9 Transformative Facts About Lon Chaney Sr.

Jack Freulich // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Jack Freulich // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons / Jack Freulich // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The silent film era, much like Hollywood today, banked on its heartthrobs. Figures like Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, and Rudolph Valentino exuded charisma and romance and drew audiences to theaters. Lurking among these leading men, however, was Lon Chaney Sr.—an equally big star who reached deeper, grasping at the stuff of nightmares through his craft while at the same time seeking to evoke his audience’s sympathies.

Chaney Sr. (not to be confused with his son, Lon Chaney Jr., star of 1941's The Wolf Man) was one of the biggest movie stars of his era, yet was most famous for hiding in plain sight behind the masks of his various characters. Perhaps best known to film buffs today for his turns as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney took on a kaleidoscope of weird roles and helped give rise to modern horror films in a number of ways.

1. Lon Chaney Sr. was known as "The Man of 1,000 Faces."

Unlike many of Hollywood's leading men, who trade on their good looks and recognizable faces, Lon Chaney Sr. made his name by donning a series of disguises and elaborate makeups, completely changing his appearance from film to film. Chaney, an early character actor, gravitated toward bizarre and distinct roles—playing a series of criminals, toughs, circus performers, clowns, pirates, ghouls, and vampires. His ability to disappear into his roles soon earned him the moniker “The Man of 1,000 Faces.” It also made him the subject of a popular joke at the time: “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon Chaney!”

2. Nobody knows how many movies Lon Chaney Sr. was actually in.

Chaney racked up an impressive number of film appearances. While the official number of movies he appeared in stands somewhere between 157 and 162, Chaney frequently worked as a background actor (or extra) at the beginning of his career, while working under contract at Universal Studios, so it's impossible to say just how many films he appeared in. This early period between 1912 and 1917 would prove to be an important time of experimentation for Chaney in crafting both his physical appearance and performance.

3. Some of Lon Chaney Sr.'s most memorable films were made with director Tod Browning at the helm.

Chaney had been working in movies for more than a decade before he began his frequent collaborations with director Tod Browning, who is best known for putting Bela Lugosi on the map with the 1931 film Dracula (and most infamously known for directing the 1932 movie Freaks). But when they did finally come together, it was a meeting of macabre minds. To begin with, Chaney and Browning had several things in common: Both had experienced past brushes with personal tragedy (Browning had been the driver in a car accident that killed actor Elmer Booth; Chaney’s first wife had tried to kill herself); both came from a Vaudevillian background; and both had a penchant for spectacle and the grotesque.

Among Chaney and Browning's collaborations were the 1925 silent version of The Unholy Three, in which Chaney plays a sideshow ventriloquist masquerading as a kindly grandmother; the 1927 film The Unknown, in which Chaney plays a fugitive masquerading as an armless knife thrower, who later blackmails a surgeon to amputate his arms in order to win the woman he loves (the film is one of several in which Chaney and Browning concocted a bizarre character and built an entire film around it); and the 1927 film London After Midnight, in which Chaney plays a vampire-like figure. Tragically, this film is also famous for being lost; the last known copy was destroyed in a 1965 MGM vault fire.

4. Lon Chaney Sr.'s upbringing contributed to his silent stardom.

Leonidas "Lon" Frank Chaney was born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado Springs, Colorado to Deaf parents. Chaney's parents had met at the Colorado School for the Education of Mutes (now the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind), which was founded by Chaney’s maternal grandfather. Chaney’s upbringing both marked him as an outsider early on and contributed to his later success; communicating with his parents required a mastery of facial expression and pantomime that would come in handy in the silent film era.

5. Lon Chaney Sr. was an early makeup effects master.

Dick Smith. Tom Savini. Rick Baker. These are names that are well known to monster movie fans the world over. But before makeup legend Jack Pierce turned Boris Karloff into Frankenstein in 1931, Chaney was transforming his own face in ways that remain impressive today. A hardscrabble theatrical background had imparted basic makeup skills to Chaney, who then honed them with a characteristic dedication. He would remain his own makeup man throughout his career, and even wrote the makeup entry for the 1929 Encyclopædia Britannica. Chaney’s metamorphoses into phantoms and hunchbacks exacted a physical toll, however.

6. Lon Chaney Sr.'s onscreen transformations often caused intense physical pain.

Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). / Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Chaney threw himself into his roles with such uncompromising dedication that pain was frequently the price of perfection. He had a gift for physical contortion, which he supplemented with various disguises and rigs. According to The Phantom of the Opera cinematographer Charles Van Enger, the wire Chaney invented to deform his nose for the part caused his nose to bleed. Whether or not Chaney wore a 70-pound rubber hump in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is subject to debate, but by some accounts the appliances he wore over his eyes permanently damaged his vision.

In the horror history The Monster Show, David J. Skal detailed the tortures Chaney subjected himself to. For the 1919 movie The Penalty, in which he played an amputee, Chaney strapped his legs behind his body with his ankles dug into his thighs, and completed the look with a pair of leather stumps so that he could “walk” on his knees for the duration of the role. He reportedly wore the rig for longer than advised by his doctors and repeatedly collapsed on set.

7. Lon Chaney Sr. hated publicity.

Chaney was a mysterious presence both onscreen and off. He disliked hobnobbing with the Hollywood set, going to premieres, giving interviews, and/or signing autographs (except for fans behind bars—Chaney was a self-taught penologist, or student of prisons and convict rehabilitation). He once boasted that he would “fix it so no one will write my autobiography after I’m gone.”

In fact, details of Chaney's life were so scarce that actor James Cagney had a difficult time researching the part of Chaney for 1957 biopic Man of a Thousand Faces. While he was no doubt genuinely reclusive to an extent, Chaney’s reticence may have in fact been the smartest publicity move of all, as his mystery only added to his allure.

8. Lon Chaney Sr. made a successful transition to the “talkies.”

The advent of sound film killed the careers of many a silent era star—among them John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, and Norma Talmadge. After initially resisting the new technology, Chaney made the decision to go into sound pictures, approaching the problem the way he had approached so many other challenges: with great focus and intensity. He began hanging around studio sound rooms, studying the art of recording and sometimes experimenting with recording and mixing himself. Chaney’s first talkie was a 1930 sound remake of The Unholy Three. In it, his rendering of five different voices used by his charlatan character so impressed audiences that he was also dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Voices.”

Unfortunately, Chaney’s first talkie would also be his last.

9. Fake snow hastened Lon Chaney Sr.'s death.

By 1930, Chaney had successfully made the switch to a new movie medium and had a number of roles lined up; he was even being considered for Dracula, which would surely have changed the image of the count popularized by Bela Lugosi. Alas, this was not to be. In 1929, during the filming of Thunder, Chaney developed pneumonia and was diagnosed with bronchial lung cancer shortly thereafter. During filming, stray flakes of artificial snow—made from cornflakes—lodged in Chaney’s throat, causing an infection. His condition deteriorated during the filming of The Unholy Three, and in August 1930, shortly after the completion of the film, he died of a throat hemorrhage.

Chaney is buried in an unmarked crypt in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, which very well may be how The Man of a 1000 Faces would have wanted it.