Name at birth: Leonidas Frank ChaneyLon Chaney was billed in silent films of the 1920s and ‘30s as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his ability to transform his appearance with make-up and prosthetics. The star of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Chaney was at the peak of his career when he died at the age of 47 from throat cancer. Chaney was born to deaf and mute parents, and he left school in the fourth grade to care for his ailing mother. (The family lore is that he learned the art of pantomime by describing the days’ events for his deaf mother.) Chaney entered the world of the theater working with props at the Colorado Springs Opera House, and in 1905 he married a singer there, 16 year-old Cleva Creighton. In 1906 their son Creighton was born — he later had a film career as Lon Chaney, Jr. By 1916 Lon Chaney was in moving pictures and gaining a reputation as a character actor. Modest successes over two years were capped by a breakthrough performance in The Miracle Man (1919, as The Frog), a box office success and a demonstration of Chaney’s talent with makeup. Chaney’s ability to change his looks kept him busy in the movies, and his peculiar otherness drew audiences. In public he was not often recognized, and he rarely did publicity events so as to maintain an atmosphere of mystery. On the screen, Chaney was able to communicate the humanity behind the repulsive disfigurements of his characters, and that’s what made him a legend of the silent era. Chaney resisted making sound movies and made only one, a 1930 remake of 1925’s The Unholy Three. He died the same year. Chaney’s films included The Penalty (1920); Oliver Twist (1922); Tell It to the Marines (1926); The Black Bird (1926); The Unknown (1927); Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928); and West of Zanzibar (1928);
By 1910 Lon Chaney and his family were in Los Angeles and Lon was a theater manager. In 1913 Cleva made a public attempt at killing herself with poison; she survived but was left unable to sing, ruining her career. Lon and Cleva divorced and their son was sent off to be under state supervision. (After Lon remarried in 1915, he regained custody of his son.)… Many of Lon Chaney’s films were destroyed in a fire at MGM Studios in 1965. One of these was 1927’s London After Midnight (aka The Hypnotist) directed by Tod Browning. For whatever reason, it has risen to the top ranks of sought after “lost” films.
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