Born: Bela Ferenc Denzso Blasko in Lugos, Hungary (now Romania), 20 October 1882. Education: Attended State Superior Gymnasium, Lugos, and Academy of Performing Arts, Budapest. Family: Married 1) Ilona Szmik, 1917 (divorced 1920); 2) the actress Ilona von Montagh, 1921 (divorced 1924); 3) Beatrice Woodruff Weeks, 1929 (divorced 1929); 4) Lillian Arch, 1933 (divorced 1953), son: Bela, Jr.; 5) Hope Linniger, 1955. Career: 1902—first stage appearance in Ocskay Brigaderos, Deva, Hungary (under name Bela Lugossy); later acted with Franz Joseph Repertory Theatre, Szeged Repertory Theatre, Hungarian Theatre, 1911–13, and National Theatre, 1913–19; 1917—Hungarian film debut in A Leopard; 1919—left Hungary when leftists were defeated, and appeared in several German films in
1920–21; formed a Hungarian Repertory Theatre in New York, and made his U.S. stage debut in The Red Poppy in 1922; 1923—U.S. film debut in The Silent Command; 1927—successful Broadway performance in title role of Dracula, repeated in film version in 1931, and in later tours with the play; mid-1940s—host and star of radio program Mystery House; 1955—voluntarily received treatment for drug addiction. Died: Of heart attack in Los Angeles, 16 August 1956.
Films as Actor:
(as Arisztid Olt)
A Leopard (The Leopard) (Deesy); Az azredes (The Colonel) (Kertesz, i.e. Curtiz)
Alarcosbal (The Masked Ball) (Deesy); Naszdal (Song of Marriage) (Deesy); Küzdelem a letert (A Struggle for Life) (Deesy); 99 (Kertesz, i.e. Curtiz); Tacaszi vihar (The Wild Wind of Spring) (Deesy); Az elet kiralya (The King of Life) (Deesy); Lili (Hintner)
(as Bela Lugosi)
Der Fluch der Menschheit (Eichberg); Der Januskopf (Janus-Faced; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) (Murnau) (as butler); Die Frau im Delphin, oder 30 Tage auf dem Meeresgrund (Kiekebusch-Brenken); Die Teufelsanbeter; Lederstrumpf (The Deerslayer) (Welling) (as Uncas)
Der Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Daughter of the Night) (Eichberg) (as Andrew Fleurot); Nat Pinkerton; Johann Hopkins der Dritte
The Silent Command (Edwards) (as Hisston)
The Rejected Woman (Parker) (as Jean Gagnon)
The Midnight Girl (Noy) (as Nicholas Harmon); Daughters Who Pay (Terwilliger) (as Serge Oumansky)
How to Handle Women (Craft); The Veiled Woman (Flynn)
Prisoners (Seiter) (as Brottos); The Thirteenth Chair (Browning) (as Insp. Delzante)
Such Men Are Dangerous (Hawks) (as Dr. Goodman); Wild Company (McCarey) (as Felix Brown); Viennese Nights (Crosland) (as Hungarian Ambassador); Renegades (Fleming) (as the Marabout)
Oh, For a Man (MacFadden); Dracula (Browning) (as Count Dracula); Fifty Million Frenchmen (Bacon); Women of All Nations (Walsh) (as Prince Hassan); The Black Camel (MacFadden) (as Tarneverro); Broad Minded (Le Roy) (as Pancho); Murders in the Rue Morgue (Florey) (as Dr. Mirakle)
White Zombie (Halperin) (as "Murder" Legendre); Chandu, The Magician (Varnel and Menzies) (as Roxor)
Island of Lost Souls (Kenton) (as Leader of the Apemen); The Death Kiss (Marin) (as Joseph Steiner); International House (Sutherland) (as Gen. Nicholas Petronovich); Night of Terror (Stoloff) (as Degar); The Whispering Shadow (Hermand and Clark—serial) (as Prof. Strang); The Devil's in Love (Dieterle) (as prosecutor)
The Black Cat (Ulmer) (as Dr. Vitus Werdegast); Gift of Gab (Freund) (as man in closet); The Return of Chandu (Taylor—serial—features The Return of Chandu and Chandu on the Magic Island released 1935) (as Chandu)
The Best Man Wins (Kenton) (as Doc Boehm); Mysterious Mr. Wong (Nigh) (as Mr. Wong); Mark of the Vampire (Browning) (as Count Mora); The Raven (Landers) (as Dr. Richard Vollin); Murder by Television (Sanforth) (as Arthur Perry); The Phantom Ship (The Mystery of the Marie Celeste) (Clift) (as Anton Lorenzen)
The Invisible Ray (Hillyer) (as Dr. Benet); Postal Inspector (Brower) (as Benez); Shadow of Chinatown (Hill—serial) (as Victor Poten)
S.O.S. Coastguard (Witney and James—serial) (as Boroff)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee) (as Ygor); The Gorilla (Dwan) (as Peters); The Phantom Creeps (Beebe and Goodkind—serial) (as Dr. Alex Zorka); Ninotchka (Lubitsch) (as Razinin); The Human Monster (Dark Eyes of London) (Summers) (as Dr. Orloff)
The Saint's Double Trouble (Hively) (as Partner); Black Friday (Lubin) (as Eric Marnay); You'll Find Out (Butler) (as Prince Saliano)
The Devil Bat (Yarborough) (as Dr. Paul Carruthers); The Black Cat (Rogell) (as Eduardo); The Invisible Ghost (Lewis) (as Mr. Kessler); Spooks Run Wild (Rosen) (as Nardo the monster); The Wolf Man (Waggner) (as Bela)
Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton) (as Ygor); Black Dragons (Nigh) (as Dr. Melcher/Colomb); The Corpse Vanishes (Fox) (as Dr. Lorenz); Bowery at Midnight (Fox) (as Prof. Brenner/Karl Wagner); Night Monster (Beebe) (as Rolf)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill) (as monster); The Ape Man (Beaudine) (as Dr. Brewster); Ghosts on the Loose (Beaudine) (as Emil)
The Return of the Vampire (Landers) (as Armand Tesla); Voodoo Man (Beaudine) (as Dr. Marlowe); Return of the Ape Man (Rosen) (as Prof. Dexter); One Body Too Many (McDonald) (as Larchmont)
The Body Snatcher (Wise) (as Joseph); Zombies on Broadway (Douglas) (as Prof. Renault)
Genius at Work (Goodwins) (as Stone)
Scared to Death (Cabanne) (as Leonide)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton) (as Count Dracula)
Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (Vampire over London; My Son, The Vampire) (Gilling) (as Von Housen); Glen or Glenda? (I Changed My Sex) (Wood); Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (The Boys from Brooklyn; The Monster Meets the Gorilla) (Beaudine) (as Dr. Zabor)
Bride of the Monster (Wood) (as Dr. Eric Vornoff)
The Black Sleep (Le Borg) (as Casimir)
On LUGOSI: books—
Lenning, Arthur, The Count—The Life and Films of Bela "Dracula" Lugosi, New York, 1974.
Everson, William K., Classics of the Horror Film, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974.
Lander, Edgar, Bela Lugosi: Biografia di una metamorfosi, Milan, 1984.
Mank, Gregory William, Karloff and Lugosi: A Haunting Collaboration, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990.
Bojarski, Richard, The Complete Films of Bela Lugosi, Carol Publishing Group, 1992.
Marrero, Robert G., Vintage Monster Movies, Key West, 1993.
Svehla, Gary J., editor, Bela Lugosi, Baltimore, 1995.
Edwards, Larry, Bela Lugosi: Master of the Macabre, Sarasota, 1997.
Rhodes, Gary D., Lugosi: His Life in Film, on Stage, & in the Hearts of Horror Lovers, Jefferson, 1997.
On LUGOSI: articles—
Lennig, A., "Bela Lugosi: The Raven," in Film Journal (Virginia), January-March 1973.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), September 1982.
Beylie, Claude, "Lugosi, bel ange noir," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1985.
Weaver, Tom, "Bela Lugosi in Black Dragons," in Filmfax (Evanston, Indiana), December-January 1991–1992.
Stein, Michael, "Landau's Lugosi," an interview, in Outré (Evanston, Illinois), vol. 1, no. 1, 1994.
French, L., "Tim Burton's Ed Wood," in Cinefantastique (Forest Park, Illinois), no. 6, 1994.
Lockwood, C., "Bela Lugosi: A Modest Hollywood Bungalow for the Star of Dracula," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles, California), April 1994.
Hanke, Ken, "Bela Lugosi and the Monogram Nine," in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), April-May 1994.
Shay, Don, "The Return of the Vampire," in Cinefex (Riverside, California), December 1994.
Madison, Bob, "Lugosi at the Academy Awards," in Scarlet Street (Glen Rock), Summer 1995.
Kohl, Leonard J., "The Sinister Serials of Bela Lugosi," in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), March-April 1996.
Randisi, Steve, "Bela's Atomic Bride," in Filmfax (Evanston), May-June 1996.
"Bela Lugosi Transformed Motion Picture Industry," in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), June 1997.
Rhodes, G.D., "Bela Lugosi: Unmasking the Mysteries," in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), August/September 1997.
* * *
Though his talents were limited, Bela Lugosi was a screen original. His Count Dracula has become part of movie folklore; one cannot imagine the vampire without a black cape and aristocratic manner, intoning dramatically ironic or romantic lines such as "I don't drink—wine" or "To die, to be really dead—that must be glorious!" in a mellifluous or sinister Hungarian accent. Lugosi had been a matinee idol in the Hungarian theater and, to some extent, in the American: on Broadway, he played a Valentino-like sheik in Arabesque. His continental charm carried over to his Dracula—Valentino, the Sheik, through a glass darkly. Both are lady-killers, one figurative, one actual.
Lugosi rarely had the opportunity on screen to exhibit his persona's fatal charm. After he achieved movie stardom in Dracula, neither he nor Hollywood knew how to exploit his success or capitalize properly on his image. His one cinematic reprise of the Count was true to the original's spirit, but its context, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, precluded the possibility for any of the original's dark passion and sexual suggestion, as did his two Dracula imitations in Return of the Vampire and Mark of the Vampire (a stupid "elaborate hoax" movie, wherein Lugosi is a mute, snarling monster, revealed to be an actor impersonating a vampire; all references to the supposed vampire's incest were deleted).
Lugosi made one bad career choice after another. He rejected the part of Frankenstein's monster, but more damaging were the parts he too often accepted: supporting roles or red-herring parts in murder mysteries (when he should have been playing the actual menace), leads in "B" and "C" pictures, often serials. His poor judgment hurt him; each time a horror cycle ended, he was unable, unlike Boris Karloff, to find employment. (His only appearance in an "A" picture after 1933 was a one-scene cameo in Ninotchka.)
In only a handful of films did Lugosi exhibit the passion and obsession that were the mark of his most successful characters. Karloff's "mad" scientists were usually kindly, misguided, fatherly types whose attempts to aid humanity went awry. Lugosi's were monomaniacal, driven men who often labored all for love of (or lust for) a woman (for example, in The Raven, The Corpse Vanishes, and Voodoo Man). White Zombie and Murders in the Rue Morgue concern Lugosi's power over women; the loss of his wife and daughter spur Lugosi's revenge in The Black Cat and, for a change, a woman exerts hypnotic power over him in Invisible Ghost.
The equally obsessed Ygor—broken-necked, self-serving companion to Frankenstein's monster—was his other memorable creation, which displayed Lugosi's versatility but didn't help his career. He was more and more frequently cast as servants—either imperious (like his Dracula) or uncouth (like Ygor)—in somebody else's horror film, usually to lend menace to the production or another recognizable name to the cast.
By the time he played his last butler in The Black Sleep, he was associated with the inept Ed Wood, Jr., who, whatever his shortcomings as a filmmaker, treated Lugosi like a star. Wood cast him as the sage counselor in his very personal Glen or Glenda?, allowed him one last mad-scientist role in Bride of the Monster, and planned to star him as a vampire in the film that eventually became the infamous Plan 9 from Outer Space—built around the few minutes of Lugosi footage shot before his death. Wood's dim awareness of Lugosi's power and presence bestowed on the actor's last works a certain ignominious nobility.
Born October 20, 1882
Died August 16, 1956
Los Angeles, California
Movie actor famous for his roles in horror films
"I am Count Dracula!"
B ela (pronounced BAY-la) Lugosi is arguably one of the most famous immigrants in film history. Although his career began on the stage in his native Hungary, he broke into films in the early 1930s in America when he accepted the choice role of Count Dracula for Universal Studios. Lugosi often shared the screen with the highly respected actor Boris Karloff (1887–1969) in his many horror films throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, but he eventually took roles in lesser-quality movies, a career move that would prove his downfall. Per his will, Lugosi was buried in his Dracula cape.
Lugosi's career takes off
Bela Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó on October 20, 1882, the youngest of four children in an upper-middle-class family. At twelve, Blaskó ran away from his small Hungarian hometown and survived by toiling in the mines and railroad yards. He never let go of his dream of becoming an actor, however, and he eventually landed a small role as a chorus boy in an operetta, an opera that is usually in the form of a romantic comedy with songs and dancing. Through sheer determination and painstaking study, he eventually won larger roles that allowed him to travel throughout Hungary. Within a year, he had changed his name to Lugosi (meaning "one from Lugos," his hometown) and found himself in the desired position of leading actor in Hungary's Royal National Theatre.
Lugosi's roles were diverse and numerous. He appeared in as many as forty productions in one year, thanks largely in part to his singing ability, which gave him unusual flexibility. Lugosi had it all—good looks, acting ability, and vocal talent—and he used these qualities to his full advantage. His roles included Jesus Christ, Romeo, and a variety of others. In fact, it was his role as Romeo that brought him his greatest success at the time, and in 1911 he enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the capital city of Budapest.
Political turmoil sends actor to Germany and then America
After a short turn in the military during World War I (1914–18), Lugosi broke into films under the name Arisztid Olt. Although his acting career occupied much of his time, Lugosi had firm political beliefs and was deeply committed to change. After the collapse of the Hungarian monarchy, or royalty, and during the establishment of a communist regime in 1918, Lugosi worked tirelessly to organize an actors' union, an alliance of employees that works together to protect mutual benefits and rights. Communism is an economic theory characterized by a classless society in which goods are distributed equally, as compared with capitalism, which allows for competition and privately owned companies. The leftists, or liberal radicals in this case, who fought and spoke out against communism, were defeated a year later, however. This prompted Lugosi to flee to Germany, where he made another eleven films.
In 1921, Lugosi immigrated to America. In New York City, Lugosi established a Hungarian-language acting troupe and began to land character parts on stage and in films. The year 1923 would prove to be his breakthrough year in America. He scored the role of Fernando, the Spanish Apache, in the Broadway production of The Red Poppy as well as a no-table role in the film The Silent Command. Unfortunately, Lugosi did not have a firm grasp of the English language, so he had to memorize his lines phonetically, which resulted in a very accented—and exotic—sound. His language difficulties resulted in a flop: the drama The Right to Dream. Lugosi signed on to direct the production in 1924 but found it impossible to communicate effectively with the cast and crew. The producers fired him; he sued. The courts found him unable to head a theatrical production and ordered him to pay a fine of nearly seventy dollars. Lugosi refused, and the contents of his apartment were auctioned off to satisfy his debt. This language barrier would continue to limit the quality of movies available to the multifaceted actor throughout his lifetime.
Dracula is born and Lugosi is saved
Just when it seemed the Hungarian actor would find no prosperity in America, he was hired to portray Count Dracula in the Broadway adaptation of Irish writer Bram Stoker's (1847–1912) vampire legend. Although Vlad Dracula (1431–1476) was a real human, Stoker's version of Dracula had little to do with the man. Vlad was a prince, born in Transylvania (ironically, a region just 50 miles from Lugosi's birthplace) and infamous for his brutality. His signature in battle was to leave his enemies impaled on wooden stakes (hence, Stoker's Dracula could be killed only with a wooden stake driven through the heart). Despite his reputation as a bloodthirsty warlord, he was revered by Romanians for his ruthless defense against the Turks in the invasions that marked the fifteenth century. Although the author's book was first published in 1897 and has never been out of print since, it only recently was published in Transylvania for a Romanian audience that generally does not appreciate the defamation, or injuring of a reputation through slander or the written word, of their national hero.
Lugosi played the role of Dracula on Broadway for one year, then took the production on the road for two more. Reviewers generally denounced the production as worthless; but theatergoers loved it. While performing in California, Lugosi attracted the attention of the major film studios and won himself supporting roles in several early talking films. Before the 1920s, most films were silent, that is, the actors did not speak (although during the showing of these films, music
would be played in the theater by live musicians). The early talking pictures were not without flaws. There were problems with the amplification of sound, as technology was still in its infancy, and moviegoers often had trouble hearing the dialogue. In addition, because pictures and sound were recorded and played back using separate devices, synchronization was always an issue. In many instances, actors' lips would be moving, but the words were lagging behind.
In 1930, Universal Studios bought the rights to the Dracula story and began selecting the cast. The studio's first choice for the lead role was the legendary Lon Chaney Sr. (1883–1930). The actor was suffering from cancer, however, and would not live to play the evil aristocrat. Having lost his leading man even before filming began, director Tod Browning (1882–1962) began his search for a replacement. Having never agreed with Universal on a selection, he wanted an unknown to be cast as Dracula. When he could find no one suitable, he hired Lugosi at a low salary of $500 per week. The film—the first talking horror flick—was released in 1931 and sealed Lugosi's screen immortality; no one was more surprised than the actor and director when the movie became an instant megahit. Lugosi's opening line, "I am Dracula," delivered with a dark, brooding accent, remains one of the most widely imitated lines from a movie script. And those three words saved Lugosi's career as surely as they typecast him as a horror-genre actor.
Turns down Frankenstein
Having achieved instant international fame with his role as Dracula, Lugosi was immediately offered the starring role in Frankenstein directed by James Whale (1889–1957). In a poor business decision, Lugosi refused the offer in favor of playing the lead in a movie that never made it beyond the planning stages. The part was instead given to Boris Karloff (1887–1969), another horror actor whose ability to portray evil characters made him a screen legend.
Lugosi's refusal, based on the fact that Frankenstein had no speaking parts, harmed his reputation in the movie industry. Universal Studios did not appreciate Lugosi's arrogance in refusing to play Frankenstein, and top executives never forgot the actor's easy dismissal. As a result, his career seemed destined down the wrong path. Although Lugosi made dozens of films, some of them high-quality horror movies, many of them are forgettable, and he rarely earned more than $500 a week. He did not realize he was developing a reputation as a cheap actor, and he did not have the business sense to understand that he should have been paid much more than he was earning. Because he was not choosy in the roles he accepted, his box office value declined, and he was eternally downgraded to act in B-grade movies. He did repeat his Dracula role in 1943 and again in 1948, at the age of sixty-six. Unfortunately, he eventually found himself playing bit parts in comedies that were nothing more than mere parodies, or takeoffs, of the character he made famous. Lugosi acknowledged his fate when he called himself "Dracula's puppet."
His most infamous role was in a movie directed by Ed Wood (1924–1978), Plan 9 from Outer Space. Wood was known in the movie industry for directing low-budget films, and Plan 9 is considered by many diehard horror-movie fans as the worst movie ever made. Lugosi, featured in the film as a vampire, got top billing for the movie even though he died during production. He was replaced by Wood's wife's chiropractor (a therapist who performs spinal adjustments to improve a patient's health), who hid his face behind a cape for the rest of the movie. It was a sad ending to what could—and many say should—have been a glorious acting career.
The Dark Clark Gable
In his book on the subject of film stars of the horror genre, Horror Film Stars, author Michael Pitts shares some little-known information about Lugosi.
Unlike Lon Chaney Sr. and Boris Karloff, who projected their genre roles mainly through the grotesque (ugly, monstrous characters), Lugosi presented evil in well-mannered seductive ways, which certainly had an effect on the females of his audience. At one point in the mid-1930s, Lugosi received as much fan mail from female admirers as did handsome leading-man Clark Gable (1901–1960). This trend is doubly interesting since Lugosi worked mainly in horror films and at the time he was past fifty years of age.
Personal life tragic
Even during the higher points of Lugosi's career, his personal life was nothing less than tragic. When it came to marriage, Lugosi made poor choices, and his first three marriages dissolved before long. His fourth union, however, spanned two decades. Lugosi remained married to Lillian Arch for twenty years before she made the decision to leave the screen legend in 1953. Although they had a son, Bela Jr., life for the Lugosis was often overshadowed by financial concerns and the actor's addiction to morphine, a strong narcotic painkiller and sedative. He committed himself to the California State Hospital in 1955 to treat his addiction, but by then he had only a year to live. During this final year, he entered into his fifth marriage, this time with Hope Lininger, a loyal fan who had written letters to Lugosi every day while he was in the hospital.
As his career faltered, Lugosi became more eccentric. Earlier in his career, at the request of movie studios, he would appear in public in his vampire costume, and he even gave interviews from an open coffin. Later on, as his reputation became tarnished, he began going out in public in full costume of his own free will. His son has described the actor as a family man above all else, and indeed, his feelings for his fourth wife were passionate. Few people knew that Lugosi wrote poetry (from "My Darling Violetta," for instance: "Slumber envelops your beautiful face / And a dream grips your soul in embrace; / I will guard you"). Fewer still know that he studied modern sculpture.
Despite his personal and professional troubles, Lugosi remained active in political and civil causes. He was key in organizing the Screen Actors Guild in the mid-1930s, and he participated in fund-raising and morale-boosting efforts during World War II (1939–45).
Lugosi died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-three and was buried in full Dracula costume, including makeup and fangs, as requested in his will. He has since become something of a cult icon, and fans and actors alike remember him as a professional who, many believe, got much less than he deserved.
For More Information
Cremer, Robert. Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape. Chicago: Henry Regenry, 1976.
Lennig, Arthur. Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Pitts, Michael R. Horror Film Stars. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1981.
Rhodes, Gary Don, and Richard Sheffield. Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997.
"Bela Lugosi." Brian's Drive-In Theater.http://www.briansdriveintheater.com/belalugosi.html (accessed on March 22, 2004).
"Dear Old Pals." Winter Steel.http://www.wintersteel.homestead.com/files/JamesArticles/Karloff_and_Lugosi.htm (accessed on March 22, 2004).
Tournier, Johanne L. "Bela Bio for Flatt World." The Webworld of Bela Lugosi.http://users.auracom.com/tournier/flattworldbio.htm (accessed on March 22, 2004).