Born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, the man who later became known in the Western world as Béla Lugosi lived 73 years, from 20 October 1882 – 16 August 1956. In his most famous role he became the face of Dracula-a role that he was unable to shake for the majority of his career.
Lugosi honored the town in which he was born when he changed his name-he was born in a town called Lugos. In an amazing coincidence, Lugosi was born near the Western border of Transylvania, in a town that was not far from the Carpathian Mountains. This was the area that the fictional Count Dracula was from, and perhaps helped him to play the role with more feeling and authenticity than others could have managed thanks to not only his genuine accent, but his knowledge of the area.
His school career was brief as his interest lay not with business as his father had hoped, but in acting and the stage and thus at age twelve he chose to leave school. He then pursued acting with a vigor that he showed to nothing else, and soon began to make his way in stage work.
His earliest recorded stage appearance was in a play that in English was called Brigadier General Ocskay, in 1902 and he continued his work beginning with small parts in small plays and operettas on a local scale.
He soon moved onto larger parts in works by greats such as Shakespeare and from 1913 he began to work with the National Theatre of Hungary in Budapest. Hungarian actors were exempt from the required military service, but when World War 1 began, Lugosi joined up by choice, feeling a patriotic duty towards a country that would later turn against him. He served with the Ski Patrol from 1914-1916 and attained the rank of Captain before returning to the theater once more.
In 1919 there was a revolution in Hungary and the country was thrown into political turmoil. In a very violent period, Lugosi's activities with the actor's union were noticed, and he was forced to leave the country. His movement in search of safety took him first to Vienna, Austria, and onto Germany where he again tried to further his acting career. Unfortunately he continued to be pursued and so in October 1920 he began the long journey to America, arriving in December of that year. His journey was yet incomplete as he continued to make his way to Ellis Island for immigration inspection.
It was as an American citizen that his career at last took off. Beginning with stage plays only to other Hungarian immigrants, he was soon offered an English speaking role in The Red Poppy-but speaking no English he learned the entire part phonetically.
In 1927 he took up the role of the worlds most famous vampire-Count Dracula-in a stage adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel on Broadway. It was a runaway success that managed 261 showings before a two year tour.
His accent and his natural demeanor made him perfect for the role and yet when it came time to begin the production of the movie, Universal Pictures did not naturally call upon Lugosi to appear. The exact plan for their star is debated, but ultimately the role did fall to Lugosi.
In 1931 the movie Dracula was released, the first official movie made of the novel as the earlier Nosferatu had been unauthorized. Dracula saw Béla Lugosi star opposite Helen Chandler in the role of Mina Harker, the woman whom the vampire had bitten and over whom the battle to save began. Dracula introduced the world to vampires and to the strengths and weaknesses that these ancient monsters had.
1932 saw the release of The White Zombie, a horror movie that sees a young couple encouraged to marry on the property of a new acquaintance. This second man wishes to woo the woman away from her fiancée and thus he calls in Legendre (played by Lugosi), a practiser of Voodoo who is asked to lure the woman away. The plan fails when she becomes a zombie, and the fiancé is left looking for a way to save her.
Later in the same year The Death Kiss saw Lugosi starring as Joseph Steiner. Unlike the many vampire movies that he went on to complete, this was instead a murder mystery that involved the death of a man with many potential murderers. The finger of blame falls upon Marcia Lane, and the rest of the movie portrays the attempts to prove her innocence.
The Whispering Shadow, released in 1933, embraced technology as a means to scare people. The Whispering Shadow is a murderer who is an expert in the use of radio and television wave technology, using it to control people to do his murdering, and using radio waves themselves to kill people by electrocution. Lugosi played the creator of radio controlled wax works-and one of the prime suspects for the murders.
The Mysterious Mr. Wong is a man with a mission and when the movie was released in 1934 it saw Lugosi star in the title role. Wong is a man with a coin collection, but these are no ordinary coins, having once belonged to Confucius, and which will give him the power to rule an empire if he possesses them all. When a series of murders occurs, a report begins investigating.
Phantom Ship, 1935, was released under the title 'Mystery of the Mary Celeste' as well, and is a possible answer to the mystery of this ghost ship. In this possible solution we see a murderer on board, killing one person at a time, striking unpredictably and leaving the remaining people increasingly paranoid.
A serialization rather than a movie, SOS Coast Guard was then released in 1937. Lugosi plays Boroff, an evil man who is hired by the government of Marovania to make an incredible gas that will disintegrate everything in its path. Boroff is carrying arnatite-a substance needed to manufacture the gas when he runs aground. Having murdered someone he is soon being hunted by the coast guard who wish to capture him and eradicate any gas he has thus far succeeded in creating.
Both The Gorilla (released 1939) and The Ape Man (released 1943) have a primate feel, though in The Gorilla, Lugosi played only the butler. In The Ape Man he is a crazed scientist who through an experiment gone wrong turns himself into a human ape. He goes on the rampage, searching for a cure. A third movie-Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla was released in 1952 and saw Lugosi portray a crazy scientist whose experiments in evolution get personal for an entertainer who drops in on the island by parachute.
The Phantom Creeps, 1939 was a further serialization, in which Lugosi played Dr. Alex Zorka-again a scientist without the best of intentions. He creates a large number of items that could be used for warfare and will not give them over to the government for army use, and faces instead the spies who try to steal his ideas.
Dr Carruthers is another scientist whose sanity is questionable. Played by Lugosi he is a bitter man, having failed to get rich off an item of his invention, his employer having taken all the money, and the credit. He takes revenge against them by engineering giant bats and a perfume that drives them to attack in The Devil Bat, 1940.
Insurance fraud of the worst possible form is the theme in The Dark Eyes of London, released in 1940. Bela Lugosi plays Dr Orloff, the insurance agent who issued the policies of numerous single men who die by accidental means, and who as it turns out all stated their insurance beneficiary as being a home for the blind that was run by Prof. John Dearborn. Patterns soon start to fall into place.
A wife is thought killed in a car accident in The Invisible Ghost, released in 1941, and the husband-Charles Kessler goes insane. Unknown to him he is under the control of his wife who did not die, but is being kept in the basement by the gardener, until Kessler's brother solves the mystery.
In 1942 came the release of five movies for Bela Lugosi, including Black Dragons, Bowery at Midnight, and The Corpse Vanishes.
Of all of the films that Lugosi made, he only starred in one single color film, though he appeared in other color movies in smaller roles. Scared to Death, 1947 was the title, in which a woman on an autopsy slab describes to us the circumstances leading up to her death. She tells of events set up to scare her, of her being hypnotized by Lugosi's character, and of a man in a blue mask.
His movies continued until after his death, with many more titles added to his repertoire. He worked hard to shake off the type casting that he suffered following Dracula, but his accent and appearance was a little too distinctive and instead he struggled.
On August 16th 1956 a heart attack took Bela Lugosi, and was buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in California. As per the request of his son and his fourth wife, he was buried in one of his Dracula capes.
- Watch The Death Kiss
- Watch White Zombie
- Watch The Mysterious Mr. Wong
- Watch Phantom Ship
- Watch The Gorilla
- Watch The Devil Bat
- Watch The Invisible Ghost
- Watch The Dark Eyes of London
- Watch Black Dragons
- Watch Bowery at Midnight
- Watch The Corpse Vanishes
- Watch The Ape Man (Coming Soon)
- Watch Scared to Death
- Watch Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla
- Watch SOS Coast Guard (serial in 12 chapters)
- Watch The Phantom Creeps (serial in 12 chapters)
- Watch The Whispering Shadow (serial in 12 chapters)