Lon Chaney Sr: The Ultimate Character Actor

I have long considered Lon Chaney Sr to be the ultimate character actor on film. The man was a marvel. He could play anybody and completely disappeared inside the characters he portrayed. When I started to get into Silent cinema it didn’t take long for him to become one of my all time favourite actors. Every move he makes, even down to the smallest of gestures, draws you in and keeps your attention. Lon could also convey more inner turmoil and emotion to audiences with a single look than any line of dialogue could ever hope to convey. His son, Lon Chaney Jr, would follow in his footsteps and became a gifted actor in his own right, going on to be most fondly remembered for his performances in The Wolf Man(1941) and Of Mice And Men(1939).

Lon Chaney Sr photographed by Jack Freulich.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I can often get a bit bored with some actors after a while because they often seem to just play variations of themselves on screen, with Lon however, each performance he gave was different. In so many of his films you can’t even recognise him. The ability to so convincingly disappear into a role is the mark of a good actor or actress in my opinion, if they can convince you of something and make you completely believe they are the characters they are playing then they’ve done a great job. Lon always convinced.

Lon with his make-up case.

Lon Chaney Sr was known as “The Man Of A Thousand Faces”. He gained this name because he didn’t merely act, but because he was so convincing in the roles he took on that he disappeared into them.

He was quite often buried beneath layers of extraordinary makeup but even when he wasn’t made up he was one of those actors whose face and persona was never the same from one role to another.Lon famously created and applied his own makeup for many of the film characters he played.

He had his own makeup kit which he carried around with him in a fold out leather case. With the help of his makeup, Lon could make himself look old, frail, scarred, rough, ugly or scary. His makeup, coupled with the physical way he used his body in roles, is what makes him such a unique actor in my opinion. He alone decided how his characters should look and act and he alone got to create and apply that look.

I really love his makeup for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923). He did a terrific job of creating Quasimodo’s facial deformity. I especially love the swollen eye and the disfigurement on the lower lip.Lon also put himself (yet again)through great physical discomfort to play this role. It is a very physical role too, and he does lots of climbing and scenes where he is jumping and swinging off of things, he also captures Quasimodo’s physical effort and discomfort when walking. 

Lon became notable for often portraying characters who were disabled, disfigured, or who were unlucky in love. He played these people in such an empathic way that he made us feel their pain, their desires, their rage, and also their very deep sadness. He could convey so much to us about them through facial expressions or a single glance.Although Lon also played many able bodied characters throughout his career, it is the disabled and disfigured characters he played that he is best remembered for by audiences today. He makes us connect with these characters, and he makes us feel for them and experience what they are going through.

I also admire him greatly for the tremendous effort that he went to in order to portray disabled and disfigured characters. Forget actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Marlon Brando going the extra mile for their roles, because they have nothing on what Lon put himself through when he took on a role. 

Lon with Ethel Terry in The Penalty(1920).

For example, in The Penalty (1920) Lon had his legs lifted up behind his back in a special harness. He then inserted his knees into two leather stumps, this then created the effect of him being a double amputee with leg stumps.

Lon taught himself to walk on his knees in a way that appeared natural during his scenes. This was extremely painful for him to endure during filming. I think the pain and discomfort certainly paid off though because it looks like he is a real amputee when you watch this film. 

The Penalty is also an interesting film because of Lon’s character, Blizzard. He is a man who has been left as a double amputee after an appalling surgical error. Blizzard has become quite understandably a very bitter man considering what has happened. Blizzard is interestingly never presented as being someone left helpless or dependent on others because of his disability though – instead he is shown as being a dominant man, independent, self-sufficient, strong and determined. It’s undoubtedly one of his finest performances.  

One of the most famous of all his makeup achievements was for the 1925 film The Phantom Of The Opera. In this film Lon plays the mysterious masked Phantom. The most famous scene in that film is the scene where the Phantom is unmasked. He looks so scary that even the camera goes out of focus slightly when he is unmasked, it’s almost as though the camera is afraid of him too. He really did a remarkable job with the makeup here.

As the Phantom.

I love his makeup for this character because he looks so gaunt and scary. His eyes are sunken and he looks in some ways like a skeleton. His nose is also extremely disfigured and stretched. It is a startling sight when you look at it. I like that he also plays the Phantom as being very graceful and athletic physically.

Lon makes for quite a commanding screen presence in this role. I also like how Lon ensures that we both fear and pity the Phantom at various points throughout the film because of how he plays the man.Lon’s portrayal of the Phantom also allows us to see how emotionally tortured this man is. Lon manages to convey to us just how angry and sad the Phantom is because he can’t even show his own face in public. 

Lon Chaney Sr was born in Colorado, on April 1st, 1883. His birth name was Leonidas Frank Chaney. He was familiar with disability from an early age because his parents, Emma and Frank, were both deaf mutes. His parents had met and fallen in love at a deaf school that had been founded by Lon’s grandfather in 1874. The school was The Colorado Institute For Mutes and it still exists today under its current name of The Colorado School For The Deaf And Blind.

Lon could hear and speak but he learnt from an early age how to speak to his parents using a combination of sign language, facial expressions and pantomime. These skills served him well later when he became an actor, as he really had the ability to get his characters inner selves, emotions and intent across to his audience.  I have no proof of this being the case, but I firmly believe that Lon’s regular access to two disabled people ensured that he grew up to have a greater understanding of, and a great compassion for, people who were disabled and disfigured.

To Lon there was nothing odd or frightening about his parents disability. His parents were simply two people who just happened to be deaf and did things a bit differently to other people. I feel that in some way he felt he should go and do what he could to make disability more present in everyday life and to help make people see disabled people for who they are, instead of ignoring them or acting awkwardly around them. 

When Lon portrayed disabled and disfigured people on screen he played them in a way that showed audiences that these people were just like everyone else. Lon’s films also show us that the disabled and disfigured can work, create, fall in love, and most importantly exist just fine with able-bodied people. Lon also depicts the incredible courage of these people in not hiding away from the rest of society. The people he played are often shown as trying their best to get on with their life as normal. Lon also showed us the unique abilities that some disabled people can have, such as using other limbs to compensate for the loss of hands for example, as seen in Lon’s performance as the armless Alonzo in The Unknown

It’s also important for us to remember that in the era that Lon played these characters, disability and disfigurement were seen as being taboo subjects for many in society. Mentally ill and disabled people were shamefully shut away in homes and put out of sight and mind. After WW1 ended there were also thousands of veterans returning home from the trenches; these men were suffering from the most terrible disfigurements and wounds and other people in society were quite shocked by how they looked. The films of Lon Chaney Sr gave a national and international face to disability and disfigurement. 

Lon’s portrayals of the disfigured and disabled brought all these people and their issues right out into the open for everyone to see. I think that making films featuring characters living with these issues was something that was very daring and brave for Lon and the directors to do at the time.  

With Loretta Young in Laugh, Clown, Laugh(1928). This was a breakthrough role for the teenage Loretta. She always expressed gratitude for Lon’s kindness to her and for his protection from director Herbert Brenon who had started to pick on and ridicule her during the shoot.

Another thing Lon Chaney Sr was able to do so brilliantly was to convey to us the desperate longing of a character who was unlucky in love. In Laugh Clown Laugh, Tell It To The Marines, The Unknown and He Who Gets Slapped Lon is able to show us just how much these very different men love women who, for various reasons, they can’t have and how they all end up loving these women from afar. Unrequited love is one of the most difficult pains any of us will ever bear and I think that Lon does a tremendous job of conveying his characters longing for the love that they so desire. Watch his face in these films because the longing and pain are written clearly all over his face.

 In 1926, Lon Chaney made a film called Tell It To The Marines. He would go on to regard it as his own personal favourite of the films that he made. In recognition of his remarkable and totally convincing performance as a tough as nails Marine Sergeant, Lon would become the first actor to be made an honorary US Marine. General Smedley Butler would arrange for a military chaplain and an honour guard to be present at Lon’s funeral in 1930.

Lon in Tell It To The Marines(1926).

I thought that was so lovely the first time I read about it as that is a great honour to be given indeed. It speaks volumes about how much his performance must have resonated with the men serving in the armed forces at the time.   

In The Unholy Three (1930), Lon appeared in what would sadly end up being his final screen role. This would also be his first and only sound film. At the time he made this film he had been diagnosed with the lung cancer which would sadly kill him just a few months later. In his final film he delivered not one, but five, excellent vocal performances. 

Had Lon lived, then I think he would have done very well as an actor in sound films. I think he could have been quite good in the gangster films of the 1930’s. He had a tough and intense look that would have suited gangster and Noir films well. His voice was very deep and strong and I can see no reason why he couldn’t have easily fit into sound roles. He also demonstrated in his final film that he had plenty of vocal talent as well as his physical acting skills. I’m sure that he would have also done well in radio productions.  

I find his final scene in The Unholy Three to be very moving. As Lon’s character says goodbye to some fellow characters, he is in a way saying goodbye to his film audience too. His final line in the goodbye scene is “That’s all there is to life. Just a little laugh, a little tear”. This line sums up his career to me.

Throughout his career Lon Chaney Sr made us cry, made us laugh, and he also showed us what it was to be human (to experience joy, sorrow, pain, tragedy etc)and he made us feel his characters emotions right along with him. He captured every facet of humanity on screen. In life we will laugh, we will cry, and sometimes we may even do both at the same time. Most notable of all Lon Chaney’s characters remind us that everybody hides pain and secrets behind many different masks as they go through life.

His career stands as the ultimate acting masterclass and anyone interested in acting should watch as many of his films as they can find. He was the master of the craft.

What are your thoughts on Lon Chaney Sr? What are some of your favourite films and performances?


Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces(2000, documentary)


8 thoughts on “Lon Chaney Sr: The Ultimate Character Actor

  1. I’ve only seen him in The Phantom of the Opera, where he is absolutely chilling, but also very sympathetic. I should seek out more of his work! And I loved learning a bit more about his history here — I bet you’re right that living with parents who had a disability made him really great at bringing disabled people to life on screen, and dedicated to making them sympathetic. So cool!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can echo Rachel’s comment. I’ve only seen Phantom, which is a remarkable work. But I should check out Chaney’s other work. Thanks for an interesting post about this legendary performer!

    Liked by 1 person

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