By popular demand — OK, one person’s feedback from this week’s cover story on Herschell Gordon Lewis
— I resurrect our feature on another master of horror with Sooner State ties: Lon Chaney Jr. The below was part of a cover story I wrote for the Oct. 25, 2006, issue of Gazette
— the same story that profiled “Children of the Corn” director Fritz Kiersch
, if you want to read that, too.LON CHANEY JR.: WEREWOLF OF OKC
In 1941’s “The Wolf Man,” legend has it a full moon causes Lon Chaney Jr.’s character to transform into a werewolf. Equally as apocryphal is the legend of Chaney’s birth right here in Oklahoma City.
Chaney Jr. — in a story perpetuated by himself — was born two months premature on Feb. 10, 1906, “black and dead,” until his father, Lon Chaney Sr., dunked him into the icy waters of Belle Isle Lake to revive him.
According to Chaney Jr.’s grandson, Ron Chaney, he was then kept alive in a homemade incubator made out of a shoe box lined with cotton.
But Michael F. Blake, the author of three books on the elder Chaney, said “according to (other) family members, the story is complete fiction.”
“(Chaney Jr.) started it himself, because it got him attention. There’s no other proof that it happened,” said Blake, an Emmy-winning makeup artist currently at work on “Spider-Man 3.”
Oklahoma City remains about the only undisputed element of the story, as Chaney Sr. — not yet the famed silent-film actor — met his wife, Cleva Creighton, in OKC during a 1905 tour of the Columbia Musical Comedy Repertoire Co. He performed; she, only 15, auditioned as a chorus girl despite the protests of her mother, a local nurse. She didn’t get the dancing job, but she won his heart, and state court records reportedly show the couple as having married on May 31 of that year when she was 16.
Less than nine months later, their son — dubbed Creighton Tull Chaney — was born. According to a 1907 city directory, they lived at 312 W. Washington. Chaney Sr. made $15 a week in the rug department at Grand Rapids Furniture Co., until they left Oklahoma for good in 1908.
Hollywood followed. And, after Chaney Sr. died in 1930, Creighton dumped plumbing to take his father’s career path … and, reluctantly, his name.
“He was starved to take the name Lon Jr., essentially forced to by the studios,” Blake said. “Unfortunately, like many children of famous actors, he had to bear the brunt of being compared to Daddy. It was hard for him. He wanted to make it on his own.”
Said Ron Chaney, a swimming-pool contractor in California, “He knew his father was a tremendous star, but wanted to make it under his own name. It upset him at the time, but that’s the way it is.”
With one of Chaney Sr.’s most famous roles being 1925’s frightfest “The Phantom of the Opera
,” it perhaps was inevitable that Chaney Jr. eventually find his way to horror as well.
After scads of cheap Westerns, that opportunity came in 1941, when he was cast in the title role in Universal Pictures’ “The Wolf Man.” The film was a massive hit for Universal’s horror machine, and Chaney Jr. was tapped to reprise the role in 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (and again in 1948’s “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”).
But the studio wasn’t content with having him just sprout facial hair. Within two years, he was called upon to sport neck bolts, bandages and fangs in the title roles of the sequels “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “Son of Dracula,” respectively. According to the Internet Movie Database, this gave Chaney Jr. the distinction of being the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s classic monsters.
But “The Wolf Man” is the film with which he will be forever linked. The role earned him pop-culture placement, being name-checked in Warren Zevon’s 1978 hit song “Werewolves of London” and having his visage on a 32-cent stamp in 1997 — albeit under tufts of hair.
“Like (Bela) Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, even if you don’t know Lon Chaney’s name, you can show people a picture and they know he’s the Wolf Man,” said film scholar Gary D. Rhodes. “He has an iconic status.”
Chaney Jr. parlayed that success into a series of six “Inner Sanctum” mysteries for Universal, but as the years went on, the quality of his films plummeted. Witness “Indestructible Man,” “The Alligator People” or “Hillbillys in a Haunted House.” Or rather, don’t.
“Horror geeks like to think he was as big a star as his dad, but he wasn’t,” Blake said. “I think Creighton always resented or regretted horror films, really, because he got trapped in them, and then couldn’t do good work. He got stuck in a rut. You get typecast. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Blake said this was unfortunate, because if one looks at Chaney Jr.’s attempts at drama — most notably, the screen adaptation “Of Mice and Men” or the classic Western “High Noon” — he proved himself rather adept as a character actor.
“There’s solid supporting work there, but he was trapped in all this other garbage. And unfortunately, he had a battle with the bottle and didn’t quite win it,” Blake said.
Substance abuse problems plagued Chaney Jr. A 1948 article in The Oklahoman reported the actor was rendered unconscious and in serious condition from an overdose of sleeping tablets, but alcohol was his lifelong demon, particularly in his later years.
“There were drinking exploits with (actor) Broderick Crawford. He got into trouble here and there,” Ron Chaney said. “He was a very complex person, I believe. He saw an awful lot in his lifetime.”
His final film was 1971’s “Dracula vs. Frankenstein” (aka “Satan’s Bloody Freaks”), but being a no-budget schlockfest, it was a far and rather desperate cry from his Forties heyday. While his late-career star may not have shone as bright, it didn’t matter to his family.
“He was just Gramps to me,” said Ron Chaney, who was a teenager when Chaney Jr. died on July 12, 1973. “I knew he was the Wolf Man, but it didn’t really occur to me. He loved to cook and he wrestled with us — those were my memories of him. He was a gentle giant.” —Rod Lott