Today The Vault of Horror marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great Lon Chaney Sr. How fitting indeed that April Fool's Day would be the birthday of Hollywood's greatest illusionist.
Born Leonidas Frank Chaney on April 1, 1883, he would go on to become the single greatest celebrity of the silent film era, with only Charles Chaplin being a possible exception. He was best known for his incredible skill with makeup--so much so that he even wrote an entry on the subject for the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Always doing his own work, Chaney was able to dramatically transform himself for a wide variety of roles, most memorably including Fagin in Oliver Twist (1922), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Prof. Echo in The Unholy Three (1925), Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927), Prof. Edward C. Burke in London After Midnight (1927) and Tito Beppi in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). In those early days of movie makeup, Chaney suffered greatly under painful applications, and even lost some of his vision due to his work on The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.
Many have attributed his fascination with unusual, often deformed roles to the fact that he grew up the son of parents who were both deaf and a mother who was an invalid. His ability to communicate so effectively without words and under heavy makeup might also be attributed to this.
His career was confined almost entirely to the silents, and in fact he made only one talkie, a 1930 remake of The Unholy Three, in which he performed the voices of five different characters. He was in line to portray Dracula in Tod Browning's 1931 production when he became ill with lung cancer brought on by heavy smoking and aggravated by a piece of artificial snow that became accidentally lodged in his throat while working on his final silent film, Thunder (1929). Lon Chaney passed away on August 26, 1930 at the age of 47.
Although known primarily for his work in horror, Chaney was also an accomplished dramatic stage actor, as well as a gifted comedian, dancer and singer. He was played by James Cagney in a 1957 biopic, The Man of a Thousand Faces. His son, born Creighton Chaney but using the screen name Lon Chaney Jr., became a prominent horror actor in his own right, but never quite escaped the awesome shadow of his legendary father.
(Special thanks for the animated GIF go to LonChaney.com, the family's official website.)