Bela Lugosi was a fine actor and the perfect Dracula.
Twelve-year-old Bela Blasko was bored with school and even less interested in going into banking, like his father. So he ran away from home to become an actor.
From his home town of Lugos he traveled all over Hungary, playing bit parts in small-town theaters. But by 1913 he was an established actor, living in Budapest and playing Shakespearean roles with the National Theater of Hungary.
When World War I broke out. Bela, now 32, enlisted. He served as a captain in the ski patrol, was wounded at the Russian front, and was awarded a medal.
After the war Bela began to receive roles in silent movies, and made twelve of them in Hungary under the name Aristide Olt. He probably used that name in order to avoid the authorities. He was active in trying to unionize actors, and in a time of political upheaval in Hungary, that was not the safest thing to do. By 1919 Bela had fled to Germany. He continued to make movies there, but found that his reputation as an activist was still putting him in danger. So he decided to emigrate to the United States.
Signing on to the crew of a merchant ship, he arrived in New Orleans in 1920. He made his way to New York City, entered the U.S. legally at Ellis Island, and worked as a laborer for a while. But he soon got established in theater. Bela knew no English at all, but this wasn't a problem at first. There were large numbers of Hungarian immigrants in New York at the time, and he acted in Hungarian-language plays.
In 1922 he received his first Broadway role in the play The Red Poppy, speaking the lines phonetically since his English was still shaky. He received parts in several more plays, and in 1923 he began acting in silent movies. It was about this time that he adopted the name he would be known by, Bela Lugosi, after his home town of Lugos.
In 1927 Hamilton Deane and John Balderston adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula for the stage, and Bela was cast in the role. He appeared in 261 performances, from October of 1927 to May of 1928. Bela's Broadway Dracula was a huge success. After touring with Dracula, Bela went to Hollywood hoping for movie roles, and was cast in several films.
It was at this time that Universal Studios bought the rights to Dracula and began production on the film. Bela's son Bela Jr. said that it was his performance in The Thirteenth Chair that brought him to the attention of Universal Studios when they were casting the role of Dracula. Bela was given the part, and Dracula was released in 1931. It was quite scary for the time, and people loved it.
There's a story that director Tod Browning wanted Lon Chaney for the part. This is probably not true, since Lon Chaney was under contract to another studio, and was in poor health. In fact, he died before Dracula began filming. What's more, Tod Browning became the director of Dracula at the last minute.
In any case, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part. Bela's piercing eyes, menacing grace, and deep, heavily accented tones bring the evil count to life. His performance is chillingly real and totally riveting. Bela Jr. pointed out that it was only fitting that the man who is so identified with Dracula was born not far from the real Dracula's castle.
Bela himself said. "Every actor's greatest ambition is to create his own, definite and original role, a character with which he will always be identified. In my case, that role was Dracula."
Here is a video clip of Bela Lugosi in Dracula:
Bela loved being a star. Bela Jr. wrote, "He was a captivating entertainer, as I found out when I was older, and always managed to be the center of attention...I loved to watch the reactions of people around him because, however clichéd the phrase might be, he was a man with charisma, real personal magnetism. When he entered a room, heads turned."
In the 1930's and 1940's Bela continued to make movies, mainly horror films. He played a voodoo priest named Murder (!) in White Zombie, Igor in Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein, Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man, and the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Bela had supporting roles in a few critically acclaimed movies, such as 1939's Ninotchka and 1945's The Body Snatcher. He had steady work. But many of his roles were in B movies.
There is a story that Universal pitted Bela and their other horror star Boris Karloff against each other, and that the two hated each other. Both men's children have denied this, and it doesn't make sense. It would be to the studio's advantage to promote both of their stars. Universal actually gave Bela top billing even when he had supporting roles; his name was a great asset. Bela and Karloff had a good working relationship, although it's said that Bela was annoyed with Karloff's afternoon tea breaks.
Bela was certainly typecast, though. He himself said, "I'd like to quit the supernatural roles and play just an interesting, down-to-earth person." But he was a victim of his own success. His heavy accent also limited the roles he could play, whereas Karloff spoke the king's English.
Worse than typecasting, his career was hampered by drug use. Like many World War I veterans, wounds left him addicted to painkillers. The addiction grew worse as the years went on, and on the set he would hide it by drinking burgundy. But by the late 1940's every producer in Hollywood knew about it, and roles became few and far between.
In the 1950's producer Ed Wood found Bela living in near-poverty and in and out of hospitals for his addiction. A long-time fan, Wood cast him in Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. The films are notoriously abominable. But they gave a fine actor some work and dignity.
In August of 1956 Bela died from a heart attack. There was no money for a funeral; Frank Sinatra quietly paid for it. Bela Jr. and his mother made the decision to bury him in one of his Broadway Dracula capes.
Through all his adversity, Bela Lugosi never lost his love of acting or pride in it. He once said, "In Hungary acting is a career for which one fits himself as earnestly and studiously as one studies for a degree in medicine, law or philosophy. In Hungary, acting is a profession."
On the Official Bela Lugosi Website, Bela Jr. wrote this tribute to his dad: "As a young teenager, I remember him telling me, (and by his own actions showing me) that I should set my sights on certain goals and then pursue those goals relentlessly until I had achieved them.
"With the passage of time, I have come to know a much greater part of the man—and respect him all the more because I realize that the things he had taught me were not just idle preaching. He practiced what he preached and was able to overcome obstacles in his life which few men could conquer."
The man who brought a vampire to life was himself truly human.
Picture from http://www.archive.org/details/white_zombie. It shows Bela Lugosi in White Zombie, 1932.