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Biographies - Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Bela Lugosi
Born: October 20, 1882
Died: August 16, 1956
Hungarian actor best known for his portrayal of "Dracula" in the American Broadway stage production, and subsequent 1931 film, of Bram Stoker's classic vampire story.


Links: Béla Lugosi at the Internet Movie Database
  Official Bela Lugosi website, maintained by the Lugosi family
  Lugosi: Hollywood's Dracula

Lugosis first film appearance was in the 1917 movie "Az ezredes" (known in English as "The Colonel"). Lugosi would make twelve films in Hungary between 1917 and 1918 before leaving for Germany. Following the collapse of Béla Kuns Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, left-wingers 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" ("In the Rubble of Paradise"), and "Die Todeskarawane" ("The Death Caravan"), opposite the ill-fated actress Dora Gerson. Lugosi left Germany in October 1920, intending to emigrate to the United States, and entered into the country at Ellis Island in March 1921.

On his arrival in America, the young 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 m), 180 lb. (82 kg) Béla worked for some time as a laborer, then returned to the theater within the Hungarian-American community. He was approached to star in a play adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from Bram Stokers novel "Dracula." The Horace Liveright production was successful. Despite his excellent notices in the title role, and appearances in some American silent films, Lugosi had to campaign vigorously for the chance to repeat his stage success in Tod Brownings movie version of "Dracula" (1931), produced by Universal Pictures.

A persistent rumor asserts that silent-film actor Lon Chaney was originally scheduled for this film role, and that Lugosi was chosen only due to Chaneys death. Chaney, however, was under long-term contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and his home studio refused to release him to Universal for this project. Further, although Chaney and Browning had worked together on several projects, Browning was only a last-minute choice to direct the movie version of "Dracula": this film was not a longtime pet project of Tod Browning, despite some claims to the contrary.

Following the success of Dracula (1931), Lugosi received a studio contract with Universal. On June 26, 1931, the actor became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

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.

It is an erroneous popular belief that Lugosi declined the offer to appear in Frankenstein. Despite the fact that Lugosi was not interested in the role of Frankensteins monster due to the onerous makeup job and the roles lack of dialogue, James Whale, the films director, replaced Lugosi and would do this again in Bride of Frankenstein (Lugosi was supposed to play the role of Dr. Pretorius). A recent Lugosi scrapbook (see external link below) surfaced with a news clipping listing both Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the film together. This gives credence to the possibility that Lugosi was going to play the role of Dr. Frankenstein. Also, a cinematographer who shot test footage of Lugosi for the role of the monster said that Lugosi was happy with the role, and had given him a box of cigars.

In a recent discussion, it has also been speculated Lugosi wanted out of the role because he and James Whale had different interpretations of the monster. There is speculation that Lugosi wanted to play the monster closer to Shelleys original, who had dialogue. Whales interpretation allowed for no dialogue. Lugosi was quoted as saying the role "did not have meat enough."

Regardless of controversy, the role was taken by the man who became Lugosis principal rival in horror films, Boris Karloff. Several films at Universal, such as "The Black Cat" (1934), "The Raven" (1935), and "Son of Frankenstein" (1939) (and minor cameo performances in 1934s Gift of Gab) paired Lugosi with Karloff. Regardless of the relative size of their roles, Lugosi inevitably got second billing, below Karloff. Lugosis attitude toward Karloff is the subject of contradictory reports, some claiming that he was openly resentful of Karloffs 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.

Attempts were made to give Lugosi more heroic roles, as in "The Black Cat" (1934), "The Invisible Ray" (1936), and a romantic role in the adventure serial "The Return of Chandu," but his typecasting problem was too entrenched for those roles to help. His thick accent and the fact that he never mastered the English language like his fellow Hungarian actors, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas also hindered the variety of roles he was offered. Another problem seems to stem from the apparent fact that he was uncomfortable doing comedy.

A number of factors worked against Lugosis career in the mid-1930s. Universal changed management in 1936, and per a British ban on horror films, dropped them from their production schedule. Lugosi found himself consigned to Universals non-horror B-film unit, at times in small roles where he was obviously used for "name value" only. Throughout the 1930s Lugosi 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 Boris 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.

His career was given a second chance by Universals "Son of Frankenstein" in 1939, when he played the plum character role of Ygor, a sly hunchback, 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 MGMs Greta Garbo comedy "Ninotchka." This small but prestigious role could have been a turning point for the actor, but within the year he was back on Hollywoods Poverty Row, playing leads for Sam Katzman. These horror, comedy, psycho, 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" had him playing straight man to Patsy Kelly, in a role she told Bose Hadleigh was her finest.

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 methadone, was directly proportional to the dwindling of screen offers. He did get to recreate the role of Dracula a second and last time on film in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" in 1948. Lugosis drug use was so notorious that the producers weren even aware that Lugosi was still alive, and had penciled in actor Ian Keith for the role.

"Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" was Bela Lugosis last "A" movie. For the remainder of his life he appeared — less and less frequently — in relatively obscure, low-budget features. During the early 1950s he made personal appearances and did stage work, including a theatrical engagement in England. While there he co-starred in a lowbrow comedy, "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire" (also known as "Vampire over London" and "My Son, the Vampire"). Upon his return to America, Lugosi was interviewed for television, and revealed his ambition to play more comedy, though wistfully noting, "Now I am the boogie man." Independent producer Jack Broder took Lugosi at his word, casting him in a jungle-themed comedy, "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla." Another opportunity for comedy came when Red Skelton invited Lugosi to appear in a sketch on his live CBS program. Lugosi memorized the script for the skit, but became confused on the air when Skelton began to ad lib. This was depicted in the Tim Burton film "Ed Wood," with Martin Landau as Lugosi. Though Burton did not actually identify the comedian in the biopic, the events depicted were correct.

Late in his life, Bela Lugosi again received star billing in movies when filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., a fan of Lugosi, found him living in obscurity and near-poverty and offered him roles in his films, such as "Glen or Glenda" and as a Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist in "Bride of the Monster." During post-production of the latter, Lugosi decided to seek treatment for his addiction, and the premiere of the film was said to be intended to help pay for his hospital expenses. According to Kitty Kelleys biography of Frank Sinatra, when the entertainer heard of Lugosis problems, he helped with expenses and visited at the hospital. Lugosi would recall his amazement, since he didn even know Sinatra.

The extras on an early DVD release of "Plan 9 from Outer Space" include an impromptu interview with Lugosi upon his exit from the treatment center in 1955, which provide some rare personal insights into the man. During the interview, Lugosi states that he is 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 at his home and in a suburban graveyard. This footage ended up in "Plan 9 from Outer Space."

Lugosi married Hope Linninger in 1955. 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.

Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956 while lying in bed in his Los Angeles home. He was 73.

Lugosi was buried wearing one of the many capes from the Dracula stage play, 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 Lugosi, Jr. has confirmed on numerous occasions that he and his mother, Lillian, made the decision.

One of Lugosis roles was in a movie released after he was dead. Ed Woods "Plan 9 from Outer Space" features footage of Lugosi interspersed with a double. Wood had taken a few minutes of silent footage of Lugosi, in his Dracula cape, for a planned vampire picture but was unable to find financing for the project. When he later conceived Plan 9, Wood wrote the script to incorporate the Lugosi footage and hired his wifes chiropractor to double for Lugosi in additional shots. The double is thinner than Lugosi, and in every shot covers the lower half of his face with his cape, as Lugosi sometimes did in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein." As Leonard Maltin put it in early editions of his movies guide book, "Lugosi died during production, and it shows."

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