Name: Leonidas Frank Chaney
Birth: April 1, 1983
Death: August 26, 1930
“Don’t step on it! It might be Lon Chaney!” was the popular 1920s catchphrase for one of Universal’s first horror movie stars, Lon Chaney. His ability to completely transform himself using makeup made the public believe that he never appeared on film wearing his own face, which coined him the name “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
Chaney was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado to two deaf and mute parents. Throughout his childhood, he learned to communicate through pantomime, sign language, and facial expressions, which is credited as to why he was such a great silent film actor.
Lon Chaney began his career touring as a stage performer singing, acting, and dancing with his brother. In 1905, he met and married Cleva Creighton while on tour in Oklahoma City. In February of 1906, Cleva gave birth to Creighton Tull Chaney (who would soon become Lon Chaney Jr.). In the next few years, their marriage became strained. Cleva tried to commit suicide in 1913, which caused them to divorce. The scandal damaged Chaney’s stage career, which caused him to seek new employment as a film actor.
Chaney started acting for Universal Studios in 1913, when the studio was barely open for a year. He gained attention for his makeup skills and for being one of the first method actors – he completely threw himself in his roles physically and mentally. Even though Chaney played many characters with minimal makeup, it was the tortured and grotesque characters that shot him to stardom. His big break came in 1919 when he played a con man posing as a cripple in The Miracle Man. He had to wrap his legs around themselves to convince audiences that he was crippled. This caused Chaney a lot of pain, but he would go on to play more painful roles.
In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney played Quasimodo, the disfigured bell-tower ringer. All of Quasimodo’s makeup was done by Chaney himself. Plasto, a wax used by morticians to repair dead bodies for viewing, was used to create Quasimodo’s facial features. A wire device was stuck in his mouth to make it look like his jaw was misshapen. To create the hunchback, Chaney used a 20 pound leather hump, shoulder padding, and a harness to keep him in a crouched position.
Chaney took his makeup skills to new heights in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), creating one of the most horrifying looks ever to be on screen. He played Erik, the phantom that haunts the opera house. The Phantom’s face is supposed to resemble a skull, so to pull up his nose, Chaney glued a strip of fishskin from the tip of his nose to his forehead. To make his face appear longer, Chaney glued his ears closer to his head and wore bald cap draped with fake hair. Greasepaint was used to make it appear that he had no nose and that his eyes were larger. He used wire to enlarge his nostrils, and wore snaggled false teeth to complete the look.
Chaney’s dedication to his roles caused him great physical pain. The contact lens he wore in The Hunchback of Notre Dame caused him vision loss, and the brace he wore on his legs reportedly caused him permanent pain for the rest of his life. The wire he put in his nose for The Phantom of the Opera cut into his skin and caused bleeding.
When talkie films started being produced, Chaney was reluctant to make the switch because silent films were the only kind of performance art that his parents could enjoy. But he eventually made the move in 1930′s The Unholy Three.
Shortly after filming, Chaney was diagnosed with throat cancer. He died on August 26, 1930 at the age of 47.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera may be his most famous roles, but they are only two films in a long list Lon Chaney has been in. His filmography is available here.