Happy Birthday to Bela Lugosi (the one and only Dracula as far as I’m concerned) who was born on this day back in 1882.He was from the Lugos region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and named Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó. As a young man he worked in various stage productions in his home country as well as several films. He left his homeland in exile and fled to Germany following the collapse of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. He spent just a year in Germany and starred in several films there before boarding a merchant ship to America. Lugosi arrived at the Port of New Orleans in December 1920, very befitting a vampire don’t you think?
He worked as an actor steadily, on stage and screen, before making his first appearance as Dracula on Broadway in the 1927 production based on Bram Stoker’s popular novel. When Universal Studios began production on the film version of Dracula, Lugosi was not their first choice for the much coveted role, even though his portrayal of the character on stage was critically acclaimed. But finally, in 1930 after much ado, the studio settled on Bela Lugosi.
Throughout the 1930’s Lugosi starred not only as Dracula but also as a villain/monster in many horror films such as Frankenstein, Murders in the Rue Morgue, White Zombie, The Raven, Son of Frankenstein and many more.
Sadly, Lugosi wasn’t thrilled about all these horror films, he felt as though he had been typecast due to his heavy accent and pleaded to be considered for non-horror roles. However, these pleas fell of deaf ears with studio execs and Lugosi’s career started to stagnate. He tried to keep busy with stage work, but was in major debt when his only child, a son, Bela George Lugosi was born in 1938.
His career was given a much needed shot in the arm when a California theater owner named Emil Umann decided to bring back Dracula and Frankenstein as a special double feature and cast Bela into the role. Lugosi said, “I owe it all to that little man at the Regina Theatre, I was dead, and he brought me back to life.” It was at this point Universal Pictures took notice and breathed some life back into the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises launching a national double feature re-release. The studio hired Lugosi to star in all the films.
Throughout Lugosi’s career he was often seen by doctors to manage sciatica pain which led to a dependence on morphine and in 1947 methadone, which had become available in America that year
By 1949 he was deep in the throes of addiction and couldn’t make it through a script without ad-libbing. Unfortunately it was at this point the movie parts really became few and far between. As this happened, Bela supplemented his income with live shows, theater gigs and even some meet & greets with his legions of fans.
In the mid 1950’s, Lugosi would find his way on to the silver screen again. This time, thanks to the one and only Ed Wood. Wood was a serious Lugosi fan and found him living in near poverty and obscurity when he approached him about appearing in his films. Lugosi obliged and received star billing in Wood films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster…sort of a Frankenstein-esque production. All masterpieces, I must say!!
During that last film with Wood, Lugosi sought help for his drug addiction and it’s said the premiere of the film afforded him the ability to pay his medical expenses.
The much beloved Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, he was found in bed in his LA apartment. He was 73. There was a rumor Lugosi was holding a copy of the script for a final project with Ed Wood, a film entitled The Final Curtain and I’d like to believe it’s true.
Lugosi was buried in full Dracula costume, cape and all.
Lennig, Arthur (2010). The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky
Rhodes, Gary R. (1997). Lugosi: His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers. McFarland