Bela Lugosi is arguably the original Dracula and most well known for his role as Dracula. But who was he before he put on that cape? And what followed?
Lugosi's birth name is Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko and he was born October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Kingdom of Hungary, which is actually now a part of Romania. He was the youngest in his family with three older siblings and was raised in a Roman Catholic family.
When Lugosi was just 12 years old, he dropped out of school, left home and decided he was going to go out and work various jobs. He found himself working as a stage actor and began studying at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts. There is some claim that he even acted in several Hungarian using the name Arisztid Olt.
Much later in life, Lugosi stated in an interview that he often told lies about his early years. This led to many reports contradicting one another. In the end, all reports were in agreement about his birth name, his birth date, where he was born, and that he began acting in Budapest at a young age. The rest of the details remain unclear.
When World War I hit, Lugosi served for the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1914-1916. It is believed that he was in fact exempt from serving in the military due to being a member of the National Theater, but he voluntarily enlisted. While serving, he had been injured a few different times before he left the service in 1916.
Following his service with the military, a revolution in Hungary began. Lugosi had been an activist in the actor's union which meant he was forced to flee Hungary. He first stopped off in Vienna before eventually making it to Berlin. Once he was settled in, he began acting again. He took on the name Bela Lugosi at a young age to honor his home and where he came from. He carried that name with him through the rest of his life.
It was also around this time that Lugosi married his first wife, Ilona Szmik. However, this marriage was short lived, ending in divorce in 1920. Their marriage struggles seemed to stem from political differences with her parents. The following year in 1921, Lugosi married again this time to a woman named Ilona von Montagh. This marriage was just as short as his first, ending once again in divorce in 1924.
After spending a couple of years in Germany, Lugosi traveled once again, only this time it was a much greater journey. Lugosi made his way across the Atlantic and over to the United States. He arrived in New Orleans in December of 1920. After his arrival, he made his way up to New York to be inspected by immigration officers at Ellis Island in March of 1921. In 1928, he declared his intention to become a US citizen and it wasn't until June 26, 1931 that he officially became a naturalized American citizen.
When Lugosi first arrived in America, he initially worked as a laborer. He made his way into the theater in New York City's Hungarian immigrant community. Together with other members of the Hungarian community, they created their own small acting company that would tour around the area and put on plays for immigrant audiences.
In 1922, Lugosi played his first role in an English Broadway play, The Red Poppy. Up until this point, he had exclusively acted in Hungarian plays. His first film role came the following year in a movie called The Silent Command. He went on to star in a handful of silent roles, often playing a villain. His English was very poor at that time, so working in silent roles was the best option for him.
By the summer of 1927, Lugosi's career was about to truly take off. That summer, he was approached to star in the Broadway production of Dracula. Playing the role of the vampire Dracula, Lugosi was a part of 261 productions with Broadway before taking the show on tour throughout the United States. By 1928, Lugosi decided to finish out his time with the play and stay in California once their West Coast tour wrapped up.
Once settled in California, Lugosi sought out new acting roles for movies. His time on stage caught the attention of Fox Films and managed to land a few film roles here and there. When he was not working on a film production, Lugosi would go back to play his role of Dracula on stage for a short West Coast tour. On film, he often played silent roles, or would play roles often listed as "sheik" due to his thick accent. All the while, he continued to push for Dracula to be made into a film production.
Lugosi found himself settling in to Hollywood society by 1929 which also led to a bit of a scandal. He had married a woman named Beatrice Weeks who had been a wealthy widow based out of San Francisco. Her first husband had been a well known architect named Charles Peter Weeks. Just four months after their marriage, Weeks filed for divorce from Lugosi stating that he had been having an affair with an actress named Clara Bow.
In 1930, Universal Pictures finally decided to take on Dracula and begin work on making it a film production. However, while Lugosi had become so well known for his stage performance as Dracula, Universal Pictures initially wanted to go with someone else for the leading role. In the end, they landed on Lugosi being the best fit and cast him in the role of Dracula.
The success of Dracula led Lugosi to find himself being typecast. With his thick accent, the available roles for him to play were limited. Many fell into the category of a horror villain. He did for awhile try to break this typecast by auditioning for different roles. In the end, he would always be known for his roles in horror movies.
In 1933, Lugosi took a fourth wife who was a 22 year old woman named Lillian Arch. Arch was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants and the two went on to have a child named Bela G. Lugosi in 1938. Unfortunately, this marriage also ended in divorce in 1953. This time, however, it seemed that the demise of their marriage was at least partially due to Lugosi's jealousy. Lillian had taken a full time job as an assistant to a man named Brian Donlevy on the sets and studios for his television and radio series Dangerous Assignment. Much later on, Lillian did go on to marry Donlevy.
At the peak of Lugosi's success, he found himself often paired up with actor Boris Karloff. While some have said Lugosi had a serious issue with Karloff, others have stated that the two were good friends.
Unfortunately, Lugosi's success began to decline in the late 1930s after Universal changed management. Along with the new management, there was also a British ban on horror films. Suddenly, horror films were off the table. Since Lugosi had been typecast to work in horror films, this left him with very few options, limiting him even further with his thick accent. When the few horror films came around, most often Karloff was chosen for the role.
Due to his lack of A list role opportunities, Lugosi began taking roles in more low-budget films. Karloff, with his growing success, could afford to turn his nose up to these roles. For Lugosi, however, he recognized that he could not be choosy. He would take the roles often more for the money than for getting his name out there.
In 1938, finding himself at a low point and in desperate need of a career boost, a California theater owner named Emil Umann brought Dracula and Frankenstein together for a double feature. This not only drew attention to people who had already enjoyed it, but new audiences as well. Lugosi even made an in person appearance to the shows. The double feature was a huge success and Universal took notice. From the success, they chose to bring Lugosi back around to star in new films.
Lugosi's time fighting in World War I caught up with him as he got older. Due to his injuries during his service, he developed severe chronic sciatica. When this first was diagnosed, his doctors chose to use natural remedies to care for him. Unfortunately, after time it continued to get worse and his doctors turned to prescribing him with opiates. In time, he became increasingly dependent on the opiates, specifically morphine and methadone. This dependency began to negatively impact his acting. In fact, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi acted the role of Frankenstein's monster, but Lon Chaney Jr. did the dialogue for the role. His final appearance as Dracula came in 1948 when he starred in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This would also be his last role in an A list movie.
Lugosi tried his hand at looking for different avenues for acting roles. He tried to break into the world of comedy, but found it a great challenge. Comedian Milton Berle invited him to appear in his sketch comedy show Texaco Star Theatre. What Lugosi didn't realize, however, was that comedy shows often don't keep to the script. Lugosi memorized the script, but got tripped up when Berle began to ad lib. On top of it, he was still seen as being fit for only a role in horror films. No matter what he did, he found it impossible to break away from his typecast.
Toward the end of Lugosi's life, he met a filmmaker named Ed Wood. Wood was an ambitious filmmaker, but frankly wasn't a very good filmmaker. He would work on a very small budget and came to be known as one of the worst filmmakers in the industry. But Lugosi was close to poverty and knew he didn't have the luxury of being choosy when it came to work. So when Wood, who was a long time fan of Lugosi, offered him roles, Lugosi did not hesitate to scoop them up.
Around this same time, Lugosi recognized that his drug addiction needed to be addressed. In 1955, he checked himself in to the state hospital in Norwalk, California to seek treatment for his drug addiction. He had just finished a film with Wood and the profit from that film was designated to pay for his hospital stay. However, when Frank Sinatra caught wind of Lugosi's struggles, he went to the hospital to visit him and even helped with his hospital bills even though the two had never previously met.
While he was in the hospital, a fan named Hope Lininger began writing him letters. It is reported that she would sign her letters to him, "A dash of Hope." Lugosi married Lininger in 1955 and the two stayed together through the end of his life.
On August 16, 1956, Lugosi died of a heart attack while at home in his Los Angeles apartment at the age of 73. He was buried in his Dracula cloak in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Rumors spread that being buried in the cloak was a request that he had made. His son, however, dismissed these rumors and explained that it was in fact his mother Lillian's request to have him buried in the cloak. She believed that it would have been what he wanted.
While Lugosi struggled through his life to get his big break, he is one of the many celebrities whose fame caught up with them after they have passed. His name is synonymous with characters like Dracula and the horror movies of his era. A German artist named Hartmut Zech made a point of creating a bust of Lugosi on a corner of the Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest in July of 2003 in honor of the late actor. Books, plays, and songs have all been written about Lugosi and various parts of his life. Lugosi's legacy will continue to live on for many years to come.