The Truth About Bela Lugosi: Iconic Dracula's Hollywood Nightmare
Left: Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in 'Dracula' (1931). Right: An undated publicity photo of Lugosi. Sources: IMDB; John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Moviedom's archetypal Dracula, Bela Lugosi will always be remembered as the father of horror movies. But for all his memorable scary work on the screen, he had many demons in real life. He sabotaged his own auditions, he destroyed his marriages, he wasted money faster than he could make it, and he spent the last 20 years of his life in the thrall of morphine addiction. Despite being one of the biggest stars of the early "talkie" era, Lugosi seemed to be a man driven to self-destruction.
His portrayal of the blood-sucking Count Dracula in 1931's Dracula is one of the most important moments in cinematic history -- it not only breathed life into an industry of horror movies that continues today, but it imbued the character with a mystique and even sex appeal that still endures. Unfortunately, Lugosi had more valleys in his career than he did peaks, but he gave the world -- and horror fans especially -- something special.
Lugosi Grew Up In Hungary Before Immigrating To America
Before he was Bela Lugosi, horror film actor, he was Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko. Born in 1882 in Hungary, Lugosi had his eyes set on the stage since he was a young boy. He took to the theater in his home country before becoming a stage actor in Germany and changing his name to “Lugos.” Following World War I, he worked on a merchant marine ship and immigrated to the United States where he found small roles on stage but had to learn his lines phonetically.
Aside from his stage work, Lugosi found some success in playing baddies in small films, usually as an evil foreigner thanks to his “exotic” looks. Most prominently, he appeared in The Thirteenth Chair, a film directed by his future Dracula cohort Tod Browning.
Lugosi Has Always Been Count Dracula
In 1929 Lugosi stepped into the cape of his most famous role, Count Dracula. He appeared in the Broadway version of a Stoker family-approved play that ran for nine months in New York before moving to Los Angeles. The show was such a hit that Universal Studios decided to make a film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but they didn’t want Lugosi in the title role. He wasn’t famous enough.
Thankfully, director Tod Browning had worked with Lugosi previously and he managed to convince the studio head to cast the actor in spite of Universal’s concerns. The role would fundamentally change filmmaking forever.
Even though he pioneered the role of Dracula, cementing in the audience’s mind what Stoker’s vampire should be, Lugosi didn’t make much a payday off this performance. He was only paid $3,500 ($54,672 with inflation), and didn’t a receive a percentage of the box office or the millions of dollars in merchandise that came along with it.
Lugosi Turned Down A Role As Frankenstein
Following the surprise success of Dracula, Lugosi received offer after offer to play the heavy in horror films. In what could have a massive windfall for Lugosi he was Universal’s first choice to play Frankenstein’s Monster in their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story. Lugosi didn’t want to be typecast strictly as a horror actor, and he thought that the makeup would cover his leading-man good looks.
In what has to be one of the greatest examples of Hollywood self-sabotage, Lugosi completely bungled the test screening and was removed from the project. Universal finally settled on Boris Karloff to play the part of the Monster, which he imbued with pain and pathos, making the performance one of the all-time cinematic greats.
Lugosi never got over the fact that Karloff surpassed him in a role that he felt was lacking. This anger created a somewhat one-sided rivalry between the two actors.
Lugosi Vs. Karloff: Mostly Fiction
Even though Karloff had to deal with the same typecasting as Lugosi following the success of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Lugosi still thought that his English counterpart was upstaging him in one way or another. While it’s true that Karloff was cast in plenty of high profile roles, it’s because he was a trained actor who was able to transform himself into whatever character he was playing, while Lugosi was always going to be the Count.
The studio played up the supposed rivalry between the two actors. Stories were planted about Lugosi’s professional jealousy, and there were alleged snipes from the Karloff camp, but they likely never happened. But whenever the two appeared on screen together these stories would inevitably pop up.
When the two worked together on The Body Snatcher, Karloff says that Lugosi was initially standoffish, but that over time the actor behind the count realized that no one was trying to overshadow him. One rumor persists, and may have been valid: That Lugosi absolutely hated it when Karloff (an Englishman born William Henry Pratt) took mid-afternoon tea breaks.
Typecasting Wrecked Most Of His Career
Lugosi was never great with money. His contract for playing Count Dracula, one of the most important film characters of all time, didn’t cover his lavish lifestyle. He lived in a couple of massive homes and couldn’t stop buying art and strange pieces that never appreciated in value. By 1937, he was so short on funds that he couldn’t afford the hospital bill for his son’s birth.
Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, Lugosi took whatever roles were given to him and he accepted the paltry rates that came along with them. He appeared as Ygor in a series of horror films, and he even played Frankenstein’s Monster in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
By the ‘50s, Lugosi was stuck working with Ed Wood in cheapo exploitation films. Wood was a huge fan of Lugosi’s, but the movies weren’t good and they didn’t make a lot of money, essentially robbing the actor of the two things he wanted the most -- admiration for his acting chops and cash.
The Many Loves Of Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi loved getting married. Or at the very least he loved women and married a lot of them. The actor was married five times between 1917 and 1955. Early in his American stage career, Lugosi actually married into high society when he wed wealthy widow Beatrice Weeks. Her ex-husband was Charles Peter Weeks, an architect who left a legacy of theaters and cinemas across California.
Lugosi and Weeks split four months after their nuptials because he was also seeing actress Clara Bow at the time. Lugosi was so in love with Bow that he had a nude portrait of her painted from memory that hung in all of his homes for the rest of his life.
While Lugosi was in a state hospital seeking treatment for addiction he received a series of anonymous letters from a woman named Hope Lininger. The two formed a loving relationship via correspondence, and after he left the hospital in 1955 the two married. They were together until Lugosi’s death one year later.
Addiction Marred Lugosi For The Final Decades Of His Life
The final years of Lugosi’s life were marred with addiction and life in the tabloids. He first became addicted to morphine in 1935 when he began taking it under a doctor’s care. In 1955 he explained to the United Press:
Seventeen years ago, on a trip to England, I heard of Methodone, a new drug. I brought a big box of it back home. I guess I brought a pound. Ever since I've used that, or demerol. I just took the drugs. I didn't eat. I got sicker and sicker.
When Lugosi finally entered a state hospital in 1955 he was broke, gaunt, and a shell of his former self. In interviews, he claimed that his addiction cost him thousands of dollars and that he spent money on drugs even when he didn’t have enough cash to eat. He was released from the state hospital on August 5, 1955, on August 16, 1956, he passed away from a heart attack at the age of 73. Lugosi was buried in a cape that he wore while playing Dracula in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.
Tags: Bela Lugosi | Horror
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