The Life of Bela Lugosi: Hollywood's Most Famous Dracula

Bela Lugosi
Photo by Silver Screen Collection / Moviepix

Bela Lugosi (born Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko; October 20, 1882 - August 16, 1956) is best known for his role in the stage and screen productions of Dracula. Lugosi's portrayal of the titular vampire is one of the best-known performances in horror movie history. Lugosi continued to work as an actor throughout his life, but he never escaped the influence of Count Dracula on his career, and found himself limited to horror movie roles due to typecasting.

Early Life

Bela Blasko, the youngest of four children, was born on October 20, 1882 in the city of Lugos, Hungary (now Lugoj, Romania). Blasko dropped out of school at age 12 and began his acting career in 1901. Blasko and adopted the stage name Lugosi, which was inspired by the name of his hometown, in 1903. Lugosi acted in regional theater productions for several years until moving to Budapest in 1911. He joined the National Theatre of Hungary in 1913.

World War I interrupted Lugosi's acting career. He served with the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1914 through 1916 and earned a medal for wounds received on the Russian Front. Lugosi also took part in the 1919 Hungarian Revolution, which created the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. When war with Romania destroyed the fledgling government, Lugosi was forced to flee. He traveled first to Germany, then entered the U.S. in December 1920.

The Role of Dracula

After arriving in the U.S., Lugosi first found work as a laborer.

However, he soon traveled to New York City and began acting in a touring stock company with fellow Hungarian actors. Lugosi appeared on Broadway in 1922 in the play The Red Poppy and took several roles in silent films, including 1923's The Silent Command.

Lugosi's breakthrough role came in the summer of 1927, when he was asked to star in a Broadway stage production: an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.

The play ran for 261 performances in New York, then traveled through the U.S. to widespread critical acclaim and financial success. After a West Coast series of performances, Lugosi decided to stay in California and focus on his film acting career.

At the time, movie producer Carl Laemmle was looking to create a movie version of Dracula for Universal Pictures. Bela Lugosi was not Laemmle's first choice for the role of Dracula, despite his onstage success. Lugosi personally lobbied the producers for the role and was ultimately selected. He starred in the legendary horror film masterpiece Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, in 1931.

Newspapers reported that audience members fainted when they saw the shocking scenes of Count Dracula on the screen. Universal Pictures played up these stories to help publicize the movie. Dracula was a huge box office success, earning a profit of more than $700,000 and cementing its status as Universal's biggest success of the year. Coupled with Frankenstein, released later in 1931, Dracula helped Universal build a reputation as the top horror film studio of the 1930s.

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

Bela Lugosi tried but failed to avoid being typecast in horror roles In 1934, he co-starred in The Black Cat with Boris Karloff, best-known for portraying the monster in Frankenstein.

Lugosi and Karloff became an iconic pair and went on to appear in seven films together. Their final co-starring movie was 1945's The Body Snatcher.

Conflicting stories exist about how the two legends got along. Some say that Bela Lugosi resented Boris Karloff's ability to find acting roles outside of the horror genre. However, many also say they eventually became good friends.

Later Career

By the late 1930s, Bela Lugosi's acting career was in decline. However, he experienced a revival in popularity when a California theater showed Dracula and Frankenstein as a double feature. Audiences flocked to the screenings, and soon other movie theaters followed the example. Lugosi frequently appeared in person to speak to the audience.

The renewed popularity of Dracula encouraged Universal to hire Bela Lugosi to star in 1939's Son of Frankenstein.

Lugosi worked in successful horror movies throughout the 1940s, including 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where Lugosi appeared as the Dracula character for the second and final time onscreen. In 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Lugosi took on the role of Frankenstein's monster.

A final, idiosyncratic chapter of Bela Lugosi's film career took place in the 1950s. Ed Wood, notoriously pegged as one of the worst filmmakers of all time, discovered Lugosi living in obscurity and hired him to appear in a series of movies. Lugosi had roles in 1953's Glen or Glenda and 1955's Bride of the Monster. Test footage of Bela Lugosi in his Dracula cape was used posthumously in 1959's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Personal Life

Bela Lugosi married five times. He first wed Ilona Szmik in 1917. They divorced in 1920, reportedly over political conflicts with her parents. In 1921, he married Ilona von Montagh, whom he divorced in 1924. Lugosi's third wife was San Francisco socialite Beatrice Weeks, the widow of famed architect Charles Peter Weeks. They were wed in 1929 and divorced after just four months when Beatrice Weeks claimed that her husband was having an affair with film star Clara Bow.

In 1931, Bela Lugosi became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He married 19-year-old Lillian Arch in 1933. They had one child: Bela Lugosi, Jr. In 1953, after Lillian took a full-time job as an assistant to actor Brian Donlevy, the couple divorced. Lillian later married Brian Donlevy in 1966, ten years after Bela Lugosi's death.

Lugosi married Hope Lininger, his fifth wife, in 1955. She was a fan who frequently wrote letters to Bela. They remained married until he died a year later. 

Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956. He was buried in one of his Dracula costumes, complete with a cape. Reportedly, he did not request burial in costume, but his son and Lillian made the decision, believing that it was what Lugosi would have wanted.

Legacy

Countless films feature the character of Count Dracula, but Bela Lugosi's performance set the standard for the role. 1931 film has been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress due to its cultural significance. The American Film Institute listed Lugosi's Count Dracula as #33 on their list of Top 100 Heroes and Villains in film. 

Bela Lugosi has appeared in a variety of ways in popular culture. The British band Bauhaus released their single, "Bela Lugosi's Dead," in 1979. The song is considered a cornerstone of gothic rock. Martin Landau won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for portrayal of Bela Lugosi in the film Ed Wood. Lugosi has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Bela Lugosi Fast Facts

Full Name: Bela Lugosi

Given Name: Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko 

Occupation: Actor

Born: October 20, 1882 in Lugos, Hungary

Died: August 16, 1956 in Los Angeles, California, USA

Education: Lugosi dropped out of school at age 12.

Memorable Films: Dracula (1931), The Black Cat (1934), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Key Accomplishment:

  • Starring in the iconic role of Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula

Spouse Names: Ilona Szmik, Ilona von Montagh, Beatrice Weeks, Lillian Arch, Hope Lininger

Child's Name: Bela Lugosi, Jr.

Famous Quote: "I have never met a vampire personally, but I don't know what might happen tomorrow."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Don Rhodes, Gary. Lugosi. His Life in Films, on Stage, and in the Hearts of Horror Lovers. McFarland, 1997.
  • Rhodes, Gary, and Bill Kaffenberger. No Traveler Returns - The Lost  Years of Bela Lugosi. BearManor Media, 2016.