CAIRO – 20 October 2017: Bela Lugosi, known for his iconic role as Dracula on the silver screen, was born on this day in history in 1882. Dubbed “the King of Horror,” Lugosi helped bring to life some of Hollywood’s most iconic movie monsters.
Blasko Béla Ferenc Dezső came from Hungary, born not too far away from Transylvania and the castle of Vlad the Impaler, the historical figure Dracula was inspired by. Lugosi ran away from home at the age of 11, supporting himself by taking up various odd jobs such as stage acting. Though uneducated and humiliated by crowds, Lugosi felt the passion of acting burn deep within, and set out to prove himself.
He managed to find work with the National Theatre of Hungary in 1913, the most prestigious performing arts theatre within his birth country. Despite his lack of education, Lugosi had a serious talent that managed to get him cast into 34 shows. He started off performing in Shakespearian plays.
Lugosi’s stint with theatre took a break as World War I crept in, and he voluntarily enlisted to fight in 1914. However, health problems ensured that Lugosi would be exempt by 1916, and he returned to theater. Lugosi, ever the patriot, supported the 1919 Hungarian revolution, which eventually turned out to be a mistake, as Lugosi became an enemy of the state after the revolution’s collapse, forcing him to flee his beloved birth country.
His flight took him to Berlin, where he quickly participated within German cinema, where his relationship to horror began. He starred in “the Head of Janus,” a 1920 silent horror film based off “the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Though popular in Germany, Lugosi decided to set his sights on the USA, despite not knowing any English.
Lugosi was welcomed by New York’s Hungarian theatre community upon his arrival there. Since silent films were still dominant at the time, Lugosi’s poor grasp of English didn’t prevent him from landing roles, though he was still unable to communicate with co-workers. He managed to debut in Broadway in 1922’s “the Red Poppy,” where he managed to memorize all his lines despite not understanding what he was saying.
With 1927 Lugosi would land his defining role, Dracula, in the Broadway adaptation of the book, yet also the beginning of the end for him. A Hollywood producer liked how the play was going and ordered a film adaptation, though Lugosi wasn’t the first choice to play Dracula, since he was considered too unknown. He still managed to get the part, and the 1931 film adaptation turned Lugosi into a Hollywood legend overnight.
Lugosi broke typical conventions on how Dracula was portrayed, showcasing him as handsome, mysterious and seductive, which caused him to be immensely popular with female audiences. With his reputation firmly in place, Lugosi would star in numerous horror films such as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932), an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story. He would star alongside another horror icon, Boris Karloff, in various films such as “the Black Cat” (1934). Apart from Dracula, he was also famous for portraying mad scientist Ygor in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein.”
Lugosi had begun feeling frustrated that he could only find roles in horror, and tried branching out to other genres as well, such as in the romantic comedy “Ninotchka.” As horror began to wane down, Lugosi unfortunately found his career going down with it. To make matters worse, he had begun succumbing to drug addiction thanks to injuries he’d suffered in the war leading to chronic pain, and Lugosi found his once illustrious reputation going into decline as he fell into poverty.
Towards the end of his life Lugosi managed to form a friendship with b-movie director Ed Wood, widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s worst directors of all time. Wood was one of the few filmmakers still giving Lugosi work, and he starred in several of the director’s films such as narrator to 1953’s “Glen or Glenda” and 1955’s “Bride of the Monster,” where he portrayed a mad scientist. He also starred in the infamous “Plan 9 From Outer Space” in 1959, where Lugosi had passed away halfway through and had to be replaced with an actor that looked nothing like him.
Though he fell from grace, Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula is still remembered to this day as one of the finest performances in the history of horror, helping to shape popular culture’s idea of vampires and immortalizing Lugosi as the perfect actor for the world’s most famous vampire.