Béla Lugosi is known and admired for his acting around world. The legendary Hungarian actor was instrumental in reforming the horror genre in the 20th century. Born Béla Blaskó on October 20, 1882, he comes from the town of Lugos, in what is now Romania – hence his later name change.
Although his career had a difficult start, he worked hard and eventually gained admission to the Budapest Academy of Drama. During World War I he toured the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a group of actors. Although he was exempt from military service as a member of the National Theater, he felt obliged to do his bit in the fighting and enlisted.
After the war, he emigrated to Weimar Germany, and despite his initial success, decided to move to the United States in 1920. The American dream finally came true for him when in 1927, Broadway decided to stage Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Béla Lugosi met a traveling theater group when he was still young. This meeting proved to be fateful.
There were no actors clamoring for the lead role, but suddenly an unknown European actor appeared on the scene, claiming that, like Count Dracula, he himself had been born in Transylvania. Lugosi said he was willing to take the role if he was given free rein to reinterpret the character.
The staging of the Dracula story was a huge success in the United States, and Lugosi’s vampire was not only a monster, but his strong eroticism gave the impression of a hypnotic and passionate aristocrat who was almost impossible to resist.
For this reason, the theaters were full of female spectators.
Béla Lugosi as Dracula in the movie.
Lugosi also took the title role in Tod Browning’s Dracula movie in 1931, and although he was not the first actor to take on the role of a vampire, he elevated the character to one of the most iconic figures in the horror genre.
His popularity has made Lugosi the uncrowned king of horror films, and a male symbol in his own right – so much so that fans often hoped the charismatic actor was a vampire in real life.
Despite his success, Lugosi was after a while struck by the monotony of feeling typecast. Even though he wanted to play more complex roles, the studios kept bombarding him with roles that were evil-like. Lugosi’s motivation began to wane, and at the same time his health deteriorated due to drugs and alcohol.
The actor’s extravagant lifestyle left him in debt, and in the 1930s he was almost out of work. His film Frankenstein failed, his family abandoned him, and his roles during the Hungarian Soviet Republic attracted the attention of the FBI, who watched him for more than ten years.
It is rumored that when Lugosi finally asked for help to overcome his addiction, he was supported by an anonymous donation from Frank Sinatra, who was a fan of the actor’s work. Lugosi finally died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, and rumors have since been circulating that Sinatra paid for his funeral.
Lugosi also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and at his request he was buried in the famous costume of Count Dracula.
Featured photos via Fortepan / Saly Noémi; Wikimedia Commons