Studying Chaney’s Many Faces
Makeup artist Michael Blake doesn’t know why he became obsessed with Lon Chaney, but he knows how and when.
He was 10 years old when he was introduced to the protean silent star by his late dad, actor Larry Blake.
“My father was in ‘Man With a Thousand Faces,’ ” says Blake, citing the 1957 biopic in which James Cagney played Chaney. The elder Blake, who made an unbilled appearance as a theater owner, let Michael stay up late to watch the movie on TV. The boy was forever hooked.
At the time, Michael, now 43, was a child actor whose list of TV credits included “The Munsters,” “The Lucy Show,” “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Adam-12.” Michael had been acting since he was 3. He distinguishes himself from many other young performers by saying he is “a former child actor who never robbed a 7-Eleven or appeared on Geraldo.”
At 21, Blake decided to give up his lackluster acting career to become a makeup man. Did Chaney, who used makeup with such genius in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Phantom of the Opera” and dozens of less well-known films, influence Blake’s choice? Was Lon Chaney versatile?
Blake worries what a visitor to his Studio City home will think, given that a bedroom has been transformed into a Lon Chaney museum. Its treasures include more than 1,900 photos of the master of metamorphosis, who died of lung cancer more than 70 years ago, on Aug. 26, 1930. Blake hopes no one thinks he’s “one of those whacked-out collectors” who grow like ice plants in Los Angeles.
Not to worry. As Blake points out, “I don’t go walking around like the Hunchback. I’m pretty normal, all things considered.” For Blake, Chaney is a major influence, not a god.
Consultant on Documentary
Unlike many obsessions, Blake’s has been fruitful. He is not only an Emmy-winning makeup man (for an episode of “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”), but is also a respected biographer of Chaney, even though Blake is only now getting an undergraduate degree in film at CSUN. Because of his vast knowledge of Chaney, London-based filmmaker Kevin Brownlow recently tapped Blake to serve as historical consultant for Brownlow’s new documentary “Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces.”
Commissioned by Turner Classic Movies and narrated by Kenneth Branaugh, the film premieres Tuesday on TCM and will be repeated on Halloween. The cable network also will air eight of Chaney’s films.
Blake has also shared his expertise with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, where Chaney’s makeup kit and other artifacts are currently on display.
“We have about half a million objects in the museum’s collection, and the Chaney makeup kit is definitely one of the top five in terms of items we get queries about,” says Beth Werling, collections manager for the museum’s history department.
Blake has often helped the museum identify individual items in its extensive Chaney collection. “He’s hands down the most knowledgeable person about Lon Chaney,” says Werling, who thinks Blake’s own experience as a makeup man is a major asset. “He understands not only what is in the kit but how Chaney used the materials,” she points out.
Invariably, Blake carries a picture of Chaney in his own makeup kit. “It always starts interesting conversations,” he says. That’s how Blake discovered that Whoopi Goldberg is an admirer of Chaney, as is Johnny Depp.
Encouraged by Burt Lancaster
It was another Chaney fan--the late Burt Lancaster--who encouraged Blake to become an author. Blake was doing Lancaster’s makeup for “Tough Guys,” the 1986 film in which Lancaster and Kirk Douglas star as aging ex-cons set on one more heist.
At the time, Blake didn’t think of himself as a prospective writer. But Lancaster, who revered Chaney’s performance as the armless knife thrower in “The Unknown,” told Blake he should put all he knew about Chaney into a book after one of their many conversations about Chaney’s genius.
Blake worked unhappily with a couple of collaborators; then, he says, “I took my dad’s vaudeville advice and did a solo act.” His “Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces” was published in 1993.
Six months after the book came out, Blake learned about a cache of Chaney material he hadn’t known existed. Brought to his attention by the family of Chaney’s long-time business manager, the new material rewrote the history of “Hunchback,” Blake says, by showing that Chaney, not MGM Wunderkind Irving Thalberg, first proposed and fought for the project. The new revelations led Blake to write a second Chaney book and a third.
As a Chaney expert, Blake is distressed by the myths that cling to the great actor. He did not specialize in horror films, as people assume who confuse him with son Lon Chaney Jr., whose oeuvre included “Hillbillies in a Haunted House,” “Face of the Screaming Werewolf” and other cheap-o chillers.
Nor did Chaney drag around a 70-pound rubber hump when he played Quasimodo. The prosthetic deformity weighed five to 20 pounds, Blake says, and was made of plaster.
Lon Chaney in Real Life
In real life, Chaney was a terrific cook, almost as good a dancer as Fred Astaire and a passionate advocate of prison reform. It’s also true that his parents could not hear, and this is key to his greatness, Blake believes. “He understood what it was to be an outcast, because his parents were deaf,” Blake says. Chaney humanized the Other, the different. Even when his characters were evil, he created empathy for them in the audience. “That was one of his great strengths,” says Blake. “He could generate sympathy.”
Chaney so raised Blake’s consciousness about the deaf that he learned American Sign Language. Blake says a high point of his career was giving an address to students at the Colorado School for the Deaf founded by Chaney’s maternal grandparents. Blake is not fluent, but he was able to sign some of his remarks.
Although Chaney made only one talkie--a remake of his silent “The Unholy Three”--all of us carry around images of the Phantom or Quasimodo, even if we’ve never seen a silent film. But these makeup-intensive Chaney films are not Blake’s favorites. For him, Chaney’s finest are “Tell It to the Marines” and “While the City Sleeps.”
“They prove he didn’t need makeup to be an actor,” Blake says. “He’s just so damn good. You believe him as that Marine sergeant and that police detective.”
Spotlight appears every Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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