Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó was born on 20th October 1882 in what is now known as Lugoj, Romania. He was the youngest of four children. At the age of 12, Lugosi dropped out of school and later began acting. His earliest documented performances are from the provincial theaters in the 1903–1904 season, playing small roles in several plays and operettas. He went on to Shakespeare plays and other major roles.
In 1911 Bela moved to Budapest where he went on to play dozens of roles with the National Theatre of Hungary in the period 1913–1919. Although Lugosi would later claim that he “became the leading actor of Hungary’s Royal National Theatre”, almost all his roles there were small or supporting parts.
During World War I, he served as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1914 to 1916. There he rose to the rank of captain in the ski patrol and was awarded the Wound Medal for wounds he suffered while serving on the Russian front.
Due to his activism in the actors’ union in Hungary during the time of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919, he was forced to flee his homeland. He first went to Vienna and then settled in Berlin in the Langestrasse where he continued acting. Eventually, he travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana, US as a crewman aboard a merchant ship. He took the name Lugosi, in 1903, to honor his birthplace Lugos.
Lugosi’s first film appearance was in the movie Az ezredes (The Colonel, 1917). When appearing in Hungarian silent films, he used the stage name Arisztid Olt. Lugosi made 12 films in Hungary between 1917 and 1918 before leaving for Germany. Following the collapse of Béla Kun’s Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, leftists 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 (On the Brink of Paradise), and Die Todeskarawane (The Caravan of Death), opposite the Jewish actress Dora Gerson (who died in Auschwitz). Lugosi left Germany in October 1920, intending to emigrate to the United States, and entered the country at New Orleans in December 1920. He made his way to New York and was legally inspected for immigration at Ellis Island in March 1921. He declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen in 1928, and on June 26, 1931, he was naturalized
On his arrival in America, the 6-foot-1-inch (1.85 m), 180 pounds (82 kg) Lugosi worked for some time as a laborer, then entered the theater in New York City’s Hungarian immigrant colony. With fellow Hungarian actors he formed a small stock company that toured Eastern cities, playing for immigrant audiences. He acted in his first Broadway play, The Red Poppy, in 1922. Three more parts came in 1925–1926, including a five-month run in the comedy-fantasy The Devil in the Cheese. In 1925, he appeared as an Arab Sheik in Arabesque which premiered in Buffalo, New York at the Teck Theatre before moving to Broadway.
His first American film role came in the 1923 melodrama The Silent Command. Several more silent roles followed, as villains or continental types, all in productions made in the New York area.
Lugosi was approached in the summer of 1927 to star in a Broadway production of Dracula adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from Bram Stoker’s novel. The Horace Liveright production was successful, running 261 performances before touring. He was soon called to Hollywood for character parts in early talkies.
Despite his critically acclaimed performance on stage, Lugosi was not Universal Pictures’ first choice for the role of Dracula when the company optioned the rights to the Deane play and began production in 1930. A persistent rumor asserts that director Tod Browning’s long-time collaborator, Lon Chaney, was Universal’s first choice for the role, and that Lugosi was chosen only due to Chaney’s death shortly before production. This is questionable, because Chaney had been under long-term contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer since 1925, and had negotiated a lucrative new contract just before his death.
Chaney and Browning had worked together on several projects (including four of Chaney’s final five releases), but Browning was only a last-minute choice to direct the movie version of Dracula after the death of director Paul Leni, who was originally slated to direct. In 1927, Lugosi accepted the eponymous role in the American theatrical run of Dracula, a play based on Bram Stoker’s gothic novel of the same name.
Lugosi’s Dracula was unlike any previous portrayals of the role. Handsome and mysterious, Lugosi’s Dracula was at once so alluring and so dreadful that audiences gasped when he first opened his mouth to speak. After a half-year run on Broadway, Dracula toured the United States to much fanfare and critical acclaim throughout 1928 and 1929.
His portrayal of Dracula was so successful that Universal decided to make a movie of Dracula starring Lugosi. The film, Dracula, was a considerable hit and forever immortalized Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula. Although countless actors have played Dracula since, to this date vampire enthusiasts idolize Lugosi as synonymous with the character—not least because the actor was actually born in Transylvania. Lugosi’s body of work established him as a star of the horror genre, with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre as his only real rivals in Hollywood. Nevertheless, throughout his entire career Lugosi was frustrated by his inability to break through into other types of films. “I am definitely typed, doomed to be an exponent of evil,” he said. In the 1940s, when he worked as Dracula, he spoke as much about his personal tradition as about his character when he uttered the immortal phrase “I am Dracula”.
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.
Lugosi did attempt to break type by auditioning for other roles. He lost out to Lionel Barrymore for the role of Rasputin in Rasputin and the Empress; C. Henry Gordon for the role of Surat Khan in Charge of the Light Brigade; Basil Rathbonefor the role of Commissar Dimitri Gorotchenko in Tovarich (a role Lugosi had played on stage). He did play the elegant, somewhat hot-tempered Gen. Nicholas Strenovsky-Petronovich in International House, an ensemble comedy also featuring W. C. Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Cab Calloway and Baby Rose Marie.
Regardless of controversy, five films at Universal — The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, Son of Frankenstein, Black Friday (plus minor cameo performances in 1934’s Gift of Gab) and two at RKO Pictures, You’ll Find Out and The Body Snatcher — paired Lugosi with Boris Karloff. Despite the relative size of their roles, Lugosi inevitably got second billing, below Karloff. Lugosi’s attitude toward Karloff is the subject of contradictory reports, some claiming that he was openly resentful of Karloff’s 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. Karloff himself in interviews suggested that Lugosi was initially mistrustful of him when they acted together, believing that the Englishman would attempt to upstage him. When this proved not to be the case, according to Karloff, Lugosi settled down and they worked together amicably (though some have further commented that Karloff’s on-set demand to break from filming for mid-afternoon tea annoyed Lugosi). Karloff also insinuated that his iconic rival could not act, claiming that Lugosi “never learned his trade.”
Lugosi addressed his plea to be cast in non-horror roles directly to casting directors through his listing in the 1937 Players Directory, published by the Motion Picture Academy, in which he (or his agent) calls the idea that he is only fit for horror films “an error.”
A number of factors worked against Lugosi’s career in the mid-1930’s. Universal changed management in 1936, and because of a British ban on horror films, dropped them from their production schedule; Lugosi found himself consigned to Universal’s non-horror B-film unit, at times in small roles where he was obviously used for “name value” only. Throughout the 1930s, Lugosi, experiencing a severe career decline despite popularity with audiences (Universal executives always preferred his rival Karloff), 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 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.
Historian John McElwee reports, in his 2013 book Showmen, Sell It Hot!, that Bela Lugosi’s popularity received a much-needed boost in August 1938, when California theater owner Emil Umann revived Dracula and Frankenstein as a special double feature. The combination was so successful that Umann scheduled extra shows to accommodate the capacity crowds, and invited Lugosi to appear in person, which thrilled new audiences that had never seen Lugosi’s classic performance. “I owe it all to that little man at the Regina Theatre,” said Lugosi of exhibitor Umann. “I was dead, and he brought me back to life.” Universal took notice of the tremendous business and launched its own national re-release of the same two horror favorites. The studio then rehired Lugosi to star in new films.
The first was Universal’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), when he played the character role of Ygor, who uses the Monster for his own revenge, 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 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s comedy Ninotchka, starring Greta Garbo. This small but prestigious role could have been a turning point for the actor, but within the year he was back on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, playing leads for Sam Katzman. These horror, comedy 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 (1939) had him playing straight man to Patsy Kelly.
For the remainder of his life he appeared — less and less frequently — in obscure, low-budget features. From 1947 to 1950, he performed in summer stock, often in productions of Dracula or Arsenic and Old Lace, and during the rest of the year made personal appearances in a touring “spook show” and on early commercial television.
In September 1949 Milton Berle invited Lugosi to appear in a sketch on Texaco Star Theater.Lugosi memorized the script for the skit, but became confused on the air when Berle began to ad lib. His only television dramatic role was on the anthology series Suspense on October 11, 1949 in the episode The Cask of Amontillado.
In 1951, while in England to play a six-month tour of Dracula, he co-starred in a lowbrow movie comedy, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (also known as Vampire over London and My Son, the Vampire). Following his return to America, Lugosi was interviewed for television, and reflected wistfully on his typecasting in horror parts: “Now I am the boogie man.” In the same interview he expressed a desire to play more comedy, as he had in the Mother Riley farce. Independent producer Jack Broder took Lugosi at his word, casting him in a jungle-themed comedy, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla co-starring nightclub comedians Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, whose act closely resembled that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Late in his life, Bela Lugosi again received star billing in movies when ambitious filmmaker Ed Wood, a fan of Lugosi, found him living in obscurity and near-poverty and offered him roles in his films, such as an anonymous narrator in Glen or Glenda and a Dr. Frankenstein-like mad scientist in Bride of the Monster. During post-production of the latter, Lugosi decided to seek treatment for his drug addiction, and the premiere of the film was said to be intended to help pay for his hospital expenses. According to Kitty Kelley’s biography of Frank Sinatra, when the entertainer heard of Lugosi’s problems, he helped with expenses and visited at the hospital. Lugosi would recall his amazement, since he did not even know Sinatra.
During an impromptu interview upon his exit from the treatment center in 1955, Lugosi stated that he was 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.
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.
With Lugosi in his famed Dracula cape, Ed Wood shot impromptu test footage, with no storyline in mind, in front of Tor Johnson’s home, a suburban graveyard and in front of Lugosi’s apartment building on Carlton Way. This footage ended up in Plan 9 from Outer Space, which was mostly filmed after Lugosi’s death. Wood hired Tom Mason, his wife’s chiropractor, to double for Lugosi in additional shots. Mason was noticeably taller and thinner than Lugosi, and had the lower half of his face covered with his cape in every shot, as Lugosi sometimes did in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, while lying on a couch in his Los Angeles home. He was 73 . Lugosi was buried wearing one of the Dracula Cape costumes, 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 G. Lugosi confirmed on numerous occasions that he and his mother, Lillian, actually made the decision but believed that it is what his father would have wanted.