|Was||Activist Actor Film actor Stage actor Trade unionist|
|From||Hungary United States of America|
|Field||Activism Film, TV, Stage & Radio|
|Birth||20 October 1882, Lugoj|
|Death||16 August 1956, Los Angeles (aged 73 years)|
Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó (Hungarian: [ˈbeːlɒ ˈfɛrɛnt͡s ˈdɛʒøː ˈblɒʃkoː]; 20 October 1882 – 16 August 1956), better known as Bela Lugosi (/ləˈɡoʊsi/; Hungarian: [ˈlugoʃi]), was a Hungarian-American actor, famous for portraying Count Dracula in the 1931 film and for his roles in various other horror films.
He had been playing small parts on the stage in his native Hungary before making his first film in 1917, but had to leave the country after the failed Hungarian Communist Revolution of 1919. He had roles in several films in Weimar Germany before arriving in the United States as a seaman on a merchant ship.
In 1927, he appeared as Count Dracula in a Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. He later appeared in the classic 1931 film Dracula by Universal Pictures. Through the 1930s, he occupied an important niche in popular horror films, with their East European setting, but his Hungarian accent limited his repertoire, and he tried unsuccessfully to avoid typecasting.
Meanwhile, he was often paired with Boris Karloff, who was able to demand top billing. To his frustration, Lugosi was increasingly restricted to minor parts, kept employed by the studio principally for the sake of his name on the posters. Among his pairings with Karloff, only in The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) did he perform major roles again, and, even in The Raven, Karloff received top billing despite Lugosi performing the lead role. By this time, Lugosi had been receiving regular medication for sciatic neuritis, and he became addicted to morphine and methadone. This drug dependence was noted by producers, and the offers eventually dwindled down to a few parts in Ed Wood's low-budget movies, most notably Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Lugosi was married five times, and had one son, Bela George Lugosi. Lugosi was a charter member of the American Screen Actors Guild.
Lugosi, the youngest of four children, was born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in Lugos in the Kingdom of Hungary (now Lugoj, Romania), not far from Transylvania, to István Blaskó, a banker, and Paula de Vojnich. He later based his last name on his hometown. He and his sister Vilma were raised in a Roman Catholic family.
At the age of 12, Lugosi dropped out of school. He began his acting career probably in 1901 or 1902. His earliest known performances are from provincial theatres in the 1903–04 season, playing small roles in several plays and operettas. He went on to Shakespeare plays and other major roles. Moving to Budapest in 1911, he played dozens of roles with the National Theatre of Hungary between 1913–19. Although Lugosi would later claim that he "became the leading actor of Hungary's Royal National Theatre", almost all his roles there were small or supporting parts.
During World War I, he served as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1914-16. There he rose to the rank of captain in the ski patrol and was awarded the Wound Medal for wounds he suffered while serving on the Russian front.
Due to his activism in the actors' union in Hungary during the time of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, he was forced to flee his homeland. He first went to Vienna and then settled in Berlin in the Langestrasse where he continued acting. Eventually, he travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana, US as a crewman aboard a merchant ship. He took the name Lugosi, in 1903, to honor his birthplace, Lugos.
Lugosi's first film appearance was in the movie Az ezredes (The Colonel, 1917). When appearing in Hungarian silent films, he used the stage name Arisztid Olt. Lugosi made 12 films in Hungary between 1917 and 1918 before leaving for Germany. Following the collapse of Béla Kun's Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, leftists and trade unionists became vulnerable. Lugosi was proscribed from acting due to his participation in the formation of an actors’ union. In exile in Germany, he began appearing in a small number of well-received films, including adaptations of the Karl May novels, Auf den Trümmern des Paradieses (On the Brink of Paradise), and Die Todeskarawane (The Caravan of Death), opposite the Jewish actress Dora Gerson (who died in Auschwitz).
Lugosi left Germany in October 1920, intending to emigrate to the United States, and entered the country at New Orleans in December 1920. He made his way to New York and was legally inspected for immigration at Ellis Island in March 1921. He declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen in 1928, and on June 26, 1931, he was naturalized.
On his arrival in America, the 6-foot-1-inch (1.85 m), 180 pounds (82 kg) Lugosi worked for some time as a laborer, then entered the theater in New York City's Hungarian immigrant colony. With fellow Hungarian actors he formed a small stock company that toured Eastern cities, playing for immigrant audiences. Lugosi acted in several Hungarian plays before breaking out into his first English Broadway play, The Red Poppy, in 1922. Three more parts came in 1925–26, including a five-month run in the comedy-fantasy The Devil in the Cheese.
In 1925, he appeared as an Arab Sheik in Arabesque which premiered in Buffalo, New York at the Teck Theatre before moving to Broadway. His first American film role came in the 1923 melodrama The Silent Command. Several more silent roles followed, as villains or continental types, all in productions made in the New York area.
Lugosi was approached in the summer of 1927 to star in a Broadway production of Dracula adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from Bram Stoker's novel. The Horace Liveright production was successful, running 261 performances before touring. In 1928, Lugosi decided to stay in California when the play ended its West Coast run. His performance piqued the interest of Fox Studios; In 1929, he appeared in the studio's silent film, The Veiled Woman. He also appeared in the (now, supposedly lost) film, Prisoners which was released in both a silent and sound versions. In 1929, with no other film roles in sight, he returned to the stage as Dracula for a short West Coast tour of the play. Lugosi remained in California where he resumed (under contract with Fox) his film work, appearing in early talkies often as a heavy or "exotic sheiks;" He also continued to lobby for his prized role in the film version of Dracula.
Despite his critically acclaimed performance on stage, Lugosi was not 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 director Tod Browning's long-time collaborator, Lon Chaney, was Universal's first choice for the role, and that Lugosi was chosen only due to Chaney's death shortly before production. This is questionable, because Chaney had been under long-term contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer since 1925, and had negotiated a lucrative new contract just before his death.
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 death of director Paul Leni, who was originally slated to direct. In 1927, Lugosi accepted the eponymous role in the American theatrical run of Dracula, a play based on Bram Stoker's gothic novel of the same name. After a half-year run on Broadway, Dracula toured the United States to much fanfare and critical acclaim throughout 1928-29. His portrayal of Dracula was so successful that Universal decided to make a movie of Dracula starring Lugosi. The film, Dracula, was a hit.
Through his association with Dracula (in which he appeared with minimal makeup, using his natural, heavily accented voice), Lugosi found himself typecast as a horror villain in such movies as Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Raven, and Son of Frankenstein for Universal, and the independent White Zombie. His accent, while a part of his image, limited the roles he could play.
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; 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 (a role Lugosi had played on stage). He did play the elegant, somewhat hot-tempered Gen. Nicholas Strenovsky-Petronovich in International House.
Regardless of controversy, five films at Universal — The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, Son of Frankenstein, Black Friday (plus minor cameo performances in 1934's Gift of Gab) and two at RKO Pictures, You'll Find Out and The Body Snatcher — paired Lugosi with Boris Karloff. Despite 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). Karloff also insinuated that his iconic rival could not act, claiming Lugosi had "never learned his trade". Universal did wind up giving Lugosi a couple of heroic parts, as in The Black Cat after Karloff had been accorded the more colorful role of the villain, The Invisible Ray, and a romantic role in the adventure serial The Return of Chandu, but his typecasting problem appears to have been too entrenched to be alleviated by those films. Of course, Karloff had a leg up on Lugosi simply by being a native English speaker; Lugosi had to learn English as a second language, and was never able to shed his heavy accent.
Lugosi addressed his plea to be cast in non-horror roles directly to casting directors through his listing in the 1937 Players Directory, published by the Motion Picture Academy, in which he (or his agent) calls the idea that he is only fit for horror films "an error."
A number of factors worked against Lugosi's career in the mid-1930s. Universal changed management in 1936, and because of a British ban on horror films, dropped them from their production schedule; Lugosi found himself consigned to Universal's non-horror B-film unit, at times in small roles where he was obviously used for "name value" only. Throughout the 1930s, Lugosi, experiencing a severe career decline despite popularity with audiences (Universal executives always preferred his rival Karloff), accepted many leading roles from independent producers like Nat Levine, Sol Lesser, and Sam Katzman. These low-budget thrillers indicate that Lugosi was less discriminating than Karloff in selecting screen vehicles, but the exposure helped Lugosi financially if not artistically. Lugosi tried to keep busy with stage work, but had to borrow money from the Actors' Fund to pay hospital bills when his only child, Bela George Lugosi, was born in 1938.
Historian John McElwee reports, in his 2013 book Showmen, Sell It Hot!, that Bela Lugosi's popularity received a much-needed boost in August 1938, when California theater owner Emil Umann revived Dracula and Frankenstein as a special double feature. The combination was so successful that Umann scheduled extra shows to accommodate the capacity crowds, and invited Lugosi to appear in person, which thrilled new audiences that had never seen Lugosi's classic performance. "I owe it all to that little man at the Regina Theatre," said Lugosi of exhibitor Umann. "I was dead, and he brought me back to life." Universal took notice of the tremendous business and launched its own national re-release of the same two horror favorites. The studio then rehired Lugosi to star in new films.
The first was Universal's Son of Frankenstein (1939), when he played the character role of Ygor, a mad shepherd with a broken neck, 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 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's comedy Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. 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 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 (1939) had him playing straight man to Patsy Kelly.
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, after 1947 when it became available in America, methadone, was directly proportional to the dwindling of screen offers. He was finally cast in the role of Frankenstein's monster for Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), but Lugosi had no dialogue. Lugosi's voice had been dubbed over that of Lon Chaney, Jr., from line readings at the end of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942). Lugosi played Dracula for a second and last time on film in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
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 obscure, low-budget features. From 1947-50, he performed in summer stock, often in productions of Dracula or Arsenic and Old Lace, and during the rest of the year made personal appearances in a touring "spook show" and on early commercial television.
In September 1949 Milton Berle invited Lugosi to appear in a sketch on Texaco Star Theater. Lugosi memorized the script for the skit, but became confused on the air when Berle began to ad lib. His only television dramatic role was on the anthology series Suspense on October 11, 1949, in an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado.
In 1951, while in England to play a six-month tour of Dracula, he co-starred in a lowbrow movie comedy, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (also known as Vampire over London and My Son, the Vampire). Following his return to the U.S., he was interviewed for television, and reflected wistfully on his typecasting in horror parts: "Now I am the boogie man." In the same interview he expressed a desire to play more comedy, as he had in the Mother Riley farce. Independent producer Jack Broder took Lugosi at his word, casting him in a jungle-themed comedy, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla co-starring nightclub comedians Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, whose act closely resembled that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Stage and personal appearances
While Bela enjoyed a lively career on stage with plenty of personal appearances, as film offers declined, he became more and more dependent on live venues to support his family. Bela took over the role of Jonathan Brewster from Boris Karloff for Arsenic and Old Lace. Bela had also expressed interest in playing Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey to help him professionally. He also made plenty of personal appearances to promote his horror image and/or an accompanying film.
Ed Wood and final projects
Late in his life, Bela Lugosi again received star billing in movies when ambitious filmmaker Ed Wood, a fan of Lugosi, found him living in obscurity and near-poverty and offered him roles in his films, such as an anonymous narrator in Glen or Glenda and a Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist in Bride of the Monster. During post-production of the latter, Lugosi decided to seek treatment for his drug 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. He would recall Lugosi's amazement at his visit, since the two men did not even know each other.
During an impromptu interview upon his exit from the treatment center in 1955, Lugosi stated that he was 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, which was mostly filmed after Lugosi's death. Wood hired Tom Mason, his wife's chiropractor, to double for Lugosi in additional shots. Mason was noticeably taller and thinner than Lugosi, and had the lower half of his face covered with his cape in every shot, as Lugosi sometimes did in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
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 dialogue.
In 1917, Lugosi married Ilona Szmik. The couple divorced in 1920, reputedly over political differences with her parents. In 1929, Lugosi took his place in Hollywood society and scandal when he married wealthy San Francisco widow Beatrice Weeks, but she filed for divorce four months later. Weeks cited actress Clara Bow as the "other woman".
On 26 June 1931, he became a naturalised United States citizen. In 1933, he married 19-year-old Lillian Arch, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. They had a child, Bela G. Lugosi, in 1938.
Lillian and Bela, as well as his mother, vacationed on their lake property in Lake Elsinore, California (then called Elsinore), on two lots between 1944 and 1953. Bela Lugosi Jr. attended the Elsinore Naval & Military School in Lake Elsinore. Lillian and Béla divorced in 1953, at least partially because of Béla's jealousy over Lillian taking a full-time job as an assistant to Brian Donlevy on the sets and studios for Donlevy's radio and television series Dangerous Assignment – Lillian eventually did marry Brian Donlevy, in 1966. Lugosi married Hope Lininger, his fifth wife, in 1955; they remained married until his death. She had been a fan of his, writing letters to him when he was in the hospital recovering from addiction to Demerol. She would sign her letters "A dash of Hope". She died in 1997 at age 77.
Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, while lying on a bed in his Los Angeles apartment. He was 73. The rumor that Lugosi was clutching the script for The Final Curtain, a planned Ed Wood project, at the time of his death is not true.
Lugosi was buried wearing one of the "Dracula" cape 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 G. Lugosi confirmed on numerous occasions that he and his mother, Lillian, actually made the decision but believed that it is what his father would have wanted.
Lugosi v. Universal Pictures
In 1979, the Lugosi v. Universal Pictures decision by the California Supreme Court held that Lugosi's personality rights could not pass to his heirs, as a copyright would have. The court ruled that under California law any rights of publicity, including the right to his image, terminated with Lugosi's death.
In Tim Burton's Ed Wood, Lugosi is played by Martin Landau, who received the 1994 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. According to Bela G. Lugosi (his son), Forrest Ackerman, Dolores Fuller and Richard Sheffield, the film's portrayal of Lugosi is inaccurate: In real life, he never used profanity, owned small dogs, or slept in coffins. And contrary to this film, Bela did not struggle performing on The Red Skelton Show.
Three Lugosi projects were featured on the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Corpse Vanishes appeared in episode 105, the serial The Phantom Creeps throughout season two and the Ed Wood production Bride of the Monster in episode 423. An episode of Sledge Hammer! titled "Last of the Red Hot Vampires" was a homage to Bela Lugosi; at the end of the episode, it was dedicated to "Mr. Blasko".
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.
A statue of Lugosi can be seen today on one of the corners of the Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest.
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 Dracula (1931) still survives today in the ownership of Universal Studios.
The theatrical play Lugosi - a vámpír árnyéka (Lugosi - the Shadow of the Vampire, in Hungarian) is based on Lugosi's life, telling the story of his life as he became typecast as Dracula and as his drug addiction worsened. He was played by one of Hungary's most renowned actors, Ivan Darvas.
Andy Warhol's 1963 silkscreen The Kiss depicts Lugosi from Dracula about to bite into the neck of co-star Helen Chandler, who played Mina Harker. A copy sold for $798,000 at Christie's in May 2000.
Lugosi was also the subject of "Bela Lugosi's Dead", the first single by Bauhaus, released in August 1979 it is often considered to be the first gothic rock record. Bela Lugosi's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is mentioned in "Celluloid Heroes", a song performed by The Kinks and written by their lead vocalist and principal songwriter, Ray Davies. It debuted on their 1972 album Everybody's in Show-Biz.