Born in Oklahoma in 1902, Lon Chaney Jr. acted in his first movie in 1932, playing an uncredited role in Girl Crazy. Of Mice and Men (1939) brought him his first brush with stardom and critical acclaim, but his role in The Wolf Man in 1941 would typecast him for the rest of his career as a monster portrayer. He became known for being the only actor to play all of the "big four" monsters: the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula (in Son of Dracula).
Lon Chaney Jr. was born Creighton Tull Chaney on February 10, 1906, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Delivered premature and stillborn, he would not have survived had his father not plunged him in an icy lake and shocked him into life.
Chaney's destiny might have seemed apparent at birth. His parents were both struggling vaudevillians—his father, "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney Sr., was an acclaimed silent-era film actor, and his mother, Cleva, was a singer who performed in road shows with her husband—but Chaney's childhood was troubled as a result of his parents' unhappy marriage. His mother made a public suicide attempt in Los Angeles, California, swallowing a caustic poison that failed to kill her, but ruined her vocal chords and put an end to her career; this event led to his parents' divorce in 1913.
From that time until 1916, Chaney lived in various homes and boarding schools. Chaney Sr. had tried to raise the boy himself, but eventually decided to place the boy in foster homes while he established his own Hollywood career.
After Chaney Sr. remarried to Hazel Hastings in 1915, Chaney Jr. moved back home. (Also during this period, the elder Chaney was seeing heightened fame on the big screen.) Interested in the peforming arts himself, Chaney Jr. adamantly tried to avoid his famous father's shadow. Chaney Sr. discouraged his son from pursuing an acting career, however, so Chaney Jr. attended business school as a teenager and later found success as a plumbing contractor with a Los Angeles appliance company.
After his father's premature death in 1930, Lon Chaney Jr. turned his focus toward acting once again. He soon embarked upon a performing career, first under his own name as a stuntman and bit player, and later, under studio pressure, as Lon Chaney Jr. (He performed under his birth name until 1935.) Chaney acted in his first film in 1932, playing an uncredited role in Girl Crazy. Four years later, his Academy Award-nominated role as the dim-witted Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939) brought Chaney his first brush with both stardom and critical acclaim. Shortly thereafter, the actor began creating his most famous character parts under a long-term contract with Universal Studios.
Chaney made his horror debut in 1941, starring as Dan McCormick in Man Made Monster alongside Frank Albertson and Lionel Atwill. That same year, he played the title role in The Wolf Man; the part would typecast Chaney for the rest of his career as a monster portrayer. He soon became known for being the only actor to bring to life all four of the "big four" monsters: the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein and Dracula. (Chaney portrayed these first three characters in several films throughout the 1940s and '50s, and earned his Dracula acting credit with 1943's Son of Dracula). This period would mark the height of Chaney's on-screen career.
After Chaney left Universal, he largely performed in character roles in smaller films—more than likely a result of his typecasting and his battles with alcoholism. Around this same time, Chaney began a serious battle with throat cancer—which had killed his father—and eventually took to playing mute or taciturn characters. Producer Stanley Kramer began casting the actor in supporting roles in his classic films, including High Noon (1952), Not as a Stranger (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958).
Personal Life and Death
Lon Chaney Jr. was married twice and fathered two children: Lon Ralph Chaney and Ronald Creighton Chaney. He died of liver cancer on July 12, 1973, in San Clemente, California.
By the end of his lifetime, Lon Chaney Jr. had more than proven that he'd inherited much more than a last name from his famous father. Chaney became widely renowned as a gifted performer in his own right, creating a unique screen persona through fantastic characters and make-up that would have made his father proud.
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