Thursday, February 10, 2011

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Lon Chaney, Jr.

Born 105 years ago today, Lon Chaney, Jr., was the last of Universal Studios’ great monster stars, succeeding his frequent co-stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and completing horror’s holy trinity when he first played Larry Talbot the Wolf Man in 1941. Along with the film for which he was most famous, Chaney acted in nearly 200 other film and television roles. That alone is the stuff of an eventful life. Here are twenty trivia tidbits that may give you an even greater appreciation for and understanding of one of monsterdom’s great icons. So sit back, sniff a sprig of wolfsbane, and dig 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Lon Chaney, Jr.!

1. On February 10, 1906, Creighton “Lon” Chaney was born to mother, Frances Cleveland Creighton Chaney, and father, Lon “Man of 1,000 Faces” Chaney, while his performing parents were on tour in Oklahoma City. Born prematurely, Junior was not breathing upon his entry into the world and the doctor declared him stillborn. His father rushed him out into the frigid environment, kicked through the surface of an iced-over lake, and plunged his infant son into the water. According to this tale—tall or not—the cold shock started the boy breathing.

2. Although Chaney was asked to test for the role of Quasimodo in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Charles Laughton ultimately won it. However, Chaney would get the chance to appear on screen as the hunchback his father famously portrayed in the classic 1923 version of Victor Hugo’s novel decades later. In 1962, he donned a Quasimodo costume in the “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” episode of the quirky TV show “Route 66”. Chaney co-starred with fellow horror legends Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff in the episode.

3. Ever since his tear-jerking turn as Lennie in the 1939 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Chaney always liked to have crying scenes in his films to flex his acting chops. He’d certainly have no shortage of these in his multiple appearances as Larry Talbot.

4. Just as his Of Mice and Men character dreamed of owning his own ranch, Chaney celebrated his Universal-era success by purchasing a ranch he named Lennie’s Ranch.

5. For his appearance as a caveman in One Million B.C. (1940), Lon Chaney, Jr., intended to dip into his dad’s old kit and apply his own makeup. Unfortunately, union rules would not allow an actor to do so, ending Chaney’s dream of becoming the next “Man of 1,000 Faces.”

6. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak didn’t originally intend Chaney’s character in The Wolf Man to be a Talbot, but Universal execs insisted on the alteration. So Siodmak changed the character named Larry Gill to Larry Talbot, a British expatriate educated in the U.S., which justified his American accent.

7. In his audio commentary on the Wolf Man DVD, film historian Tom Weaver points out an intriguing correlation between Larry Talbot and the man who played him: both had to wait until a family member died to capitalize on their prestigious family names. Talbot was not eligible to inherit his father’s estate until the death of his brother; Chaney did not enter into acting until the death of his father, who adamantly discouraged his son from showbiz and prodded him toward a more practical career: plumbing.

8. While enduring Jack Pierce’s application of the elaborate Wolf Man makeup was surely no picnic, Chaney found the makeup’s removal far more torturous. “What gets me,” he griped in Universal Horrors, “is after work, when I’m all hot and itchy and tired and I’ve got to sit in that chair for forty-five minutes while Pierce just about kills me ripping off the stuff he put on me in the morning.”

9. Wolf Man actress Evelyn Ankers once had her dressing room trashed by Chaney, with whom she co-starred some eight times, and his drinking buddy/sparring partner Broderick Crawford. Chaney thought that she’d stolen the room from him and Crawford. Despite her difficult relationship with Chaney, Ankers remarked, “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.”

10. Chaney said that the dogs used to double as wolves in The Wolf Man were not up to the task, refusing to wrestle with him on camera. So the actor suggested using Moose, a former police dog in the possession of a security guard at Universal Studios. Moose got the job done, not only wrestling with Chaney convincingly, but breaking bones in his hand with its massive jaws. Ever respectful of anyone capable of giving him a good fight, Chaney fell in love with Moose and promptly bought the dog from the security guard.

11. Chaney was proudest of playing Lennie in Of Mice and Men and rarely brought himself to say anything positive about his many horror films, but he had a special affection for Larry Talbot, often referring to the role as his “baby.”

12. Lon Chaney, Jr., was the only Universal horror star to have exclusive dibs on the monster he originated, playing the Wolf Man in all five films in which the creature appeared. He was also the only star in Universal’s employ to play all of the studio’s major monsters. Along with the Wolf Man he played the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Kharis in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), and the vampire in Son of Dracula (1943).

13. During a late career interview with Castle of Frankenstein magazine, Chaney claimed he played both the werewolf and the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and that Bela Lugosi may have been contracted to play opposite him but was physically incapable of doing so. This, of course, was completely untrue.

14. While filming Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Monster-portrayer Glenn Strange broke his ankle and was unable to film a scene in which he tosses actress Lenore Aubert out of a window. Chaney filled in for him in the scene, effectively becoming the only Universal star to play more than one creature role in a single monster rally picture (not counting Lugosi’s quasi-dual role in The Ghost of Frankenstein in which the actor played Ygor and briefly voiced the monster following a brain transplant).

15. Near tragically, Chaney attempted suicide several weeks after completing Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. His wife claimed the attempt was sparked by the emotional exhaustion he suffered during his arduous transformation scenes, which reportedly required him to remain perfectly still for as long as ten hours at a time. His alcoholism may have been a more likely explanation for the attempt, though.

16. In 1952, Chaney appeared as the Monster in a live broadcast of Frankenstein on ABC’s “Tales of Tomorrow”. Sadly, the actor was so drunk he thought the performance being aired was a mere rehearsal. In one instance in which he was supposed to smash a chair to pieces, he just lifts it, looks around in confusion, and places it back down carefully and unscathed thinking he’d have to destroy the prop at a later time.

17. The wonderfully goofy theme song of the 1964 cult classic Spider Baby was sung by none other than Lon Chaney, Jr., who co-starred as Bruno the Chauffeur.

18. The final time Chaney portrayed a lycanthrope on film was not a Universal picture but in a Mexican flick titled Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964) in which he played a mummified werewolf.

19. In 1969, Lon Chaney, Jr., began work on a family history to be titled A Century of Chaney’s. Although he didn’t get the chance to complete the book, his grandson Ron recently told Midnight that he is working on completing it as “a coffee table style book with short quotes and short stories on different characters. I've tried to enhance that by interviewing other people or taking excerpts from other interviews where people have talked about them directly. So, you can get a true sense of who they were by people that were with them, not just people that always write about them. Then, from my side would be what I've learned about my own family, the other side, the public side, and then the side that nobody knows about.”

20. Near the end of his life, Chaney appeared in unusually hoarse form on “The Tonight Show” and told Johnny Carson that his rasp was the result of performing his trademark Wolf Man growl for Halloween Trick-or-Treaters. In actuality, the culprit was the throat cancer that would contribute to his death at the age of 67 on July 12, 1973.

Many thanks to Psychobabble friends film historian Kenny Strong and silent-film composer Matt Marshall for assisting my research. Additional thanks to the great historians Tom Weaver and Gregory Mank, whose respective commentaries on the The Wolf Man and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein DVDs were absolutely indispensable.
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