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Bela Lugosi – The Hungarian Dracula

Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film "Dracula"
Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film “Dracula”

For some, the name Bela Lugosi may not be immediately apparent, but almost assuredly when the name Dracula is spoken one specific face comes to mind. It was Lugosi who brought Dracula the fame on film that has since spiraled into cult fanaticism.

Some would have you believe that Lugosi was born in Transylvania but this is a falsehood most likely spurned on from his role as Dracula. In actuality he was born on October 20, 1882 as Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko in Lugos, Hungary which is about 50 miles away from Transylvania where the castle of Vlad the Impaler, the man behind Dracula, sits.

As a child Lugosi was not interested in listening to anyone, especially to those in authority, and he went about life in his own way. Lugosi hated authority so much that at the age of 12 he decided to drop out of school to leave home which eventually landed him about 300 miles south of his home town and his family. Being only 12 years of age, living could not have been easy but Lugosi managed by working odd jobs mining but it was when a traveling theater group came through town that he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He did dabble in acting with this theater group but never as a serious adventure considering he was constantly laughed at for his lack of experience and education.

A little discouraged, Lugosi left in 1897 (age 15) to join his mother and sister who promptly convinced him to enroll in school, but as Bela was still not one for discipline or authority, he dropped out after a few months and became a railroad conductor, much to the dismay of his family. This is when Lugosi’s acting career began to take off, as it was Lugosi’s brother-in-law who landed him a gig working for another traveling theater group. Shortly after this, the Hungarian Academy of Performing Arts accepted him as an actor specializing in mostly Shakespearean roles. Not roles that we typically associated with Lugosi and his body of work but apparently he did really well.

While working for the Hungarian Academy of Performing Arts he changed his name from Blasko to Lugosi, a homage to his home town of Lugos. This is how he spent a good portion of the early 20th century but a hiccup in his acting career occurred in 1916 when Lugosi signed up to fight in World War 1. This change in career did not last long as he was discharged for undisclosed health reasons but a wound sustained during the war would effect the rest of his life, in a bad way.

Returned from war a wounded soldier, he picked up his acting career where he left off, as well as joining revolutionary forces in Hungary, except Bela chose the wrong side of the revolution forcing him to flee to safety in Germany. He arrived in Berlin in 1919 and began acting almost immediately on stage and even began his career acting on film for the first time. For some reason, Lugosi had a hankering to move to America despite his acting success in Berlin, so on December 4, 1920 the actor landed in New Orleans where he immediately departed for New York City.

The stage and film seemed to be a lucrative business for Lugosi for he easily landed role after role in NYC. It was at the age of 39, 11 years after his arrival in NYC, when Lugosi’s name and fame would hit legendary status when he played Dracula in the 1931 film. Considering his home town was so close to that of the legendary Dracula’s, it is no wonder that the actor played the part so well and so memorable.

That was the apex of his career, not the end but the climax. After his portrayal in the film an unfortunate thing happened, he was type-casted as a villain, the type of character Lugosi did not want to continually play. Lugosi had plenty of experience playing a wide variety of roles but Hollywood was only interested in the darker roles which resulted in him being cast in mostly B-movie roles from then on out. He did play in some larger roles, such as “The Raven” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue” but none outside of the horror genre. And horror fell out of general favor during the late 1930s, which was detrimental to Lugosi’s career, sending him into the hands of every B-movie director. While his roles were not of high fame, he did act in a movie or so a year up until the year of his death.

Now, back to his war injury. In 1935 Bela started receiving morphine injections into his leg, which is where the wound was located. Morphine is a highly addictive opiate so it is no wonder that Bela succumbed to the addiction but it wasn’t just the drug, it was also the state of his life after Dracula. He knew his career was over so he began to lead a life of seclusion, just him, his drugs and one of his 5 wives that he had throughout his lifetime. His seclusion was so great that when directors were casting for the part of Dracula in “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” 1948 they overlooked Lugosi thinking that he had already died. The directors were informed before filming began that Lugosi was still alive, not well, but alive and he ended up accepting the role.

Poor and addicted, not only morphine but also methodone and demerol, Lugosi’s life was withering away around his own bones. It was not until 1955 when his fourth, and not final, wife divorced him that he realized that he had hit rock bottom with his addiction and his overwhelming debts. Considering that he was continually working, it is a surprise that he was so poor but he was buying his drugs from the street in large quantities. He walked into the Metropolitan State Hospital in Norfolk, California to treat his addiction.

As it was near to impossible for someone of Lugosi’s financial status to pay for such rehabilitation treatment, he was lucky to receive an anonymous donation for his rehab stay. The anonymous donor was reportedly Frank Sinatra even though the two actors had never met. Sinatra also anonymously paid for Lugosi’s funeral as the legend goes.

Lugosi's funeral in 1956 at age 73
Lugosi’s funeral in 1956 at age 73

Free from rehab and opiates, Lugosi returned to the silver screen once more playing the part that was both his success and his downfall, Dracula. This time it was for the director Ed Wood and the movie, dubbed the worst movie ever made, was “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. This would be Lugosi’s final film as he died while the movie was still being filmed of a heart attack. All of Lugosi’s parts were filmed prior to the rest of the movie so Bela is credited with having archived footage even though it was for the script of “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. There were some scenes that were not filmed before Lugosi’s death and so another actor played the role that Lugosi was playing although that actor never spoke a work and he always had his face covered.

One scandal was that Ed Wood had written his next film already with the intentions of casting Lugosi. “Grave Robbers from Outer Space” was headlined as Lugosi’s last film but in actuality it was filmed posthumously using footage of Lugosi while he was still alive. Now this would be considered archived footage because none of the footage used was intended for this particular movie.

August 16, 1956 Bela Lugosi was found dead of a heart attack at the age of 73 after marrying his fifth wife. Fittingly enough, he was buried in his Dracula costume at the request of Lugosi’s son.

An interesting little fact: the movie Ed Wood released in 1994 about Lugosi’s director friend had Martin Landau play the part of Lugosi. Landau went on to win an Oscar for his performance in the film, an award that Lugosi himself never received in his lifetime.