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Who Is Lon Chaney?

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari

Lon Chaney is an actor from the early 20th century who was particularly well known for his roles in horror films. Born Leonidas Chaney in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1883, Chaney had to learn how to how to use his face and body effectively in order to communicate with his parents who were both deaf-mutes. Chaney got his start in theater by co-writing The Little Tycoon with his brother. After some success touring the play around the country, his brother sold out his portion of the company and Lon Chaney continued with a new business partner before turning to the fledgling film industry for an acting career.

After years of playing extras and small character parts, Chaney’s big break came in 1919 when he played the role of a con man won over by a faith healer in The Miracle Man. Following this performance, Chaney was given meatier roles performing dark, complex characters. Some of his most famous performances were in movies that are now considered classics of the silent film era.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Chaney was extremely adept at using make-up to help him create a wide array of characters. By 1923, he was known as The Man of a Thousand Faces. His most popular characters included Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. To develop each character, he carefully studied the novels and followed the descriptions as closely as possible. Other roles he played included a pirate, a Chinese survivor of a shipwreck, and a double-amputee.

Partly to help maintain his mystique, Lon Chaney rarely granted interviews with the press or made public appearances to support his films. He was married twice. His first marriage to Cleva Creighton, an actress he met on tour during his theater days, ended in scandal when she attempted suicide, swallowing a vial of poison that did not kill her, but did end her acting career. The messy end to their relationship prompted Chaney to switch into the film industry. Still, their marriage produced the famous character actor, Lon Chaney, Jr., probably most recognized for his role as the Wolf Man. Lon Chaney’s second marriage to Hazel Hastings fared better and lasted until the end of his life.

Of a career that lasted more than 100 films, Lon Chaney made only one movie with sound, 1930s The Unholy Three. Despite successfully using five different voices to create his character, he never got the opportunity to film another talkie. He died from throat cancer two months after The Unholy Three’s release.

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