Researching Lon Chaney for a different article I hoped to write, I fell into a rather interesting little tale involving his son, a great actor in his own right: Lon Chaney Jr. The role for which Chaney Jr. is known (and was typecast throughout his career) for is of course that of The Wolfman. But Chaney was a perennial go-to for Universal in the forties, holding the distinct honor of being the only actor of Universal’s lot to portray each of the Big Four (The Monster, The Mummy, Dracula*, and the big bad Wolfman).
Like his father, Chaney Jr.’s legacy is no stranger to hyperbole and fanciful legend. While it’s widely know that the actor struggled mightily with alcohol, this story regarding Chaney Jr. and his appearance on a 1952 episode of sci-fi anthology series Tales of Tomorrow has been misreported to a point worthy of urban legend status. But it’s a fun story, so let’s tell it anyway:
Running for two seasons (1952-3) on ABC, Tales of Tomorrow was ahead of its time in some respects. Keep in mind that this was still a full seven years before Rod Serling would unfurl his Twilight Zone on an unsuspecting populace. What further set Tales apart was its penchant for covering public domain as well as broadcasting live performances. So when viewers watched Thomas Mitchell play Captain Nemo in a retelling of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, they were seeing it live as it happened in the studio.
Further complicating matters, full 30 minute episodes were truncated down to roughly 23-1/2 minutes as room needed to be left for commercials, meaning adaptations of works such as Leagues or Frankenstein would need to be horrendously condensed to the point of butchery.
Which is how something like what happened during the Frankenstein episode of 1952 would come to pass. Line flubs were commonplace on a show such as this, but Chaney Jr.’s bizarre performance as Frankenstein’s Monster was something else entirely. As legend has it, the star arrived on set terribly inebriated on the sauce. Chaney Jr. mistook his live performance, one he didn’t realize was being broadcast to millions of homes throughout the United States, for a dress rehearsal.
That fact becomes woefully noticeable in Chaney Jr.’s handling of the on-set props. Where his Monster was scripted to break and bash furniture, Chaney Jr. would simply pick it up angrily as if about to throw a chair, then gingerly set it back down in its place. The first sequence (beginning at 11:30 in the below video) sees the Monster picking up two wooden chairs only to thoughtfully place them back on the ground. Even better, when he sets the second chair down (11:59), the camera catches Chaney Jr. growl “I saved it for you,” which, when you stop and think about it, is an adorable thing for a monster to do**.
The question, of course, is “What was up with Lon Chaney Jr.?” While the actor’s careful attention to the furniture is definitely noticeable, the truth was confirmed by Chaney himself only to be disregarded for the more salacious byline that he was intoxicated.
By the time Chaney Jr. arrived on set, he’d been in a make-up chair for a full four hours as fx artists assemble what was, for its time, a fairly complex mask. When he finally did show up, Chaney Jr. had completely lost track of time, believing the run-through he was participating in was in fact the dress rehearsal.
While Chaney absolutely could have been drinking at the time, it seems rather implausible if his side of the story is taken into account, especially considering eating or drinking would’ve wreaked havoc on what looks like a pretty solid make-up job.
Regardless of the truth, the story endured to become Tales of Tomorrow’s one longstanding contribution to popular consciousness. And Chaney recovered just fine, going on to key supporting roles in Gary Cooper films and working up to ’71 before his death from throat cancer two years later (brought on thanks in no small part to decades of drinking and smoking).
Lon Chaney Jr.’s work has aged beautifully; his Universal catalogue having been rediscovered by baby-boomers and passed on in the generations since. While The Wolfman will always, rightfully be the performance he’s most noted for, his turn as a furniture loving Frankenstein Monster shall never be forgotten.
Thanks for saving it for us, Lon.
*In actuality, Chaney played the title character in Son of Dracula.
**Another glaring example occurs at 14:59, when the monster violently swings yet another chair only to place it back down upright intact.