Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Bio

The following short bio was taken from a truly awesome book called "The Illustrated Werewolf Movie Guide", by Stephen Jones. It is a great overview of all movies that deal with werewolves and lycanthropes. If you are as big a werewolf nut as I, this is the book. The only place I know that carries this book on a regular basis is The Video Wasteland. Give Ken a call and tell him you heard about the books from this site. His phone# is (216) 891-1920.

Also, if you want to get the definitive bio on Lon Chaney, Jr, checkout Midnight Marquee Actors Series on Lon Chaney, Jr. It is a great book on this great man.

Lon Chaney Jr was born Creighton Tull Chaney in Oklahoma City on February 10, 1906. The son of silent screen star Lon Chaney Sr and his alcoholic wife Cleva, his birth was premature and he would have died had the doctor not submerged him in the cold water of the nearby Belle Isle Lake to shock life into him.

Although he expressed an interest in acting while still a teenager, his father refused to help him and transferred him from Hollywood High School to a business school. Creighton Chaney consequently left school, got married and began a career as a boilermaker, eventually getting promoted to secretary.

After his father's untimely death in 1930, the six-foot three-inch Chaney finally entered the movies. He made his film debut as an RKO contract player, dancing in the chorus of Girl Crazy (1932). Despite a series of bit parts (he was apparently cut out of The Most Dangerous Game [1932]), walk-one and a stint as a stuntman, he refused to change his name until 1935. "I worked under four names," said Chaney. "I did extras under one name, stunts under another name, bits under another and leads under my own name.

"They had to starve me to make me take this name," revealed the desperate actor.

He was finally billed as Lon Chaney Jr in the serial Undersea Kingdom (1936) and his roles gradually increased in such films as Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Jesse James (1939), Of Mice and Men (1939, as Lennie Small, the role which finally made him a star) and One Million B.C. (1940).

In 1940 he signed with Universal, who were looking for a new star to groom for their second great cycle of horror films. After appearing in Man Made Monster (1941), he portrayed the doomed lycanthrope Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), which allowed him to create his own, unique character in the pantheon of classic movie monsters.

"He was my baby!" Chaney remembered proudly.

The actor went on to recreate the role of Larry Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula(1945) and (Abbott and Costello) Meet Frankenstein (1948).

"Lon Chaney Jr was under contract and as far as the public was concerned, there were no other actors who could be the Wolf Man," explained Universal producer Paul Malvern. "There was never a nicer guy. He got along with everybody. He and Broderick Crawford and Andy Devine were all pals and they used to get together and do a lot of drinking."

"He seemed to have a need to be liked by people," recalled his regular co-star Evelyn Ankers. "When he wasn't drinking, he was the sweetest. Sometimes he hid it [the drinking] so well, that one couldn't be sure. But, if a dress were destroyed or a hair-do by the Pierce crew, then he heard from the front office; for they were afraid production would be held up and that meant money lost."

"He had that drinking problem," explained director Charles Barton. "By late afternoon he didn't know where he was. He had the problem all through his life, even when he was very young. I don't know why. I guess he knew."

Chaney even warned one director, Get everything you can out of me before 1:00 pm because after that I can't guarantee anything.

Billed by Universal as 'The Screen's Master Character Creator', Chaney Jr also portrayed the Frankenstein Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Count Dracula in Son of Dracula (1943) and starred in three Mummy movies and the Inner Sanctum series before the studio dropped him in 1946 because of his hard drinking and boisterous pranks on set. (Just over a decade later, when Chaney bought a house overlooking the San Fernando Valley, he was quoted in a newspaper as saying: "All my life I've wanted to look down on Universal Studios and now at last I can).

"When I got my break in pictures, in Of Mice and Men, I was Lennie, the imbecile," Chaney complained. It haunts me. I get a call to play a dumb guy and the director tells me not to be Lennie. But he's never happy until I play the part like Lennie, and then he doesn't know why he likes it! Now I'm typed as an ideal horror man. I scare women and children and give the men shudders."

Chaney continued to freelance in such films as My Favorite Brunette (1947), High Noon (1952), The Black Sleep (1956), The Defiant Ones (1958), The Alligator People (1959), The Haunted Palace (1963) and Witchcraft (1964), and he again played a werewolf on television in The Pat Boone Show and Route 66, and in the Mexican movie Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1960).

"All the best of the monsters were played for sympathy," he once explained. "That goes for my father, Boris Karloff, myself and all the others. They all won the audience's sympathy. The Wolf Man didn't want to do all those things. He was forced into them."

However, his life-long battle with alcohol problems meant that he ended his career in such low-budget trash as Spider Baby (1964),House of the Black Death (1966), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967), Dr. Terror's Gallery of Horrors (1967) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1970).

"They don't know how to make good horror films in Hollywood anymore," said Chaney. "Boy, they really need me!"

Anthony Eisley, who appeared with Chaney in Dracula vs. Frankenstein, remembered: "He was very, very ill then—he would have to lie down after every take—but to talk with him and hear his stories was just incredible. He was a wonderful, lovely, unbelievably interesting man."

When asked towards the end of his career which of his more than 130 film roles he found the most creatively satisfying, Chaney answered, "I guess it was the Wolf Man...since at that time it was totally new. The studio received more mail for me during that period than any other star."

After a successful battle with throat cancer, Lon Chaney Jr died of a heart attack on July 12 1973, aged sixty-seven. His body was donated to the University of Southern California Medical School as an anatomical specimen.

?1996 Titan Books

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03/25/07 10:43 PM
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