Ask anyone about Bela Lugosi, and you’ll most likely find yourself talking about the film Dracula. Bela’s role as Count Dracula in the 1932 Universal Studios film became a shadow that followed him throughout his career.
Most people who only casually watch classic cinema don’t realize that Bela had a very long and prolific career filled with ups and downs that both helped and hurt him. The highlight of his career was obviously his role in Dracula, but one of the biggest mistakes he ever made in many people’s opinion was when he turned down the role of the Frankenstein monster in Universal’s Frankenstein. Bela was offered the role and turned it down because the part offered him no dialogue and he would have been buried under heavy makeup throughout the film. The part ultimately ended up being played by another horror icon, Boris Karloff. For years rumors have circulated stating that there was a bitter rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff. This was in fact, not the case at all. Both men’s children have stated that the only rivalry that existed between them was when they were up for the same part. The two men hardly ever met socially off the set, but their children insist that they got along well and respected each other.
It’s hard for many people to think of Bela Lugosi as anything other than a personification of the roles that he played, but off camera, he led a very extraordinary life full of problems and danger, romance and heartbreak, and more. But just who was this amazingly talented man, and what shaped him into the incredible actor that he was destined to become?
Béla Ferenc Dezsõ Blaskó was born on October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Austria-Hungary, which has since become Lugoj, Romania. At age eleven, Bela ran away from his home and his overly strict father, Istvan, who was a banker. He went to the city of Resita where he worked as a miner for several years before he gradually started working in the theater. He was given bit parts in various plays but was more often than not laughed off the stage. From there he moved on to Szadbadka where he met up with his sister Vilma and his mother. From them, he discovered that his father had died after losing all of the family’s money.
In 1898 he re-entered school, but only stayed for four months before he ended up back in the theater. To make ends meet during this period, Bela worked for the railroad and performed in the theater on the side. This experience in the theater was far different from his earlier experiences. This time he was adored by audiences and eventually became the top-billing member of the theater group. It was during this period that Bela adopted the name Lugosi, which was a derivative of the name of Lugos, the town in which he was born.
In 1914, Bela enlisted in the Hungarian army, from which he was later discharged in 1916 after convincing military officials that he was mentally unstable. On June 25, 1917, Bela married his first wife, Ilona Szmik, and soon after that he played the lead role in his first film entitled “A Leopárd”.
After the war, he was a member of the communist regime and as a result was placed on a list of people in the group that were to be arrested. He fled to Vienna in 1919 and then to Germany following that. While there, he played roles in several German films including Sklaven Fremedes Willens in 1919 and Der Januskopf in 1920. Shortly after, Bela received a telegram from his wife Ilona saying that she had divorced him.
In December of 1920, Bela immigrated to the US where he found love once more. He married Ilona von Montágh in September of 1921. Unfortunately, this relationship only lasted a few years and in February of 1924, they divorced. It was during this time however that Bela appeared in his first American film called “The Silent Command” in which he played the villain.
Bela’s first appearance as Count Dracula came in 1929 when he took actor Raymond Huntley’s place in Horace Liveright’s play. The play ran for thirty-three weeks on Broadway and also toured the entire West Coast. Soon after, the rights to the play were bought by Universal Studios. Universal originally had wanted Lon Chaney Sr. to play the role of Dracula, but when Chaney died of throat cancer August 26, 1930, another actor named Ian Keith was considered for the role before it was finally given to Bela. He received $3,500 for the role, which was only a fraction of what costar David Manners received for his part in the film.
On July 27, 1929, Bela married his third wife, Beatrice Woodruff Weeks. This marriage lasted only four days, and on July 30, 1929 they divorced. Clara Bow, a woman with which Bela had had a brief affair with a year earlier, was named as the “other woman” in the divorce filing.
The next few years were good for Bela. He appeared in a string of B-Movies, which included some of his better known films such as White Zombie, The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, and The Raven. On June 26, 1931, Bela officially became a US citizen, and later, in the mid thirties, Lugosi helped to organize the Screen Actors Guild and joined the organization as member #23.
In January of 1931, he married 20 year old Lillian Arch. Bela and Lillian were married for 20 years and on January 5, 1938, Lillian gave birth to a son whom they named Bela Lugosi Jr. Just as a side note here, Bela Lugosi Jr. did not follow in his father’s footsteps and instead became a lawyer and practiced law in Los Angeles, California.
Work was scarce for Bela in the late thirties and the whole of the forties, leaving Bela wondering how he would support his family. What little work he did find paid next to nothing and in August of 1944, the strain led to a short separation between him and Lillian. Their marriage lasted for several more years, but ultimately ended up in a divorce in 1951.
The fifties were largely considered a time of decline for Lugosi. It was during this time that Lugosi met and befriended Edward D. Wood Jr.. Bela appeared in several of Wood’s films, but only had the lead in one, Bride of the Monster, in which he played mad scientist Dr. Eric Vornoff. The other two Ed Wood films that Lugosi appeared in were Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Lugosi passed away shortly before the filming of Plan 9, and the footage you see of him in that film was actually rumored to have been shot for another Ed Wood film called “The Ghoul Goes West”, though that has never been confirmed and the footage doesn’t really match anything in that script. Lugosi’s stand-in for the rest of the scenes in Plan 9 was actually Ed Wood’s wife’s chiropractor who played every scene with a cape strategically pulled up over his face. Many people have expressed the opinion that Bela’s appearances in Wood’s films were demeaning to the legendary actor. I have to disagree. I’ve seen these films, and I saw how Bela played his roles in them and you could see the pride and dignity with which he played the parts. His career had dwindled over the years and Ed gave him a chance to spend his final days doing what he was born to do. The films in their own way were quite good, and his role in Bride of the Monster was especially fun. Bela got to live out his final days doing what he loved to do, and anyone who says anything to demean that, should really think hard about what those roles really meant to Lugosi at that point in his life. Think what you want about the films, but never assume that Lugosi found his roles in them demeaning, because it’s my guess that he didn’t.
In 1955, Bela had himself committed to the Los Angeles County General Hospital to help him recover from a morphine addiction. During his period of addiction, Bela used to sip burgundy on the sets of his films to help cover up his heroin use. He had been taking the morphine for quite some time to relieve what he said were shooting pains in his legs. On August 3, 1955, he was released from the hospital after finally beating his addiction to the drug.
Not long after Bela’s release from the hospital, he married Hope Lininger, a fan who had written to him every single day he was in the hospital. Hope was his fifth wife, and he was married to her until he died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956. Legend has it that “Final Curtain” was the script that Bela was reading when he died. When they found Bela on the couch, he was still clutching the script in his hands; a script, which was written by his good friend Ed Wood.
Lugosi was in such poor financial condition when he passed away that Frank Sinatra quietly paid for his funeral. Bela was laid to rest in his Dracula cape, and as his friends Vincent Price and Peter Lorre stood by the casket, Lorre quipped, “Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart just in case?”
The life of Bela Lugosi was eventful to say the least and although he traveled over many hills and valleys on the road of success, in the end he left us all with a legacy that can never be forgotten. In the hearts and minds of millions, he will always be the one and only Count Dracula, but for those who look deeper, they will see the man beneath the cape and truly understand why this man was so incredibly special.