Family & Companions
Though he achieved a great deal of fame for playing Count Dracula both on stage and on the screen, actor Bela Lugosi suffered a lifetime of being typecast as a horror villain or mad scientist - a problem that was only exacerbated by a serious morphine addiction later in his career. Lugosi started making movies in his native Hungary and moved on to German productions before finally landing in the United States. After a number of supporting roles, he was the lead in a highly successful stage production of "Dracula" (1927) in New York, which eventually led to him starring in the 1931 film adaptation. "Dracula" became a box office hit and propelled the thickly accented Lugosi into a number of horror movies, including "White Zombie" (1932), "The Black Cat" (1934) and "The Raven" (1935). Almost immediately, he recognized the danger of being typecast, but failed to break free of the confines of horror despite his best efforts. Even an acclaimed performance in the comedy "Ninotchka" (1939) written by Billy Wilder did nothing to shake convention. He spent the 1940s in a string of mediocre B-flicks while growing increasingly dependant on morphine, only to be briefly rescued from obscurity by notorious filmmaker, Ed Wood, who cast him in "Glen or Glenda" (1953) and "Bride of the Monster" (1955), widely cited as two of the worst movies ever made. Despite an ignominious end to his life and career, Lugosi was nonetheless instrumental in bringing the horror genre to prominence - an influence felt well into the next century.
Born Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó on Oct. 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary, Lugosi was raised by his father, Istvan, a banker, and his mother, Paula, both of whom reared their children in a Roman Catholic home. At 12 years old, he dropped out of school and by his early twenties, began acting in small roles for provincial theater. In 1911, Lugosi appeared in a number of stage productions and was a member of the National Theatre of Hungary, for whom he performed a variety of small and supporting roles. When World War I broke out, Lugosi joined the fight as a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Army and was wounded on the Russian front after rising to captain, serving from 1914-16. Three years later, he fled his homeland during the Hungarian Revolution - a short-lived period where Communism took root after the war - and found his way first to Austria and then German, where he continued to act. Having already made his film debut in "A Leopard" (1917) under the name Arisztid Olt, Lugosi began appearing in several acclaimed German silent films, including "On the Brink of Paradise" (1920) and "The Caravan of Death" (1920).
In 1921, Lugosi intended to immigrate to the United States via New Orleans, but instead found himself entering the country through Ellis Island in New York that March. When he first arrived, Lugosi worked as a laborer before he returned to the stage in the immigrant Hungarian community, making his U.S. stage debut in "The Red Poppy" (1922) while forming the Hungarian Repertory Theatre that same year. After making his American film debut in "The Silent Command" (1923), Lugosi appeared in a number of stage productions, including a long run in "The Devil in the Cheese," before tackling his most memorable role. He made his first appearance as "Dracula" in a popular 1927 stage production in New York, playing the part for over 260 performances before Hollywood began offering him film roles - namely character spots in pictures like "How to Handle Women" (1928) and "Woman of All Nations" (1931). Though not the first choice of director Tod Browning, Lugosi went on to reprise his stage role for the feature adaptation of "Dracula" (1931), which originally had Lon Chaney slotted to play the vampire until he died of a throat hemorrhage.
Nonetheless, Lugosi made an indelible mark as Count Dracula, with his macabre appearance, strikingly theatrical performance style, and thick Hungarian accent making him the very incarnation of evil. Though at first the studio was nervous about audiences accepting a supernatural thriller, Universal Pictures was thrilled when "Dracula" became a huge box office hit, paving the way for such other horror classics as "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1932) and "The Invisible Man" (1933). Meanwhile, Lugosi hit the peak of his fame with starring roles in "White Zombie" (1932), "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932) and "The Black Cat" (1934), though he was typically typecast as a horror villain - a dilemma that plagued him for the rest of his career. He tried in vain to establish himself in other genres, but often lost roles to other actors that may well have helped him branch out. For a number of films, including "The Raven" (1935), "The Invisible Ray" (1936), "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) and "Black Friday" (1940), Lugosi was paired with another horror giant, Boris Karloff, though he typically received second billing below the British star. Though reportedly he resented Karloff's success, particularly in genres outside science fiction and horror, Lugosi settled into an amicable working relationship with the actor.
Lugosi's fine supporting turn as the stern commissar in the Greta Garbo vehicle "Ninotchka" (1939) showed that he could play outside the horror and mystery genres, but his career degenerated in the 1940s despite his best efforts to break free of the mold that had been cast for him. Throughout the decade, Lugosi played a variety of killers and mad scientist roles in lackluster B flicks like "The Corpse Vanishes" (1942), "The Ape Man" (1943), "The Return of the Vampire" (1944) and "Zombies on Broadway" (1945). During this time, Lugosi's career slide went hand-in-hand with an increasing addiction to morphine due to his injuries suffered in World War I. He made his final studio film with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), in which he recreated Dracula alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's Monster. Lugosi returned to the stage for the remainder of the decade, often recreating his role in "Dracula" or performing in "Arsenic and Old Lace." After returning from a six-month tour of England as Count Dracula in 1951, he starred in the low-budget horror comedy, "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952).
At this point in his life and career, Lugosi had hit rock bottom. Heavily addicted to morphine and living in near-poverty, he was briefly rescued by wide-eyed filmmaker Ed Wood, a longtime fan of Lugosi's who nonetheless became notorious for being the worst filmmaker of all time. Wood cast Lugosi in his cross-dressing exploitation film "Glen or Glenda" (1953) as a scientist who narrates the story of a man (Wood) who becomes interested in transexuality - often considered a semi-autobiographical take on Wood's own penchant for cross-dressing. Lugosi next starred as a mad scientist in Wood's "Bride of the Monster" (1955), which turned out to be the actor's last speaking role. During post-production, Lugosi decided to enter a drug rehabilitation center and managed to wrest himself from his addictions. But his victory failed to last. Following a role as a mute in "The Black Sheep" (1956), Lugosi died on Aug. 16, 1956 of a heart attack while lying on his couch in Los Angeles. He was 73. Prior to his death, Lugosi shot test footage of him wearing one of his Dracula capes in a graveyard. Ed Wood later crammed the footage into the notorious "Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959), widely considered to be the worst movie ever made.
Cast (Feature Film)
Began acting on stage in Dera, Hungary, under the name Bela Lugossy
Appeared in stage productions in Hungary
Screen debut (billed as Arisztid Olt) in "A Leopard"
To avoid political trouble in Hungary, moved to Germany
Immigrated to USA
Settled in NYC and formed the Hungarian Repertory Theatre
Made US stage debut in "The Red Poppy"
US film debut in "The Silent Command"
Enjoyed success on Broadway playing the title role in a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, "Dracula"
Achieved star status in films playing the title role in Tod Browning's film, "Dracula"
Appeared in the first of eight films which also featured noted horror star Boris Karloff, "The Black Cat"
Had a cameo role in "Ninotchka"
Played the role of Dracula for a second and final time in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"
First of three films for director Edward D Wood Jr "Glen or Glenda?"
Last film, "Plan 9 from Outer Space", directed by Wood; died during production; a double, keeping his face partly covered with a cape, stood in for Lugosi in several scenes
Portrayed by Martin Landau (who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) in the biopic "Ed Wood"