Béla Lugosi (October 20, 1882 – August 16, 1956) was an iconic Hungarian stage and film actor best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula in the American Broadway stage production (1927), and subsequent film (1931), of Bram Stoker's classic vampire story, Dracula.
In 1917, Lugosi married Ilona Szmick. The marriage ended in 1920 in divorce, reputedly over political differences with Szmick's parents.
On his arrival in America, the 6 foot 1 inch (1.85 m), 180 lb. (82 kg) Béla worked for some time as a laborer, then entered the theater in New York City's Hungarian immigrant colony. His first major American role came in the 1923 J. Gordon Edwards directed melodrama The Silent Command opposite actors Edmund Lowe and Carl Harbaugh.
In 1929, Lugosi took his place in Hollywood society and scandal when he married wealthy San Francisco widow Beatrice Weeks, but divorced 3 days later. Weeks cited actress Clara Bow as the "other woman".
Lugosi was approached to star in a stage production adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. The Horace Liveright production was successful. Despite his critically acclaimed performance on stage Lugosi was not the Universal Pictures first choice for the role of Dracula when the company optioned the rights to the Deane play and began production in 1930.
A persistent rumor asserts that silent-film actor Lon Chaney was Universal's first choice for the role, and that Lugosi was chosen only due to Chaney's death shortly before production. Chaney had been under long-term contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer since 1925, and his home studio was hesitant to release him to Universal for this project.
Chaney and Browning had worked together on several projects (including four of Chaney's final five releases), but Browning was only a last-minute choice to direct the movie version of Dracula after the untimely death of director Paul Leni, who was originally slated to direct. In reality, Universal's initial choice was probably Conrad Veidt, who had some acclaim at the studio after appearing in their production of The Man Who Laughs (1928).
Following the success of Dracula (1931), Lugosi received a studio contract with Universal. On June 26, 1931, the actor became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1933 he married Lillian Arch, his third wife. They had a child, Bela G. Lugosi. Lillian and Bela would divorce 20 years later in 1953.
Lugosi did attempt to break type by auditioning for other roles. He lost out to Lionel Barrymore for the role of Rasputin in Rasputin and the Empress (1932 film); C. Henry Gordon for the role of Surat Khan in Charge of the Light Brigade; Basil Rathbone for the role of Commissar Dimitri Gorotchenko in Tovarich (film) (a role Lugosi had played on stage).
It is an erroneous popular belief that Lugosi declined the offer to appear in Frankenstein. Lugosi may not have been happy with the onerous makeup job and lack of dialogue. Nonetheless, James Whale, the film's director, replaced Lugosi and would do this again in Bride of Frankenstein (Lugosi was supposed to play the role of Dr. Pretorius). A recent Lugosi scrapbook (see external link below) surfaced with a news clipping listing both Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the film together. This gives credence to the possibility that Lugosi was going to play the role of Dr. Frankenstein, as envisioned by Robert Florey (a contender to direct the film).
In a recent discussion, it has also been speculated Lugosi wanted out of the role because he and James Whale had different interpretations of the monster. There is speculation that Lugosi wanted to play the monster closer to Shelley's original, who had dialogue. Whale's interpretation allowed for no dialogue. Lugosi was quoted as saying the role "did not have meat enough." Cinematographer Paul Ivano, who shot test footage of Lugosi for the role of the monster, said that Lugosi was happy with the role, and had given him a box of cigars. Ivano and Robert Florey both noted that Lugosi's performance was not dissimilar to that of his replacement, Boris Karloff.
Regardless of controversy, several films at Universal, such as The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) (and minor cameo performances in 1934's Gift of Gab) paired Lugosi with Karloff. Regardless of the relative size of their roles, Lugosi inevitably got second billing, below Karloff. Lugosi's attitude toward Karloff is the subject of contradictory reports, some claiming that he was openly resentful of Karloff's long-term success and ability to get good roles beyond the horror arena, while others suggested the two actors were — for a time, at least — good friends. Karloff himself in interviews suggested that Lugosi was initially mistrustful of him when they acted together, believing that the Englishman would attempt to upstage him. When this proved not to be the case, according to Karloff, Lugosi settled down and they worked together amicably (though some have further commented that Karloff's on-set demand to break from filming for mid-afternoon tea annoyed Lugosi).
Attempts were made to give Lugosi more heroic roles, as in The Black Cat (1934), The Invisible Ray (1936), and a romantic role in the adventure serial The Return of Chandu, but his typecasting problem was too entrenched for those roles to help. And unlike with fellow Hungarian actors Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas, Lugosi's thick accent also hindered the variety of roles he was offered.
His career was given a second chance by Universal's Son of Frankenstein in 1939, when he played the plum character role of Ygor, a sly hunchback, in heavy makeup and beard. The same year saw Lugosi playing a straight character role in a major motion picture: he was a stern commissar in MGM's Greta Garbo comedy Ninotchka. This small but prestigious role could have been a turning point for the actor, but within the year he was back on Hollywood's Poverty Row, playing leads for Sam Katzman. These horror, comedy, psycho, and mystery B-films were released by Monogram Pictures. At Universal, he often received star billing for what amounted to a supporting part. The Gorilla had him playing straight man to Patsy Kelly, in a role she told Bose Hadleigh was her finest.
Ostensibly due to injuries received during military service, Lugosi developed severe, chronic sciatica. Though at first he was treated with pain remedies such as asparagus juice, doctors increased the medication to opiates. The growth of his dependence on pain-killers, particularly morphine and methadone, was directly proportional to the dwindling of screen offers. In 1943, he finally played the role of Frankenstein's monster in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, which this time contained dialogue (Lugosi's voice had been dubbed over Lon Chaney, Jr's, line readings at the end of 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein because Ygor's brain had been transplanted into the Monster). Lugosi continued to play the Monster with Ygor's consciousness but with groping gestures because the Monster was now blind. Ultimately, all of the Monster's dialogue and all references to his sightlessness were edited out of the released film, leaving a strange, maimed performance characterized by unexplained gestures and lip movements with no words coming out. He also got to recreate the role of Dracula a second and last time on film in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. By this time, Lugosi's drug use was so notorious that the producers weren't even aware that Lugosi was still alive, and had penciled in actor Ian Keith for the role.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was Bela Lugosi's last "A" movie. For the remainder of his life he appeared — less and less frequently — in relatively obscure, low-budget features. During the early 1950s he made personal appearances and did stage work, including a theatrical engagement in England. While there he co-starred in a lowbrow comedy, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (also known as Vampire over London and My Son, the Vampire). Upon his return to America, Lugosi was interviewed for television, and revealed his ambition to play more comedy, though wistfully noting, "Now I am the boogie man." Independent producer Jack Broder took Lugosi at his word, casting him in a jungle-themed comedy, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Another opportunity for comedy came when Red Skelton invited Lugosi to appear in a sketch on his live CBS program. Lugosi memorized the script for the skit, but became confused on the air when Skelton began to ad lib. This was depicted in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood, with Martin Landau as Lugosi. Though Burton did not actually identify the comedian in the biopic, the events depicted were correct.
Late in his life, Bela Lugosi again received star billing in movies when filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., a fan of Lugosi, found him living in obscurity and near-poverty and offered him roles in his films, such as Glen or Glenda and as a Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist in Bride of the Monster. During post-production of the latter, Lugosi decided to seek treatment for his addiction, and the premiere of the film was said to be intended to help pay for his hospital expenses. According to Kitty Kelley's biography of Frank Sinatra, when the entertainer heard of Lugosi's problems, he helped with expenses and visited at the hospital. Lugosi would recall his amazement, since he didn't even know Sinatra.
The extras on an early DVD release of Plan 9 from Outer Space include an impromptu interview with Lugosi upon his exit from the treatment center in 1955, which provide some rare personal insights into the man. During the interview, Lugosi states that he is about to go to work on a new Ed Wood film, The Ghoul Goes West. This was one of several projects proposed by Wood, including The Phantom Ghoul and Dr. Acula. With Lugosi in his famed Dracula cape, Wood shot impromptu test footage, with no storyline in mind, in front of Tor Johnson's home, a suburban graveyard and in front of Lugosi's apartment building on Carlton Way. This footage ended up in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Lugosi married Hope Linninger in 1955, as his fourth wife. Following his treatment, Lugosi made one final film, in late 1955, The Black Sleep, for Bel-Air Pictures, which was released in the summer of 1956 through United Artists with a promotional campaign that included several personal appearances. To his disappointment, however, his role in this film was of a mute, with no dialogs.
Lugosi was buried wearing one of the Dracula stage play costumes, per the request of his son and fifth wife, in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Contrary to popular belief, Lugosi never requested to be buried in his cloak; Bela Lugosi, Jr. has confirmed on numerous occasions that he and his mother, Lillian, made the decision.
One of Lugosi's roles was released posthumously. Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space features footage of Lugosi interspersed with a double. Wood had taken a few minutes of silent footage of Lugosi, in his Dracula cape, for a planned vampire picture but was unable to find financing for the project. When he later conceived Plan 9, Wood wrote the script to incorporate the Lugosi footage and hired his wife's chiropractor to double for Lugosi in additional shots. The double is thinner than Lugosi, and in every shot covers the lower half of his face with his cape, as Lugosi sometimes did in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. As Leonard Maltin put it in early editions of his movies guide book, "Lugosi died during production, and it shows."
Lugosi is mentioned prominently in the song "Celluloid Heroes" by The Kinks. In 1979, Lugosi became the subject of a song by gothic rock band Bauhaus titled "Bela Lugosi's Dead". In 2006, French bossa nova band Nouvelle Vague released their version on their second album Bande à Part. Voltaire has produced a song called "Vampire Club" which mentions "Béla Lugosi's still undead". The German musician Bela B. was inspired by Bela Lugosi to his pseudonym.
The biographical film Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994) is a sentimental interpretation of the relationship between Lugosi and Wood. Lugosi is played by Martin Landau in a good-natured and sometimes moving interpretation for which Landau received an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Lugosi's son, Bela Lugosi, Jr., initially disapproved of his father's portrayal in the film despite never having seen it. After a long correspondence with Landau, Lugosi, Jr. was persuaded to view the film in Landau's company, after which he declared that Landau had "honored" his father with his portrayal.
A musical about Ed Wood, called The Worst, created and recorded by American humorist, songwriter, and author Josh Alan Friedman, features two songs about Bela Lugosi, namely "Bela Lugosi" and "Bela's Funeral Dirge". Both pieces feature Texas-based gypsy jazz combo Cafe Noir.
Three Lugosi projects were featured on the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Corpse Vanishes was used in episode 105, the serial The Phantom Creeps was used throughout season two and the Ed Wood production Bride of the Monster appeared in episode 423. Screener Frank Conniff also championed the use of Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla for the show, but the remaining producers and writers rejected it for its poor quality. An episode of Sledge Hammer titled Last of the Red Hot Vampires was an homage of Béla Lugosi. At the end of the episode, it was dedicated to "Mr. Blaskó". One of the members of Mistula is named Bella Lugosi. In 2006, British rock band The Jalapeños included "For Bela" and "Hubcaps Over Hollywood" (about the Ed Wood films) on their CD "Go Ape!". They had contacted Lugosi Jr. with a view to using a Lugosi portrait on the album cover, but were told that they would have to pay Lugosi Jr.'s agent. Also the Dutch industrial glamrock band "Outerspace Overdose" has made a tribute to Bela Lugosi by quoting one of his lines from the movie Glen or Glenda in their song Disco Bloodbath on their album "Pull the stringk".
In 2001 BBC Radio 4 Broadcast "There Are Such Things" by Steven McNicoll and Mark McDonnell. Focusing on Lugosi and his well documented struggle to escape from the role that had typecast him, the play went on to receive The Hamilton Dean award for best dramatic presentation from the Dracula Society in 2002.
The Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City features a live, 30 minute play that focuses on Lugosi's illegal entry into the country and then his arrival at Ellis Island to enter the country legally.
The cape Lugosi wore in the 1931 film "Dracula" still survives today in the ownership of Universal Studios.