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Fall Color Report

Historic Hollywood

by Joan Voss

Lon Chaney, Jr.

Lon Chaney, Jr. Living in the shadow of his famous father, the younger Chaney never saw himself as uniquely talented, and yet, an entire generation of baby boomers didn't even know who his father was. That said, the actor, who will forever be known as The Wolf Man, lives on in film history as a true Hollywood icon.

Creighton Tull Chaney was born on Feb. 10, 1906, in Oklahoma City, the only son of silent film star Lon Chaney and Frances Cleveland Creighton Chaney, a singing stage performer who traveled in road shows throughout the United States. His parents divorced in 1913, after his mother's suicide attempt, and from then on, he lived in boarding schools until 1916, when his father re-married.

Because Lon Chaney, Sr. discouraged his son from pursuing acting, Creighton attended business school. He was at various times a meatcutter's apprentice, a metal worker and a farm worker. He went on to marry Dorothy Hinckley, the daughter of his employer Ralph Hinckley, and they had two sons. However, he had an intense desire to act, and his life changed forever when his father died of throat cancer on Aug. 26, 1930, at age 47.

Entering the field of acting proved unsuccessful, until a producer insisted he change his name to Lon Chaney, Jr. At first, he was uncomfortable with the marketing ploy, hating the "Jr." addendum, yet he was aware that the famous name could help him, so he kept it. Most of the parts he took were forgettable, until 1939, when he was given the role of the simple-minded Lennie in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. His superb performance became one of the two roles for which he would be immortalized; the other arriving within the next year, when he was cast as the tortured Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941). Chaney's incredible metamorphosis into a terrifying wild man was so inspired that it left an indelible mark on filmgoers. He attained the stardom he craved, and by the 1950s, he starred in horror films.

Despite being typecast as the Wolf Man, the 6'2", 220 pound actor managed to carve out a secondary niche as a supporting actor and villain in several crime films and westerns, including Big House, USA (1955), I Died A Thousand Times (1955), Indestructible Man (1956), The Silver Star (1955), and even a Martin and Lewis comedy, Pardners (1956). After making 30 films for Universal, he left the studio and worked primarily in character roles, including such notable films such as High Noon and Casanova's Big Night.

He became popular with baby boomers after Universal released its back catalog of horror films to television in 1957 (Shock Theater) and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine regularly focused on his films. In 1957, Chaney went to Ontario, Canada, to costar in the first ever American-Canadian television production, as Chingachgook in Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, suggested by James Fenimore Cooper's stories. The series ended after 39 episodes. That same year, Universal released the film biography of his father, Man of a Thousand Faces, featuring a semi-fictionalized version of Creighton's life story until his father's death.

Chaney was well liked by some coworkers— yet he was capable of intense dislikes. He had problems with actor Frank Reicher (whom he nearly strangled on camera in The Mummy's Ghost) and director Robert Siodmak (over whose head Chaney broke a vase). The late actor Robert Stack claimed in his 1980 autobiography that Chaney and drinking buddy Broderick Crawford were known as "the monsters" around the Universal Pictures' lot because of their drunken behavior that frequently resulted in bloodshed.

Chaney died of heart failure at age 67 on July 12, 1973, in San Clemente, CA. His body was donated for medical research, and the medical school kept his liver and lungs in jars as specimens of what extreme alcohol and tobacco abuse can do to human organs. There is no grave to mark his final resting place.

Joan Voss is a writer living in Salem, WI.

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