The film opens in 1930 at the Universal Studios where the flag is at half mast, Hollywood is in mourning over the death of Lon Chaney one of Hollywood's most famous stars. As a child growing up in Colorado Springs, Lon is constantly bullied by because his parents are deaf and can only communicate with sign language. Years later, Lon, now a vaudeville performer takes his pregnant wife, Cleva to meet his family and she is shocked to learn that her new mother and father-in-law cannot hear or speak and worries that her unborn child will be like them, as well.
Fortunately, their son Creighton is born with the ability to hear. As the years go by, Lon remains a doting father to his young son, but his marriage to Cleva is falling apart. Lon begins a relationship with Hazel, a chorus girl who sometimes takes care of Creighton. Cleva finds out the about relationship and attempts suicide. This causes a minor scandal and ends Lon's career on Vaudeville. Cleva runs away and Creighton is taken by the state. Lon takes the advice his press agent, Clarence Locan and goes to Hollywood, where he becomes a film extra.
Lon soon develops a gift for creating unique characters thanks to his acting skills and a little help of make-up and becomes a star billed by the studio as "The Man of a Thousand Faces", because of his ability to create and portray a wide variety of unique and sometimes unusual characters. Lon's personal life becomes brighter, too. He marries Hazel and gains back custody of Creighton.
Lon's star continues to rise, but during the making of "Hunchback of Notre Dame", his ex-wife Cleva returns wanting to see her son. Lon had lied to Creighton and told him, his mother was dead. Because he was deceived by his father, Creighton chooses to be with estranged mother. A few years later on the set of "The Unholy Three", a remake of an earlier film and Lon's first to be made with sound, he falls ill. At first he believes it is just tonsillitis, but it is actually bronchial cancer. He reconciles with Creighton as he is dying. Right before his death, he asks his son to bring him his makeup box and he writes "Jr." next to his name before passing away. Creighton takes the name "Lon Chaney Jr." and follows in his father's footsteps.