Best remembered for his iconic portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, Bela Lugosi is widely considered one of the greatest horror movie actors of all time. Lugosi also appeared in several films with legendary English actor Boris Karloff, delivering memorable performances that showcased his acting talents and continue to enthrall audiences decades later. While he was often typecast and his career experienced a decline in his later years, Lugosi's contributions to the horror genre are significant and his work remains highly influential. Lugosi was one of Hollywood's most mysterious actors, often telling stories and giving interviews that blurred the line between fantasy and reality, but even without embellishments he lived a fascinating life.
Bela Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, formerly located in the Kingdom of Hungary and what is now Lugoj, Romania. Bela was immensely proud of his Hungarian heritage throughout his life, inspiring him to adopt the professional surname Lugosi after his hometown. Lugosi was the youngest of four children and quickly developed a disdain for his father's strictness and formal education, reportedly running away from home at age 12 after his father's death though there are conflicting stories. "I was very unruly as a boy, very out of control," Lugosi remarked in an interview.
Lugosi later said he traveled 300 miles (it was actually 34 miles), primarily on foot, to Resita, a Romanian mining town, to work in the mines. Lugosi recalled the fear he felt working underground, saying, "There, in the dark bowels of the earth, I did sometimes think I might go mad ... there I learned my horror, now, of the darkness ... of the earth's deep darkness rather than the darkness of another world." He went on to work as a riveter building bridges and later as a machinist when he was 18, assembling large, powerful machines. However, he desired to work in theater and tried to land minor roles in performances put on by touring groups that came to town.
Early on, his lack of education proved to be challenging: "They tried to give me little parts in their plays, but I was so uneducated, so stupid, people just laughed at me. But I got a taste of the stage. I got, also, the rancid taste of humiliation. It was then I got, too, the knowledge of the main key to my character that I had the ability to focus my will, my mind, my body, my emotions into one deep and driving channel."
Records researched by Arthur Lennig, a cinema professor and author of Lugosi's biography The Immortal Count, indicate Lugosi's earliest performances occurred during the 1903-1904 season. He acted in small roles and because of his pleasant singing voice he often appeared in operettas, later joining other troupes at the end of the season and performing in several towns and cities, gradually refining his acting skills. Early in his career, he was credited as "Bela Lugossy," a name likely chosen since the y ending connotes nobility, something Lennig believes appealed to the young, hopeful actor. Lennig also mentions, "In 1911, perhaps feeling that the aristocratic name was too pretentious, he modified it and so became Lugosi."
His former acquaintances found him to be personable, polite, friendly, but a 'loner' and a terrible manager of his finances."
During the summer of 1914, the onset of World War I, Lugosi quickly enlisted in the army even though he could have obtained a deferment due to his position in the theater. He earned the rank of lieutenant in the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry, served in the trenches for a year and a half, and was wounded twice in battle, leaving the service to recover in 1916. However, another biography claims he was discharged after successfully convincing army physicians that he was mentally unstable. Lugosi rarely spoke about his time in the war but it's noted in Lennig's biography that one of his most prized possessions was a gold ruble, likely obtained from a Russian soldier. "Bela" was inscribed on one side of the coin and a hole was drilled in it so Lugosi could wear it as a chain.
Years later, Lugosi told a rare war story in an interview though its validity is questionable and it's mentioned in very few sources:
Following the war, Lugosi returned to acting at Hungary's Royal National Theater, frequently relegated to small parts while older, more experienced actors performed in leading roles. However, Lugosi was determined to succeed and his presence on such a prestigious stage attested to his talents.
An acquaintance who knew Lugosi during this time recalled in 1968:
In regard to how Lugosi was offstage, Lennig's biography notes, "His former acquaintances found him to be personable, polite, friendly, but a 'loner' and a terrible manager of his finances." Financial troubles plagued Lugosi throughout his life; he frequently lived beyond his means which caused him to declare bankruptcy years later. Lajos Balint, who later became the National Theater's literary manager, was Lugosi's roommate for several years and observed the actor's peculiar spending habits. Oranges at the time were rather pricey where they lived but that didn't stop Lugosi from squeezing five of them to make a glass of juice. Another amusing story Balint recalled occurred at the outbreak of World War I when he told Lugosi many products would soon be quite expensive, such as shoes. When Lugosi asked Balint why, he explained that soldiers would need leather for their boots. After Balint returned from work one night, he saw several shoeboxes and realized Lugosi frantically purchased multiple pairs of shoes.
In 1917, the film industry was developing in Hungary and studios were hiring stage actors to star in their movies. Lugosi finally started earning leading roles, aided by his acting skills, good looks, young age, and charismatic personality. "Unfortunately, most of the early Hungarian films have been lost through neglect, deterioration, fire, or the bomings of World War II. Of about 500 films, only a dozen or so remain, and Lugosi can only be seen in one of those." (Lennig, pg. 30). Lugosi appeared in several silent Hungarian films billed as Arisztid Olt. It was the film company's attempt to appeal to audiences outside of Hungary, changing actors' names to ones that seemed more pronounceable to European moviegoers.
Between 1918 and 1920, Hungary experienced political unrest following the war and Lugosi developed a stronger interest in politics. He fervently supported the revolution and became one of the leaders of a newly created theater union in late 1918. Perhaps the poverty he experienced as a worker and later as an actor in small roles guided his radical political views, where money would not be the primary goal of the arts and they would be purer and performed with passion instead. Once the communist regime was deposed after four months, supporters were purged, imprisoned, or murdered.
"After the war, I participated in the revolution. Later, I found myself on the wrong side," Lugosi recalled years later. He and his wife Ilona fled to Vienna in 1919, crossing the border while hidden in a cart beneath a large straw mound. Encouraged by her wealthy parents, Ilona left Lugosi and returned to Hungary, while Lugosi traveled to Germany in search of acting work. After appearing in a handful of German films, Lugosi boarded a cargo ship bound for New Orleans, Louisiana in hopes of finding success in the United States. He quickly made his way to Ellis Island in New York City and was lawfully admitted to the country, becoming a naturalized citizen a few years later. Lugosi spoke no English at the time but managed to find plays performed in his native language while slowly learning English from tutors and fellow actors.
His pipe smoking resulted in a large collection, though if he couldn't fit his thumb into the bowl of a pipe it usually became a gift for someone else."
An American theatrical adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula was written in 1927 and Lugosi was hired to play the titular character based on his acting ability, imposing on-stage presence, and his Hungarian accent that many found intriguing and mysterious. Initially, Lugosi almost turned down the role because of the character's lack of lines. The play ran for nine months on Broadway and was a massive success, with a run on the West Coast creating opportunities for Lugosi to act in "talking pictures" which were becoming popular.
Following the play's success, a film adaptation of Dracula was heavily discussed but several other actors were considered before Universal Pictures selected Lugosi, after he persistently lobbied to play the part he coveted and that he accepted at a low salary. Released in 1931, it was the first sound film adaptation of Dracula and Lugosi's portrayal of the menacing Count is widely considered to be the definitive Dracula. It was a mesmerizing performance with Lugosi's slow, deliberate pacing making the character even more mysterious and compelling.
Dracula was a landmark movie that firmly established horror as a credible film genre and was Universal's highest-grossing production that year. The movie's critical and commercial success also encouraged Universal Pictures to produce several other iconic horror films, including Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man. While Dracula paved the way for other movies, it resulted in Lugosi being typecast as a horror villain since his performance was so brilliantly convincing.
In 1934, Lugosi began working with fellow horror actor Boris Karloff and the pair would appear in eight films together. Despite many thinking they had an intense and bitter rivalry, they maintained a friendly, professional relationship, but rarely socialized off set as their hobbies and interests were vastly different. Karloff was more successful, usually receiving top billing in films before Lugosi, who harbored no jealousy or animosity toward his co-star. Both men respected each other's work and never tried to upstage one another, performing in several excellent films such as The Black Cat, The Raven, Son of Frankenstein, and Black Friday.
Beginning in the 1940s, Lugosi's career began to decline due to a variety of factors. Studio management changed hands and Lugosi was relegated to small parts, with movies capitalizing on his name value despite him not being in a leading role. Lugosi was also diagnosed with severe, chronic sciatica, causing stabbing pains running from his pelvis into his foot that Lugosi likened to a dentist striking a raw nerve. While aspirin is often used to alleviate the pain, Lugosi's stomach ulcers lead doctors to prescribe him opiates. Lugosi became dependent on them, particularly morphine. Despite this, Lugosi was cast as Dracula for a second and final time in 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, delivering an excellent performance as a suave, classy vampire in a film that parodied horror movie cliches.
The brief success was short lived and Lugosi began acting in movies directed by Ed Wood, an ambitious and eccentric director who made several low-budget films throughout the '50s. Wood had long admired and respected Lugosi, and genuinely wanted to help the struggling actor who was forgotten by Hollywood. Wood's films were poorly made and received negative reviews, but it was clear there was passion behind them and they were authentic attempts to make Lugosi a star once again.
Lugosi had several projects planned but passed away August 16, 1956 from a heart attack in his Los Angeles apartment at age 73. His funeral was small, attended by his family and close friends, and he was buried in one of his Dracula capes, a decision made by his only child and his ex-wife as they believed it's what he would have wanted. Lugosi experienced a well-deserved surge in popularity thanks to Tim Burton's 1994 film Ed Wood and Martin Landau's portrayal of Bela Lugosi. Landau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and several other major awards, though Lugosi's son criticized the film's portrayal as being inaccurate. However, Landau's masterful performance was a wonderful tribute to Lugosi and brought recognition to an iconic actor who was frequently underappreciated yet supremely talented.
In addition to being a horror movie icon, Bela Lugosi was also an avid pipe and cigar smoker throughout his life. Bela Lugosi Jr. notes on his father's website, "Once he lit a cigar, if he had to interrupt his smoking, he would leave it in some inconspicuous place like a planter box outside the door." While on stage, Lugosi's fourth wife Lillian would puff on a cigar to keep it lit when he performed on stage so that he would be able continue smoking between scenes.
American actor Lyle Talbot, best known for his work on the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, mentioned Lugosi's pipe smoking in a 1976 interview:
In Gary Don Rhodes' 1997 biography Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers, the author notes:
Bela Lugosi's powerful and ominous on-screen presence helped popularize the horror film genre, portraying mysterious characters and delivering enthralling performances. Lugosi's Dracula is legendary and iconic, spawning countless imitations and solidifying his reputation as a horror movie icon. Though he was often typecast as a villainous character and largely forgotten by Hollywood in his later years, Lugosi's work continues to be respected by horror fans and will undoubtedly be admired by future generations.