Lugosi, Bela (1882-1956)

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Lugosi, Bela (1882-1956)

With his aristocratic accent, distinctive profile, slicked dark hair, spidery fingers, mesmerizing eyes, and swirling black cape, Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi helped to create cinema's definitive Dracula, the vampire as sexual and charming as he is villainous. Born Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó in Lugos (the town from which he derived his stage name) near Transylvania, Lugosi came to the United States in late 1920 and, over the next few years, appeared in small film and theater parts. His break came with the title role in the play Dracula, which ran for 33 weeks on Broadway in 1927 and successfully toured the West Coast in 1928-29; this led to the 1931 Universal film, whose romantic settings and sexual undercurrents revolutionized the horror film genre and established Lugosi's place in Hollywood history.

Lugosi, however, quickly became the victim of his own success. Despite the stardom that Dracula brought him, he resisted attempts by both Universal Studios and the media to make him the heir to horror film icon Lon Chaney, Sr. Refusing to be typecast, Lugosi aspired instead to the romantic leading roles he had performed on the Hungarian stage. Unfortunately, his poor judgment resulted in a series of bad career choices, long periods of unemployment, and perpetual financial problems. Perhaps his single worst mistake was rejecting a major role in Frankenstein (1932), Universal's next big film after Dracula. Originally slated to play the monster, Lugosi disliked both the heavy makeup and the character's lack of dialogue, and so the part went to Boris Karloff, who soon surpassed Lugosi in salary as well as fame, becoming his lifelong rival. Even years later, when Universal again tried to exploit the public's hunger for horror films by teaming Karloff and Lugosi in such films as The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and The Body Snatchers (1945), Lugosi received second billing and played a decidedly supporting role to Karloff.

Lugosi himself helped to diminish his star power by taking small, odd roles like the Apache in Gift of Gab (1934) and lead roles in serial and in B and C movies like Ape Man (1943) and Voodoo Man (1944). Ironically, some of his most interesting and memorable roles were the types of parts he initially sought to avoid: the mad scientist, Dr. Mirakle, in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932); the zombie master, Murder Legendre, in White Zombie (1932); the vampire, both fake (Count Mora the actor in Mark of the Vampire [1935]), and real, (Armand Tesla in Return of the Vampire [1944]); and the sinister servant, Ygor, the broken-necked companion of Frankenstein's monster, in Son of Frankenstein (1939), another Karloff-Lugosi collaboration (and, apart from Dracula, Lugosi's most memorable screen character). Yet even within the genre he had helped to create, Lugosi's status eroded rapidly. He was not considered for the lead or offered even a minor role in the 1936 sequels to his classic Dracula and White Zombie. And in the 1940s, when Universal began producing new horror films such as The Wolf Man, Lugosi had to settle for bit parts, like that of a gypsy, while the title roles went to Lon Chaney, Jr. and other actors. Eventually, in films like the Bowery Boys adventure Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he took to parodying himself. As a means of financial survival, Lugosi pursued other avenues—stage, vaudeville, radio, and television—usually with limited success. The vagaries of his career contributed to the dissolution of four of his five marriages and to his drug addiction, for which he voluntarily sought help and which he reportedly beat before his death from a heart attack in 1956.

In his last years, Lugosi came to the attention of the notoriously inept director Ed Wood, Jr., who cast him in Glen or Glenda (1953) and in the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), which was built around the few minutes of footage shot before Lugosi's death for a different Wood film. The recognition of Lugosi's talent by Wood and other fans, however, helped to introduce the legendary actor to a new audience of filmgoers and to generate interest in his early work as well. Unfortunately, Lugosi never witnessed the revived popularity of his films. He died impoverished and largely forgotten and was buried, wrapped in his Dracula cape, in Culver City, near Hollywood. As bizarre as his screen persona, Lugosi was an actor of limited range but a man of many appetites—for women, reading, Hungarian food, good cigars, stamp collecting, and politics. Nevertheless, in a career that spanned over fifty years, he became part of cinema folklore and is now recognized as one of Hollywood's greatest horror stars.

—Barbara Tepa Lupack

Further Reading:

Cremer, Robert. Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape. Chicago, Henry Regnery, 1976.

Mank, Gregory William. Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration. Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 1990.

Rhodes, Gary Don. Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers. Jefferson, McFarland & Company, 1997.