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Hungarian Roots: Paul Lukas, The Only Hungarian Oscar Winning Actor

Fanni Kaszás 2018.08.17.

In our Hungarian Roots series, we write about celebrities – artists, actors, musicians, sport stars and scientists – who have some Hungarian origin, yet only few would consider them as “par excellence Hungarians”. In many cases even the persons concerned know/knew only very little about their Hungarian roots, while others are/were proud of their “Magyar” background despite lacking the ability to speak the language of their parents or grandparents.

Though few know it, this legendary actor restarted his career from scratch, not once, but twice. Despite all setbacks, Paul Lukas, otherwise known as Pál Lukács became renowned in the realms of both film and on stage thanks to his humility, dedication, and foremost, talent.

Lukács was originally born as Pál Munkácsi on the 24thof May, 1984 in Budapest. However, nine years later, Janos Lukacs, advertising executive, adopted Pál and his older sister—thus bestowing him with the last name Lukács, which eventually would follow him to fame. He fought in World War I and only began to pursue his acting career after disarmament. In 1915 he enrolled in the Színiakadémia (a Budapest based theatrical company) but half a year later he was already found and enticed by the National Theatre of Kassa. He left his studies, never actually finishing them. From this point on his career steeply inclined– his first role on stage was the main character in Bánk Bán. When he was invited to perform at the Vígszínház (Comedy Theatre), he could not decline, and for ten years, up until his immigration, he remained a member. Occasionally he would also perform in the theatre on Andrássy Avenue, mostly as famous Hungarian actress Sári Fedák’s memorable partner. Meanwhile, he appeared in film as well. His debut was in Béla Balogh’s movie, Sphynx, which was followed up by five more starring roles in Balogh’s subsequent films. Pál Lukács became an undeniable star in Hungary.

He was tall, had a very interesting profile and a youthful energy recognizable by everyone. While women daydream of him, men everywhere are jealous. But this effect is not his intention. He was destined for these serious and poised roles. On stage he does not attempt fine nuances or slight mood changes, he does not try to steal the audiences heart or shock them. He does not embellish his roles.

– wrote a contemporary critic about Lukács. It was thus no surprise that very soon foreign companies began to notice his talent.

In 1927 he decided, with Gizella Benes, his second wife, to immigrate. Upon the invitation of none other than Adolf Zukor – the Hungarian-born founder of Paramount Pictures, the Napoleon of the cinematic world – Lukács immigrated to the US. There he had to go through the same loops as any other actor would have, auditioning and such– but he did so with flying colors. He worked alongside Negri Pola on three occasions who was then one of Hollywood’s biggest divas; this, along with his talent, garnered him international popularity. According to legend, Negri even greeted Lukács with a few words in Hungarian. Back then everyone in Hollywood knew a couple words of Hungarian given the numerous Hungarians working there at the time.

Academy Award winners at the Oscars, 1944. Pál Lukács (left) received it for Watch on the Rhine (szinhaz.hu)

However, with the spread of sound films, he found himself again facing the task of rebuilding and re-establishing his already successful and reputable career. Not only did he now have to learn near-perfect and accent-less English, but he also had to learn how to hold back the dramatic movements and acting, characteristic of silent films. For a while he tolerated his voice being dubbed and synchronized, but eventually his pride overcame him. Therefore, he dedicated himself to six months of learning the language, after which he again had to audition, and again, was quite exceptional. So much so that Paramount Pictures did not even hesitate to sign a five year contract with him, rewarding his efforts.

Lukács reached the peak of his career in 1943 when he won an Academy award for his performance in Watch on the Rhine, beating out, among others, Humphrey Bogart. A year later he won the Golden Globe for this role as well. Meanwhile he was also acting in Broadway plays, along with making intermittent radio appearances. In 1963, a year after his second wife, Gizella Benes, passed away, he played one of the major roles in Elvis Presley’s Fun in Acapulcomovie. In this same year he remarried for the third time.

Lukács passed away in 1971 during a vacation to Morocco. He died of a heart attack one day after the death of his third wife, Annette M. Driesens. Today, his memory is preserved with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — along with 13 other stars of Hungarian descent.