Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó had been playing small parts on the stage in his native Hungary before making his first film in 1917, but had to leave the country after the failed Hungarian Revolution, and arrived in America as a seaman on a merchant ship.
In 1927, he appeared as Count Dracula in a Broadway adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel, where he was talent-spotted as a character actor for the new Hollywood talkies, appearing in the first Dracula film with sound.
Through the 1930s, he occupied an important niche in popular horror films, with their East European setting, but his Hungarian accent limited his repertoire, and he tried unsuccessfully to avoid typecasting. Meanwhile, he was often paired with Boris Karloff, who was able to demand top billing. To his frustration, Lugosi was increasingly restricted to minor parts, kept employed by the studio principally for the sake of his name on the posters. Among his pairings with Karloff, only in The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) did he perform major roles again, although even in The Raven Karloff received top billing despite Lugosi performing the lead role.
By this time, Lugosi had been receiving regular medication for sciatic neuritis, and he had become addicted to morphine and methadone. This drug dependence was noted by producers, and the offers eventually dwindled down to a few parts in Ed Wood's low-budget movies.
Lugosi was married five times, and had one son, Bela George Lugosi.
Lugosi, the youngest of four children, was born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in Lugos, which at the time was part of Austria–Hungary, and was later renamed Lugoj when it became part of Romania, to Paula de Vojnich and István Blaskó, a banker. He later based his last name on his hometown. He and his sister Vilma were raised in a Roman Catholic family. At the age of 12, Lugosi dropped out of school. He began his acting career probably in 1901 or 1902. His earliest known performances are from provincial theatres in the 1903–1904 season, playing small roles in several plays and operettas. He went on to Shakespeare plays and other major roles. Moving to Budapest in 1911, he played 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 infantry lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1914 to 1916. There he rose to the rank of captain in the ski patrol and was awarded a 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, United States as a crewman aboard a merchant ship. He took the name Lugosi, in 1903, to honor his brithplace Lugos in Hungary.
Lugosi's first film appearance was in the 1917 movie Az ezredes (known in English as The Colonel). 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 ill-fated Jewish actress Dora Gerson. 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 wasnaturalized.
On his arrival in America, the 6 foot 1 inch (1.85 m), 180 lb. (82 kg) Béla 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 inArabesque 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 byHamilton 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.
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 Rathbone for 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."
Universal did wind up giving Lugosi a couple of heroic parts, as in The Black Cat after Karloff had been accorded the more colorful role of the villain, The Invisible Ray, and a romantic role in the adventure serial The Return of Chandu, but his typecasting problem appears to have been too entrenched to be alleviated by those films.
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-1930s. 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. His career was given a second chance by Universal's Son of Frankenstein in 1939, when he played the character role ofYgor, 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 MGM'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, in a role she told author Boze Hadleigh was her finest part.
Ostensibly due to injuries received during military service, Lugosi developed severe, chronic sciatica. Though at first he was treated with pain remedies such as asparagus juice, doctors increased the medication to opiates. The growth of his dependence on pain-killers, particularly morphine and methadone, was directly proportional to the dwindling of screen offers. In 1943, he finally played the role of Frankenstein's monster in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which this time contained dialogue (Lugosi's voice had been dubbed over that of Lon Chaney, Jr., from line readings at the end of 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein because Ygor's brain had been transplanted into the Monster). Lugosi continued to play the Monster with Ygor's consciousness but with groping gestures because the Monster was now blind. Ultimately, all of the Monster's dialogue and all references to his sightlessness were edited out of the released film, leaving a strange, maimed performance characterized by unexplained gestures and lip movements with no words coming out. He also came to recreate the role of Dracula a second and last time on film in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. By this time, Lugosi's drug use was so notorious that the producers were not even aware that Lugosi was still alive, and had penciled in actor Ian Keith for the role.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was Bela Lugosi's last "A" movie. 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 television. While in England to play a six-month tour of Dracula in 1951, he co-starred in a lowbrow movie comedy, Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (also known as Vampire over London and My Son, the Vampire). Upon his return to America, Lugosi was interviewed for television, and revealed his ambition to play more comedy, though wistfully noting, "Now I am the boogie man." Independent producer Jack Broder took Lugosi at his word, casting him in a jungle-themed comedy, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla starring Jerry Lewis lookalike Sammy Petrillo. Another opportunity for comedy came in September 1949 when Milton Berleinvited 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.
Working with Ed Wood
Late in his life, Bela Lugosi again received star billing in movies when 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. With Lugosi in his famed Dracula cape, 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.
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.
In 1917, Lugosi married Ilona Szmick. The couple divorced in 1920, reputedly over political differences with her parents.
In 1929, Lugosi took his place in Hollywood society and scandal when he married wealthy San Francisco widow Beatrice Weeks, but she filed for divorce four months later. Weeks cited actress Clara Bow as the "other woman".
In 1933 he married 19-year-old Lillian Arch, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. They had a child, Bela G. Lugosi, in 1938.
Lillian and Bela, as well as his mother, vacationed on their lake property in the Southern California community of Lake Elsinore (then called Elsinore) on two lots between 1944 and 1953. Bela Lugosi Jr., attended the Elsinore Naval & Military School in Lake Elsinore. Lillian and Béla divorced in 1953, at least partially because of Béla's jealousy over Lillian taking a full-time job as an assistant to Brian Donlevy on the sets and studios for Donlevy's radio and television series Dangerous Assignment — Lillian eventually did marry Brian Donlevy, in 1966.
Lugosi married Hope Lininger, his fifth wife, in 1955. She had been a fan of his, writing letters to him when he was in hospital recovering from addiction to Demerol. She would sign her letters 'A dash of Hope'.
Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, while lying on a couch in his Los Angeles home. He was 73. The rumor that Lugosi was clutching the script for The Final Curtain, a planned Ed Wood project, at the time of his death is not true.
Lugosi was buried wearing one of the Dracula Cape costumes, per the request of his son and fourth wife, in the Holy Cross Cemetery inCulver 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.
In 1979, the Lugosi v. Universal Pictures decision by the California Supreme Court held that Bela Lugosi's personality rights could not pass to his heirs, as a copyright would have. The court ruled that under California law any rights of publicity, including the right to his image, terminated with Lugosi's death.
In Tim Burton's 1994 Ed Wood, Lugosi is played by Martin Landau, who received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. According to Bela G. Lugosi (his son), Forrest Ackerman, Dolores Fuller and Richard Sheffield, Lugosi never used profanity, owned small dogs, or slept in coffins. The film fabricated much about the Hungarian actor.
Three Lugosi projects were featured on the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Corpse Vanishes appeared in episode 105, the serial The Phantom Creeps throughout season two and the Ed Wood production Bride of the Monster in episode 423. An episode of Sledge Hammer titled "Last of the Red Hot Vampires" was a homage to Bela Lugosi; at the end of the episode, it was dedicated to "Mr. Blasko". In 2001, BBC Radio 4 broadcast There Are Such Things by Steven McNicoll and Mark McDonnell. Focusing on Lugosi and his well-documented struggle to escape from the role that had typecast him, the play went on to receive the Hamilton Dean Award for best dramatic presentation from the Dracula Society in 2002. A statue of Lugosi can be seen today on one of the corners of the Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City features a live, 30-minute play that focuses on Lugosi's illegal entry into the country and then his arrival at Ellis Island to enter the country legally.
The cape Lugosi wore in the 1931 film Dracula still survives today in the ownership of Universal Studios. The theatrical play Lugosi - a vámpír árnyéka (Lugosi - the Shadow of the Vampire, in Hungarian) is based on Lugosi's life, telling the story of his life as he becomes typecast as Dracula and as his drug addiction worsens. He was played by one of Hungary's most renowned actors, Ivan Darvas. Andy Warhol's 1963 silkscreen The Kiss depicts Lugosi from Dracula about to bite into the neck of co-star Helen Chandler, who played Mina Harker. A copy sold for $798,000 at Christie's in May 2000. Lugosi was also the subject of "Bela Lugosi's Dead", the first single byBauhaus, released in August 1979 it is often considered to be the first gothic rock record.
Bela Lugosi was a charter member of the American Screen Actors Guild.
In 2009 a book loosely-based on his 1940 film "The Devil Bat" called "Devil Bat Diary" was dedicated to Lugosi.