Today would have been Lon Chaney’s 130th birthday (he died relatively young, of lung cancer, in 1930). Despite having been in approximately 160 silent films and earning a reputation as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” a nickname that was memorialized as the title of a 1957 Chaney biopic, his groundbreaking work in character acting grows more obscure with each passing year.
Chaney was so deeply immersed in the characters he portrayed that he was quoted as saying, “between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney” — making him something like the Gary Oldman of his time, rather than a flashier acting genius like Daniel Day-Lewis. He pushed the physical limitations of his body and revolutionized makeup in his grotesque roles as Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Erik in The Phantom of the Opera, but was also able to tap into the audience’s deepest desires and depict the tragedy of unrequited love in a way that moved viewers even while his makeup would terrify them. In honor of Chaney’s birthday and remarkable achievement, we’ve compiled a crash course in his most vital roles.
The Early Years
Born in 1883, Chaney grew up in Colorado and was raised by two deaf parents, so his nonverbal communication was especially advanced. He quickly realized his skills in pantomime and worked in Vaudeville until his wife, young singer Cleva Creighton, tried to commit suicide and created a scandal that forced him to look for work in a new field: film.
He started his screen-acting career in 1912, but it wasn’t until 1917 that Chaney had his first big breakthrough in The Piper’s Price with Dorothy Phillips and William Stowell. The three teamed up and went on to make 14 films in two years, with Chaney and Stowell alternating who would play the villain and who would play the love interest.