Bela Lugosi was born Bela Ferenc Deszo Blasko on October 20, 1882. He was almost fated for his most famous role—his birthplace was located near Transylvania, the setting for Bram Stoker’s literary creation and Lugosi’s alter ego, Count Dracula.
Lugosi’s family was respected and prosperous. His father, Istvan, was president of a bank, and one of his brothers was a lawyer. Despite a family emphasis on education, young Bela dropped out of school and ran away from home to the city of Resita at the age of eleven. He worked as a miner, but dreamed of becoming an actor, an ambition stoked by his love of traveling repertory companies that crisscrossed Eastern Europe.
Lugosi began acting in his teens. He was often laughed off stage, but this failure only fueled his desire to succeed. He moved to the town of Szabadka, where he lived with Vilma, his sister, and his widowed mother. Lugosi balanced railroad work with acting jobs for a local theater company. Honing his craft, he was apparently accepted into the Academy of Performing Arts—”apparently” because much of Lugosi’s early biographical information was liberally embellished by Lugosi himself. In any case, it’s clear that it was at this time, a few years before World War I, that Bela Blasko adopted the name “Lugosi.”
Lugosi began to play larger roles and his career flourished. Then came World War I, and the actor quit the theater for the trenches. In 1914, he enlisted in the Hungarian Army. Two years later he was discharged, managing to convince army officials that he was “mentally unstable.”
Lugosi married Ilona Szmik on June 25, 1917. He began appearing in Hungarian films, became a Communist (and, consequently, politically unpopular), and moved to Germany. By 1920 he was acting in German films and watching his marriage unravel. He divorced Ilona, moved to the United States, and married another Ilona—Ilona von Montagh. This marriage also ended in divorce, but at the same time Lugosi’s acting career was taking off.
In 1923 Lugosi appeared in his first American film, “The Silent Command.” Through the 1920’s he balanced stage work in New York with film work in Hollywood, appearing in such films as “Daughters Who Pay” (1925) and “How to Handle Women” (1928). The titles were appropriate, for during this time Lugosi earned the reputation as a ladies man. In between affairs and films, he also worked on his English.
Lugosi broke through in 1931, ironically the same year he became an American citizen, by playing a bloodsucking Transylvanian count. He had played Count Dracula on the stage in 1929 and won rave reviews. But when Universal Studios planned a movie version, they opted for Lon Chaney, Sr. to play the lead. But Chaney died of throat cancer, and Lugosi played the title role for only $500 a week, a total of $3,500 for the seven week shoot. “Dracula” (1931) was a box-office success and Bela Lugosi was, amazingly, a household name.
Lugosi’s broad acting style and heavy accent made casting him in anything other than horror films problematic. Consequently, his greatest cinematic roles during the 1930’s were in such films as “White Zombie” (1932) and “The Raven” (1935). The notable exception to these films was Lugosi’s role as Comrade Razinin in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic comedy, “Ninotchka” (1939).
By the 1940’s Lugosi was hopelessly typecast in horror films, and Universal, the studio most known for these films, was making fewer of them. Also, the ones they did make often starred Lon Chaney, Jr. rather than Lugosi, or Bela’s good friend Boris Karloff, who created the role of Frankenstein. Perhaps this was poetic justice, as Lugosi had snatched the role of Dracula from Chaney, Sr. after his death. The decade soon found Lugosi a staple of schlock horror films like “Spooks Run Wild” (1941) and more bizarrely appearing in low grade UK film “Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire“.
The 1950’s were even worse than the 1940’s for Lugosi. His 20-year marriage to Lillian Arch ended in divorce in 1951. Lugosi couldn’t find work and hooked up with infamous auteur Edward Wood, Jr., with whom he made the schlock classic “Glen or Glenda?” (1953) and the so-called “worst film of all time,” “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1959). Maybe it was merciful that Lugosi never saw “Plan 9” released. After being hospitalized for an addiction to morphine, he died on August 16, 1956.