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Bela Lugosi

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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.

The Strange Case of Bela Lugosi acting with UK music hall and film star Arthur Lucan in Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire.

The Strange Case of Bela Lugosi acting with UK music hall and film star Arthur Lucan in Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire.

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.

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Howard Keel

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Howard Keel

He may be best known to younger generations as Clayton Farlow on Dallas, but Howard Keel had a vast and impressive film career before settling down on Southfork. In more than thirty film roles throughout the 50s and 60s, Howard starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most notable legends.

Born Harry Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois, Howard was working as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Corporation in Southern California when he was selected for a role in the Los Angeles Theatre Guild. He worked on Broadway in Carousel and Oklahoma before landing the role of Boke in the 1948 British thriller The Small Voice. He was 29. A role in 1950’s Pagan Love Song followed, but it was his role in the Oscar-winning Annie Get Your Gun that gained Howard real notice.

Obviously deciding film adaptations of popular musicals were a good idea, Howard chose as his next film 1951’s Show Boat. Playing Ava Gardner’s leading man, Howard helped the film become the second highest-grossing film of that year.

Howard Keel

Thanks to a string of not-so-memorable films, Howard’s career treaded water for the next couple of years. In 1953 he redeemed himself, however, by starring in the Doris Day rendition of Calamity Jane. Equally successful was that year’s Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard and Kathryn Grayson. And in 1954, he co-starred with Jane Powell in the Academy Award-nominated Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

After 1959’s The Big Fisherman, the quality of film roles Howard was accepting began to decline. He chose more commercial films, mostly westerns and science fiction films, and as a result, his audience began to narrow. In 1968 he seemed to disappear altogether, possibly never to be resurrected, if it weren’t for a certain TV show that was looking for an opposing father figure.

By the time Howard joined Dallas as Clayton Farlow, it was already in its fourth season. Viewers were watching in droves and Howard’s role — to stand up to the vicious Ewings — would require an authority and confidence only a veteran actor could deliver. After a brief flirtation with Sue Ellen, Clayton became involved with the matriarch of the Ewing family, Miss Ellie. By the end of the series, the characters would marry.

After Dallas’ end in 1991, Howard appeared in the TV movie Hart to Hart: Home is Where the Heart Is and hosted both That’s Entertainment! III and The Making of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Keel died in 2004.

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Robert Wagner

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Robert Wagner

Robert Wagner proved to be more than just a pretty face. An enduring and versatile entertainer, he had many successful Hollywood incarnations: from awkward juvenile lead to bobby-sox idol to assured leading man to television star and finally back to captivating character actor. The Brylcreem Kid, as he was known in the early days, turned out to be a major talent.

Born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner was not supposed to become an actor. The son of a wealthy steel executive, Robert was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and achieve great things in the world of business. But Robert caught the acting bug instead, and moved to Los Angeles before he was twenty to pursue his dreams.

His good looks and easy going manner got him into films and soon he became a contract player for 20th Century Fox. One of his first notable roles was in a unique John Ford war comedy called “What Price Glory?” (1952) which put him on screen with the likes of James Cagney. The film was originally intended to be a musical, though the final cut only contained two songs. The Ford film got Wagner noticed and he quickly appeared in a slew of smaller roles in films like “With a Song in My Heart” (1952) and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952).

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

Robert with Natalie Wood

Wagner soon progressed to leading man status in films like “Prince Valiant” (1953). But while the roles were getting bigger, they weren’t very challenging, and Wagner still wasn’t taken very seriously as an actor. Woman-kind swooned over Wagner’s all-American looks and every bobby-soxer wished they could take him to their prom. In 1954, however, Wagner got the chance to cut his teeth on a more serious role and display his talent in Edward Dmytryk’s riveting western “Broken Lance.”

Wagner seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a serious actor with another lead role in the western “White Feather” (1955) and the crime drama “A Kiss Before Dying” (1956), when suddenly his personal life completely eclipsed his professional life. In 1956, he met the love of his life, Natalie Wood. In 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. Hollywood trumpeted their marriage as the most “glittering union of the 20th century.” The public could not hear enough about the two love-birds and were ecstatic when they made their first film together, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960). The moroseness of the film, however, turned out to be prescient: While the two appeared to be the perfect couple, living the perfect life, they were actually living on the edge and running out of money.

The two were deeply in love, but professional and financial stress began to take its toll on their marriage. Wagner was being overshadowed by new male leads like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, while Wood was placed on a fourteen month suspension by Warner Bros. for refusing to shoot a film in England. They couldn’t afford to upkeep their $150,000 mansion on Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, they couldn’t live up to the shimmering facade the tabloids had created, they couldn’t get the work they wanted in Hollywood. They wound up divorcing in 1962.

Wagner was a wreck after the divorce and went to Europe to film “The Longest Day” (1962), in part to assuage his grief. On the rebound, he married his old friend Marion Marshall in 1963. Still unable to regain his leading man status, Wagner tried his hand at comedy in “The Pink Panther” (1963) and at mystery in “Harper” (1966) — in which he played a supporting role to the man who had contributed to edging him out of the spotlight: Paul Newman. Reluctantly, Wagner went into television to star in “It Takes a Thief” (1968). The new medium resurrected his career, and he went on to star in many TV movies and several TV series, including the one he is most known for, “Hart to Hart” (1979).

While Wagner’s professional life was once again thriving by the late sixties, his personal life was not. He was still desperately in love with Natalie Wood, though he was still married to his second wife and Wood was newly married to British producer Richard Gregson. Each had a daughter. Wagner was divorced again in 1970, and one fated day, in 1971, Natalie and Robert ran into one another in a restaurant. The years of hardship and strife disappeared; the old magic was back. Wood divorced Gregson and the two love birds re-married in 1972 on their yacht, The Splendour.

Their second marriage really was picture perfect. The two were overjoyed to be reunited, and raised their children together happily. They made three television movies together during this time: “The Affair” (1973), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976), and “Hart to Hart” (1979). Then, in 1981, tragedy struck and Wagner’s life was shattered again. Under mysterious circumstances, Wood slipped from the deck of The Splendour and drowned. Wagner was inconsolable and spent the next ten years trying to lose himself in his work, and raising Natalie’s and his daughters alone.

Wagner eventually remarried to Jill St. John, though to this day he finds it difficult to talk about his wife Natalie Wood’s death.

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Shirley Jones

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Shirley Jones

Shirley Jones burst onto the screen in Oklahoma, with a voice and a fresh-faced beauty that inspired a generation of men to daydream about taking her out in a surrey with a fringe on top.

Her role in “Carousel” and her Oscar®-winning turn in “Elmer Gantry” cemented Jones’s status as a star. On June 5, 1962, a parade featuring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston in “The Music Man” composer Meredith Wilson’s hometown of Mason City, Iowa, attracted a crowd of 125,000 people!

Shirley Jones

After having made so many classic films, it’s ironic that Shirley Jones is so well-known as a mother in a TV sitcom. Real movie fans know better.

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