in Vivid Personations. Acted as Pike's Peak Guide. Made Stage Debut at 17. Appeared in Slap-Stick Comedy. Wore Straitjacket as "Hunchback." New Disguise for Each Film.".  
  2. ^ Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, etc. edited by Frank W. Blackmar c. 1912 pp.496–498
  3. ^ Mysteries and Scandals - Lon Chaney (Season 3, Episode 34). E!. 2000. 
  4. ^ "Mrs. Lon Chaney Dies. Before Her Husband Entered the Movies She Was Well Known In Vaudeville".  
  5. ^ Internet Movie Database,IMDb.com ; film listings on Lon Chaney, William Stowell, Dorothy Phillips & Claire Dubrey
  6. ^ Pictorial History of the Silent Screen, by Daniel Blum c. 1953 p.141; scene from Triumph (1917), description ...Phillips has hand on Chaney's head embracing him while Stowell reads paperwork on desk
  7. ^ Vogel, Michelle (2010). Olive Borden: The Life and Films of Hollywood's "Joy Girl". McFarland. p. 146.  
  8. ^ Herzogenrath, Bernd, ed. (2008). The Cinema of Tod Browning: Essays of the Macabre and Grotesque. McFarland. p. 79.  
  9. ^ Silents are Golden
  10. ^ Dick, Bernard F., City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997, pp. 52-55
  11. ^ a b c Fleming, E.J. (2009). Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Director and Husband of Harlow. McFarland. p. 167.  
  12. ^ LaSalle, Mick (2000). Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. New York, Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-25207-2, p. 120.
  13. ^  
  14. ^ a b "Funeral Service For Lon Chaney". The Telegraph. August 28, 1930. p. 5. Retrieved January 26, 2015. 
  15. ^ Riley, Philip J. (1993). MagicImage Filmbooks Presents The Wolf Man. MagicImage Filmbooks. p. 54.  
  16. ^  
  17. ^ Smith, Don G. (2004). Lon Chaney, Jr.: Horror Film Star, 1906-1973. McFarland. pp. 9, 12.  
  18. ^ Guiley, Rosemary (2004). The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. Infobase Publishing. p. 63.  
  19. ^ Carr, Richard (October 5, 1997). "Movie Monsters Kick Off National Stamp-collecting Month". sun-sentinel.com. Retrieved January 26, 2015. 
  20. ^ French, Phillip (January 4, 2014). "The Phantom of the Opera". theguardian.com. Retrieved January 26, 2015. 
  21. ^ "Lon Chaney". latimes.com. Retrieved January 26, 2015. 
  22. ^ Blake, Michael F. (1997). A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures. Vestal Press. p. 290.  
  23. ^ "Quits (1915)". silentera.com. Retrieved January 26, 2015. 

Further reading

  • Blake, Michael F. (1997). A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures. Vestal Press.  
  • Menefee, David W. (2007). The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era. BearManor Media.  

External links