9 Transformative Facts About Lon Chaney Sr.

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.

still of 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.

11 Fascinating Facts About Mad Max

Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Mel Gibson stars in George Miller's Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

What began as director George Miller's ambitious action film about a solitary cop (Mel Gibson) on a mission to take down a violent biker gang has evolved into a post-apocalyptic sensory overload of a franchise that now has four films to its credit—Mad Max (1979), The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)—and additional sequels in the works. So let's obsess over Miller’s masterpieces even more with these 11 things you might not know about the franchise.

1. Director George Miller worked as a doctor to raise money for Mad Max.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979)
Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979).
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Since the film only had a budget of $350,000, Miller scraped together extra money as an emergency room doctor to keep the movie going. “It was very low budget and we ran out of money for editing and post-production, so I spent a year editing the film by myself in our kitchen, while Byron Kennedy did the sound,” Miller told CraveOnline. “And then working as an emergency doctor on the weekends to earn money to keep going. I’d got my best friend, and friends of friends of friends of his, and Byron ditto, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, we made a film and it won’t cut together and we’re going to lose all their money.’”

Miller’s medical training is all over the film: Max Rockatansky is named after physician Carl von Rokitansky, a pathologist who created the Rokitansky procedure, a method for removing organs in an autopsy.

2. Mel Gibson went to the Mad Max audition to accompany his friend, not for the part.

Gibson was black and blue after a recent brawl with “half a rugby team” when his friend asked him to drop him off at his Mad Max audition. Because the agency was also casting “freaks,” they took pictures of Gibson, who was simply waiting around, and asked him to come back when he healed. When he did, Miller gave him the role on the spot. In a clip for Scream Factory, Gibson recalled the moment: “It was real weird. [Miller] said, ‘Can you memorize this?’ and it was like two pages of dialogue with a big speech and stuff. I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I went into the other room and just got a gist of what it was and I came out and just ad-libbed what I could remember. I guess they bought it.”

3. George Miller paid Mad Max crew members in beer.

With barely enough money to finish the original film, Miller offered to pay ambulance drivers, a tractor driver, and some of the bikers on set with “slabs” (Australian for a case of 24 cans) of beer, according to The Guardian.

4. Real-life motorcycle club the Vigilanties played Toecutter’s gang for Mad Max.

Forget the money required to train stuntmen; Miller and crew hired real bikers to professionally ride into production. In an interview with Motorcyclist Online, actor Tim Burns said about working with them: “[The Vigilanties] all wanted to ride the bikes as fast as possible, as often as possible, by their nature. Their riding was individually and collectively superb.” Additionally, stuntman Dale Bensch, a member of The Vigilanties, recalled seeing the ad for the shoot at a local bike shop, and took a moment to clarify a mishap that had happened during production. Bensch said, “There’s an urban myth that a stuntman was killed, and that was me. The scariest thing was dropping the bike on that bridge. They took the speedo and tach off because they didn’t want to damage more than they had to. They wet the surface to make it easier, but I hung onto the bike too long and it flipped me over with it; that’s why it looked bad. But it’s a famous scene, so it worked out all right!”

5. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior was inspired by the oil crises of the 1970s.

During an interview with The Daily Beast, Miller discussed the making of The Road Warrior. Of its inspiration, he said, “I’d lived in a very lovely and sedate city in Melbourne, and during OPEC and the extreme oil crisis—where the only people who could get any gas were emergency workers, firemen, hospital staff, and police—it took 10 days in this really peaceful city for the first shot to be fired, so I thought, ‘What if this happened over 10 years?’”

6. Mel Gibson only had 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

Upon Fury Road’s release in 2015, social media lit up with complaints that Tom Hardy was underutilized, only there to grunt and utter a couple of one-liners. But just to remind you, in Mad Max 2, Mel Gibson only has 16 lines of dialogue in The Road Warrior.

On his use of sparse dialogue, Miller told The New York Times, “Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: ‘I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.’ And that was what I tried to do in Mad Max 1, and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with Fury Road.”

7. Mel Gibson says The Road Warrior is his favorite movie in the original trilogy.

Once upon a time Mel Gibson enthusiastically spoke about Beyond Thunderdome, telling Rolling Stone, "[The films are] a sort of cinematic equivalent to rock music. It's something to do with the nihilistic sentiments of the music of the ’80s—which can't continue. I say, let's get back to romanticism. And this film [Thunderdome] is actually doing that. It's using that nihilism as a vehicle, I think, to get back to romance.”

Years later, he told Playboy what he really thought of the films, namely that The Road Warrior was his favorite. “It still holds up because it’s so basic,” Gibson said. “It’s about energy—it didn’t spare anyone: people flying under wheels, a girl gets it, a dog gets it, everybody gets it. It was the first Mad Max, but done better. The third one didn’t work at all.”

8. Beyond Thunderdome was inspired by Lord Of The Flies.

Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Mel Gibson and Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).
Warner Home Video

Even though Miller and his producers were on the fence about a third Mad Max, they couldn’t help but give in. "George was sitting and talking to me about … quantum mechanics, I think," Miller’s co-writer Terry Hayes recalled to Rolling Stone. "The theory of the oscillating universe. You could say he's got a broad range of interests. And I said something about ‘Well, if there was ever a Mad Max III ...' And he said, 'Well, if there was ...'"

In a 1985 interview with Time Out, Miller recalled the story himself. “We were talking one day and Terry Hayes started talking about mythology and how where people are short on knowledge, they tend to be very big on belief. In other words, they take a few fragments of knowledge and, if you take like the Aboriginal tribes of Australia, they just take simple empirical information and using those little bits of the jigsaw construct very elaborate mythological beliefs, which explain the whole universe,” Miller said. “Terry was saying if you had a tribe of kids after the apocalypse who had only a few fragments of knowledge, [they would construct] a mythological belief as to what was before. And what would happen if Max or someone like that [came in] ... and it kicked off the idea of kids who were Lord of the Flies-type kids, and that led to this story.”

9. Tina Turner was cast in Beyond Thunderdome because of her positive persona.

According to Rolling Stone, Tina Turner beat out Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner for the role of Aunty Entity. On her casting, Miller told Time Out, “One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense. But more importantly [when] we actually wrote the character, as a shorthand way of describing the character we said someone ‘like Tina Turner’—without even thinking of casting her. We wanted a woman ... we wanted someone who had a lot of power, charisma, someone who would hold a place like that together—or build it in the first place. And we wanted someone who was a survivor.”

10. Mad Max characters’ names hint at their backstories.

One of the most peculiar quirks of Miller’s franchise has to be his bizarre character names. In an interview with Fandango, Miller explained exactly how he comes up with them: “One of the things is that everything in the story has to have some sort of underlying backstory. Not just every character, but every vehicle, every weapon, every costume—and the same with the language. So [the concept] was always found objects, repurposed. Immortan Joe is a slight adjustment to the word 'immortal.' The character Nux says 'mcfeasting' instead of using the word 'feasting,’” Miller explained, adding that his favorite name of all is Fury Road’s The Dag (played by Abbey Lee). “In Australia, the dag is sort of a goofball-type.”

11. George Miller is a proud feminist.

Director George Miller, recipient of the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for “Mad Max: Fury Road," poses in the press room during the 68th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles
George Miller poses with the Feature Film Nomination Plaque for Mad Max: Fury Road during the 68th annual Directors Guild Of America Awards in 2016.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Perhaps evidenced by Charlize Theron’s scene-stealing role as Imperator Furiosa, Miller is a proud, outspoken feminist. He told Vanity Fair, “I’ve gone from being very male dominant to being surrounded by magnificent women. I can’t help but be a feminist.” That female influence even stretched behind the scenes, with Miller asking his wife Margaret Sixel to edit Fury Road. “I said, ‘You have to edit this movie, because it won’t look like every other action movie,” Miller recalled. Moreover, feminist activist Eve Ensler also consulted on the film to offer, according to Ensler herself, “perspective on violence against women around the world, particularly in war zones.”

What Happens During a Jeopardy! Commercial Break?

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek chats with the show's contestants.
Getty Images Entertainment

Jennifer Quail:

Typical Break One: First, if there are "pickups" (re-recordings where Alex misspoke or coughed or stuttered, or Johnny mispronounced someone’s name or hometown) to record, they do those. A stagehand brings water bottles for the contestants. The production team who wrangles contestants comes over and gives their pep talk, makes any corrections, like if someone is consistently buzzing early; and keeps you quiet if there are pickups. Alex gets the cards with the "fun facts" (there are about three, one highlighted, but which one he goes for is ultimately up to Alex alone) and when the crew is ready, they come back from commercial to Alex’s chat with the contestants.

Typical Break Two: If there are any pickups from the second half of the Jeopardy! round they do those, the water gets distributed, the production team reminds the contestants how Double Jeopardy! works and that there’s still lots of money out there to win, and Alex comes over to take a picture with the two challengers (the champion will have had their picture taken during their first match.) Then we come back to Double Jeopardy!.

Typical Third Break: This is the big one. There are pickups, water, etc. and they activate the section of the screen where you write your wager. One of the team members brings you a half-sheet of paper ... and you work out what you want to bet. One of your "wranglers" checks it, as does another production team member, to make sure it’s legible and when you’re sure that’s what you want, you lock it in. At that point you can’t change it. They take away the scratch paper and the part of the board where you write your answer is unlocked. Someone will tell you to write either WHO or WHAT in the upper left corner, so you do know at least whether it’s a person or thing. They make sure the "backup card" (a piece of card stock sitting on your podium) is turned to the correct who or what side, just in case your touchscreen fails. If everything’s ready, then as soon as the crew says, they come back and Final Jeopardy! starts.

There are breaks you don’t [even know about, too]. If there is a question about someone’s final answer, they will actually stop tape while the research team checks. Sometimes if something goes really off, like Alex completely misreads a category during the start of a round, they’ll stop and pick it up immediately. Those [are breaks] you’ll never notice because they’ll be completely edited out.

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