The name Dracula cannot be mentioned to fans of Hollywood horror without conjuring up images of an eerily charming man in a black cape and piercing eyes. This is the Count Dracula made famous by Bela Lugosi.
Bela Lugosi was born Béla Ferenc Deszö Blaskó on October 20, 1882, in Lugos, Hungary. He was the son of a banker, Istvan, who kept a strict house and the youngest of four kids. Bela ran away to the city of Resita at the age of eleven, never returning again to his hometown. There, he worked as a miner for a few years, but eventually began work in the theatre. He was given bit parts in plays, but was laughed off the stage most of the time.
He moved to Szadbadka, where he found his sister Vilma and his mother, who told him his father had died after losing the family savings. He entered school again in 1898, but stayed for only four months. It was back to the theatres for Bela.
After working on the railroad for some time, he joined a theatre company, and was adored by audiences. He was accepted into the Academy of Performing Arts, and it was during this period that he adopted the name "Lugosi.". Bela's first big break came in 1910, when he played the role of Romeo in Szeged, Hungary. He began to play larger roles in larger plays, and he was eventually the top-billing member of the theater group. He continued to appear in a number of roles at Hungarian theatres, including two major theatres in Budapest.
In 1914, he enlisted in the Hungarian army. He was discharged in 1916 after convincing officials that he was "mentally unstable." Soon after, he was married to Ilona Szmik on June 25, 1917. Acting under the pseudonym Arisztid Olt, Bela began his film career in 1917, starring in a number of Hungarian and German films. His first picture was 'A Leopárd', in which he played the lead role. He was part of a Communist regime after the war, and as a result was placed on an arrest list of people who were also part of the group. He fled to Vienna in 1919, and soon after to Germany. He played parts in several German films, including 'Sklaven Fremedes Willens' (1919) and 'Der Januskopf' (1920). A little while later, Bela received a telegram from his wife Ilona. She had divorced him. He emigrated to the United States of America in December of 1920. He wasted no time in falling in love with, marrying, and divorcing an actress named Ilona von Montágh. His first American film was 1923's silent film 'The Silent Command', a suspenseful spy movie in which Bela played a foreign spy who plans to blow up the Panama Canal. 'Midnight Girl' (1925) is thought to be the only silent film available of Bela's.
He took on the role of Count Dracula in Horace Liveright's play in place of actor Raymond Huntley in 1929. It played for 33 weeks on Broadway, and also toured the entire West Coast. On July 27, 1929, Bela married Beatrice Woodruff Weeks. On July 30, 1929 Bela divorced Beatrice Woodruff Weeks. Weeks blamed Clara Bow, who Lugosi had had a brief love affair with a year earlier, for the breakup. Soon after, the rights to play were picked up by Universal Studios. Universal wanted Lon Chaney Sr to play the lead role, but Chaney died of throat cancer in 1930. It wasn't until after Chaney's death that Bela was even considered for the part of Count Dracula. After much consideration, Bela was given the lead in 'Dracula' (1931). He was paid a total of $3500, a fraction of what second-billed David Manners received. Bela decided not to take the part of the monster in Universal's film version of 'Frankenstein', this decision is thought to be his greatest mistake ever. Bela felt that this film would not help his carrer due to lack of lines and he would not be able to be recognized through the makeup.
In January 1931 Bela married the 20 year-old Lillian Arch, this fourth marriage lasting 20 years. On June 26, 1931 Bela officially became a US citizen.
During the years after his role in Dracula, he appeared in many B-movies, some being above-average films and some - not quite average. Some highlights from this period in Bela's life include 'White Zombie' (1932) (Bela plays a zombie maker). 1933 brought us 'Island of Lost Souls' (this is an adaptation of H. G. Wells 'Island of Dr. Moreau'), (Bela starred (actualy it is more of a supporting role) as Dr. Moreau, the mad scientist experimenting on a secluded island with turning animals into humans).
In 1934 Bela shared the screen for the first time with Boris Karloff in the classic 'The Black Cat', this story was inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, although Bories' character was based on real-life occultist Aleister Crowley.
In 1935 brought us 'The Raven', based on the Poe poem. Once again sharing the screen with Boris Karloff, Bela this time around plays Dr. Vollin, a sadistic scientist. Bela's performance is notably one of his best, showing his theatrical expertise and larger-than-life characterization.
On January 5th 1938, Bela Lugosi, Jr. was born to Bela and Lillian (Arch) Lugosi.
In 1941 bela appeared with another Horror Icon, Lon Chaney Jr in 'The Wolf Man' (1941). Bela played the Gypsy (turned Werewolf) that turned Lon into his classic hairy alter ego character 'The Wolf Man'. Bela would team up with Lon in future films such as 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man' (1943) (were Bela finally played Frankensteins Monster). In this film The Monster spoke, but unfortunately a Monster with a Hungarian accent didn't go over very well with the audience, so all of Bela's dialogue was cut from the movie, causing a lot of confusion in the story line.
During the late thirties and througout the forties, Bela had a lot of trouble finding work. What little work he did find paid next to nothing and he was not sure how he would support his family. He and Lillian seperated for a while in August 1944, and finally divorced in 1951.
Bela and Lon teamed up again for the classic 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' (1948). Bela dons the cape once more for his role as our favorite blood-sucking Count, Lon is once again the every hairy 'the Wolf Man', and Glenn Strange portrays The Monster this time around. This film ended the classic Universal Monsters on film.
In the mid-fifties (with Bela now in his 70's), Bela met up with a young writer-director-producer-actor named Edward D. Wood, Jr. (who is labeled 'the worst director of all time'). Bela appeared in several of Wood's films, first, he was in 'Glen or Glenda?' (1953), and then he played the lead in 'Bride of the Monster' (1955) as Dr. Eric Vornoff.
Bela had himself commited to the Los Angeles County General Hospital in April of 1955 to help him recover from a morphine addiction. He had been taking the drug for quite some time to ease shooting pains, as Bela put them, in his legs. Bela was determined to straighten out his life and on August 2rd 1955 he was released, after passing an examination. Not long after his release, he married Hope Lininger, a fan who had written him letters every single day he was in hospital. She would be his fifth and final wife.
Bela Lugosi died at the age of 73, on August 16, 1956. He was buried in his Dracula cape at Holy Cross Cemetery, in California, with a modest headstone reading "Bela Lugosi, Beloved Father, 1882-1956."
This was another great loss to the Horror Fans - it is always been my opinion that Bela was not used to his full ablilities and makes you wonder what may have happened if hollywood would have taken him more seriously.
After Bela's death, Ed Wood released 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' (1959), (this film would become known as "The Worst Film of all Time" (It is not true)). Bela's scenes were taken from footage he and Wood shot for reasons currently unknown (some say it was for a film called 'The Ghoul Goes West', but none of the footage matches anything in Wood's script). The rest of his scenes were played by Wood's wife's chiropractor whose face was conveniently covered by a cape the entire time.
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Bela Lugosi Jr (son of Bela) has kept his fathers image and spirit alive for us. He spends time doing the Conventions Circuit and talks of his famous fathers career and personal life whenever he can.