He is the most iconic actor to ever play the role of Dracula, so today let’s celebrate Bela Lugosi’s 122nd birthday by learning a little more about him. I think it’s safe to say that he is everyone’s favorite Dracula, with those piercing eyes, tightly combed black hair, long cape, and thick Hungarian accent. To watch him onscreen is to witness a person who exudes a suave and debonair style like no one else. Women found him irresistible, with that exotic accent and gentleman like presence. It seemed he had it all, money, fame, women, and yet the very thing which gave him his ticket to the top acted as a catalyst that sent him spirally down in his later years. Let’s learn a little more about him.
Bela was born in Lugos, Hungary (an area that is now part of Romania) in 1882. From a very young age he took to acting like a bear to a honeypot and eventually wound up acting for the National Theatre of Hungary. He only quit acting to enlist as a serviceman in World War I. Due to some political activism during the war, he was forced to flee his country and wound up in Germany where he took up acting again. His real name was Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó. I’m sure he realized how tough it was for the American public to adapt to foreign names so he changed his last name to Lugosi based on his hometown when he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. What a perfect place for a future vampire.
Landing acting roles in America was difficult at first for Bela. That is until he got the role of Dracula in the Broadway play in New York. It is said he was incredible in this role and brought to the stage a newer sexier vampire character the likes of which no one had ever seen. Audiences ate it up and the Broadway play was a hit. When Bela heard that Universal Pictures was considering making the movie Dracula, naturally he thought he would be their first choice. Boy, was he wrong…they had no intention of using him at all. He was crushed, furious and insulted. However, he didn’t give up. He knew that to make it in the unpredictable profession of acting you had to be tough and try, try, try again! So with persistence, he finally won the title role for the Universal Pictures 1931 film “Dracula”. And the rest they say, is history!
We all know how incredible he was in the movie. We’ve heard the stories that audiences were so frightened by the scene were he first decends the stairs of his castle, that some people fainted in the theater. Bela was a star. He became synonymous with the character of Dracula. The only problem might have been that he was TOO good. Studios did not want to take a chance on him for other acting roles. He had been unfairly typecast and was having trouble shaking off the role that had made him famous. Universal decided to offer Bela another monster movie role. Bela thought the role was too simple and weak and decided to turn it down. BIG MISTAKE. Actually he considered this to be the biggest mistake of his life. That role went to a relatively unknown actor named Boris Karloff. The movie…Frankenstein, which wound up becoming Universal’s most successful monster film and made Boris Karloff a top billed star.
Don’t feel too bad for Bela though. He did continue to get roles in many other horror films. In fact his performance in the movie White Zombie is considered one of his best. Bela actually starred in many films with Boris Karloff such as The Invisible Ray, The Raven, and The Black Cat. At the time, these movies were considered three of the most stylish and disturbing motion pictures ever made. Bela also gave a brilliant performance in the movie Son of Frankenstein for his interpretation of the character Egor.
Bela’s last performance where he teamed up with Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman was in the now classic comedy Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As Bela aged, he began having severe pains in his leg and back. He was prescribed pain killers to help with his chronic condition. Unfortunately he became addicted to the medication which caused a whirlwind of problems for him. Physically he began to wither away. He wound up getting a divorce from his wife. He finally checked himself into a rehabilitation center. Fortunately he was able to rebound and was one of the first actors to go public with his addiction problems. During this time he made several low budget films with director Ed Wood.
When Bela passed away at 72, his son and fifth wife Lillian requested for him to be buried in his Dracula cape. They said it was what he would have wanted. So he was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, Dracula cape and all.
If that didn’t satisfy your craving for Bela Lugosi, then enjoy this fantastic documentary on his life.