Lon Chaney, Jr. (February 10, 1906 – July 12, 1973), born Creighton Tull Chaney, son of the iconic silent film actor Lon Chaney, was an American actor known for playing the titular role in the 1941 film The Wolf Man and its various crossovers, as well as portraying other monsters such as The Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Count Alucard (son of Dracula) in numerous horror films produced by Universal Studios. He also portrayed Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men (1939). Originally referenced in films as Creighton Chaney, he was later credited as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” in 1935, and after 1941’s Man Made Monster, beginning as early as The Wolf Man later that same year, he was almost always billed under his more famous father’s name as Lon Chaney. Chaney had English, French and Irish ancestry, and his career in movies and television spanned four decades, from 1931 to 1971.
Creighton was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Territory, the son of silent film star Lon Chaney and Frances Cleveland Creighton Chaney, a singing stage performer who traveled in road shows across the country with Creighton. His parents’ troubled marriage ended in divorce in 1913 following his mother’s scandalous public suicide attempt in Los Angeles. Young Creighton lived in various homes and boarding schools until 1916, when his father (now employed in the film industry) married Hazel Hastings and could provide a stable home.
From an early age, he worked hard to get out of his famous father’s shadow. In young adulthood, his father discouraged him from show business, and he attended business college and became successful in a Los Angeles appliance corporation. Creighton, who had begun working for a plumbing company, married Dorothy Hinckley the daughter of his employer Ralph Hinckley, and they had two sons: Lon Ralph Chaney and Ronald Creighton Chaney. But Creighton’s life changed forever when his father was diagnosed with throat cancer and died on August 26, 1930 at the age of 47. Many articles and biographies over the years report that Creighton was led to believe his mother had died while he was a boy, and was only made aware she lived after his father’s death. Creighton always maintained he had a tough childhood.
It was only after his father’s death that Chaney started acting in films, beginning with an uncredited bit part in the 1932 film Girl Crazy. He appeared in films under his real name until 1935, when he began to be billed as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” From 1942 onward, he was billed as “Lon Chaney” although the “Jr.” was usually added by others when they referred to him to distinguish him from his more famous father, whom Chaney, Jr. resembled. Chaney first achieved stardom and critical acclaim in the 1939 feature film version of Of Mice and Men, in which he played Lennie Small. Chaney was asked to test for the role of Quasimodo for the 1939 remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The role went to Charles Laughton.
Lon Chaney, Jr. in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
With his third-billed character role in One Million B.C. (1940) as Victor Mature’s caveman father, Chaney began to be viewed as a character actor in the mold of his father. He had in fact designed a swarthy, ape-like Neanderthal make-up on himself for the film, but production decisions and union rules prevented his following through on emulating his father in that fashion. Put under contract by Universal Pictures Co. Inc., Chaney was cast in Man Made Monster (1941), a science-fiction horror thriller originally written with Karloff in mind. Chaney’s performance led to an offer to star in The Wolf Man (1941) for Universal, a role which, much like Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, would largely typecast Chaney as a horror film actor for the rest of his life.
Chaney maintained a career at Universal horror movies over the next few years, reprising his Wolf Man character in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948); playing Frankenstein’s monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); and playing Kharis the mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944). He also played the title character, Count Alucard—Dracula spelled in reverse—in Son of Dracula (1943). Chaney is thus the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s major horror characters: the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, and Count Dracula.
Despite being typecast as the Wolf Man, the 6-foot 2-inch, 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). He also starred in a series of radio show appearances, including psychological mysteries on the Inner Sanctum radio show. 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, along with roles in lower-budget films and television shows. Chaney also appeared in on the stage in such productions as Born Yesterday, where he assumed the Broderick Crawford role.
Chaney established himself as a favorite of producer Stanley Kramer; in addition to playing a key supporting role in High Noon (1952) (starring Gary Cooper), he also appeared in Not as a Stranger (1955)—a hospital melodrama featuring Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra—and The Defiant Ones (1958, starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier). Kramer told the press at the time that whenever a script came in with a role too difficult for most actors in Hollywood, he called Chaney.
One of his most legendary roles was a live television version of Frankenstein on the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow for which he allegedly showed up drunk, though that contention is unsubstantiated. During the live broadcast, Chaney, playing the Monster, apparently thought it was just a rehearsal and he would pick up furniture that he was supposed to break, only to gingerly put it back down while muttering, “I saved it for you.”
He became quite 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 popular film biography of his father, Man of a Thousand Faces, featuring a semi-fictionalized version of Creighton’s life story from his birth up until his father’s death. Roger Smith played the young Creighton. He appeared in a 1958 episode of the western series Tombstone Territory titled “The Black Marshal from Deadwood”, and appeared in numerous western series such as Rawhide. He also hosted the 13-episode television anthology series 13 Demon Street in 1959, which was created by Curt Siodmak.