Lon Chaney Sr. Biography

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Birth Name: Lon Chaney Sr.
Born: 04/01/1883
Birth Place: Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
Death Place: Los Angeles, California, USA
Died: 08/26/1930

Born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, CO, Chaney was raised by his immigrant father, Frank, a deaf-mute barber shop owner, and his mother, Emma, also a deaf-mute who was crippled by inflammatory rheumatism when he was nine years old. Because both of his parents were deaf, Chaney grew up skilled in pantomime. At some point in his youth, he left school and became a guide, leading tourists along the treacherous trail to Pike's Peak. He later worked as a prop boy at the Colorado Springs Opera House, before taking the stage himself with an appearance in "The Little Tycoon," co-written with his brother, when he was 17 years old. Chaney soon began a successful vaudeville career and joined the Ferris Hartmann Opera Company in San Francisco, which traveled to Los Angeles. In 1905, he married 16-year-old singer Cleva Creighton and had his only child, son Creighton Chaney, who later became known as Lon Chaney, Jr. Following marital troubles, Mrs. Chaney attempted suicide by swallowing mercury chloride; the attempt failed, but ruined her singing voice and ended her career. The fallout led Chaney to divorce Cleva and leave vaudeville for Hollywood.

In 1912, Chaney began appearing in a number of short films, playing the heavy in a number of Westerns. In his very first films he often appeared uncredited, while most from this time period were considered lost, as so many silent films were by the 21st century. He received his first screen credits as an actor in films like "Shon the Piper" (1913), "The Blood Red Tape of Charity" (1913) and "The Lamb, the Woman, the Wolf" (1914). Chaney debuted as a director with the short film, "The Stool Pigeon" (1915), and went on to direct and supervise Western star J. Warren Kerrigan in several films for Universal Pictures. In 1917, he was paired with actress Dorothy Phillips and actor William Stowell, and made a number of successful pictures for Universal, with Chaney and Stowell alternated between playing Phillips' lover and the villain. The trio made their first appearance together in "The Piper's Price" (1917), and went on to make such films as "Hell Morgan's Girl" (1917), "The Girl in the Checkered Coat" (1917), "Broadway Love" (1918), and "The Talk of the Town" (1918).

Of course, Chaney was in demand outside of his collaboration with Phillips and Stowell, and even went as far as making the anti-German propaganda film "The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin" (1918) at the height of World War I. Meanwhile, he made his last film with Phillips and Stowell, "Paid in Advance" (1919), when Stowell was killed in a train accident while scouting locations in the Congo. Chaney next began making the first of many collaborations with horror master Tod Browning in "The Wicked Darling" (1919) and finally won widespread recognition with audiences for his first major role, playing a contortionist in "The Miracle Man" (1919). By this time, Chaney had developed a reputation as a versatile character actor capable of transforming his appearance at will, often to the point where audiences were unable to recognize him, thus earning the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces." He quickly became renowned for his artistry with makeup and the great, almost masochistic lengths he would go to create the grotesque bodies that hid the tortured 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 painfully enormous teeth to create a vampire in "London After Midnight" (1927), in which he also played a detective.

In "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), one of his most famous films, Chaney wore a 40-pound hunch in a 30-pound harness strapped to his back, covered his eyeball with an eggshell membrane to look sightless and contorted his body in a straightjacket. As the deaf and partially blind Quasimodo, Chaney's tortured hunchback became one of his most famous creations and helped elevate his already rising status in Hollywood, thanks to the film's box office success. More than merely a master of disguise, 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. These qualities were most eloquently conveyed in his definitive film, "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), in which he harnessed all his skills in creating the deformed Phantom, who haunts the Paris Opera House in order to see the woman he loves turned into a star. Given complete freedom to design his own makeup, Chaney again contorted his body, this time pinning his nose upward with a wire, while painting his nostrils and eye sockets black. His skull-like Phantom was unmasked in a pivotal scene that terrified early audiences and became one of the most frightening images ever put on screen.

Chaney followed up with "The Unholy Three" (1925), in which he played the roles of Professor Echo, the ventriloquist, and Mrs. O'Grady. In the last five years of his career, he signed an exclusive contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and made some of his most popular films, including "Tell It to the Marines" (1926), in which he played a tough drill sergeant. He next played the title character, "Mr. Wu" (1927), a Chinese patriarch who seeks revenge on the man who seduced his daughter. After playing a Siberian peasant in "Mockery" (1927) and a traveling circus clown in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" (1928), Chaney was an animal trapper in Laos who would do anything for his daughter. The film marked the last time he worked with director Tod Browning. During the making of his next film "Thunder" (1929), Chaney developed pneumonia and later was diagnosed with lung cancer. Though he sought aggressive treatment and even managed to film a remake of "The Unholy Three" (1930), his only talkie, Chaney suffered from a throat hemorrhage and died on Aug. 26, 1930 in Los Angeles. He was 47 years old and left his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., to carry on his legacy of transformation, which he did to great effect and appreciation.