On this date, August 16, in the year 1956 the actor most associated with Bram Stoker‘s famous Count, died. He had a heart attack while sitting on his couch in his Los Angeles home. Perhaps inevitably, a new series of rumors about his life sprung up. One, that he was clutching a script by his friend Ed Wood when life ended, was utterly false. Another, that he was buried in his Dracula regalia and costume at his request, proved only partially true. Although so buried, this was the decision of his ex-wife Lillian and their son Bela Lugosi Jr. Both stated it was what the ex-star would have wanted. Who knows? Maybe it was even true.
Mind you, plenty of rumors always surrounded Bela Lugosi, many of them his own invention. He did not, for example, ever learn his most famous role phonetically. Long before the opportunity to play the lead in Dracula came along, Lugosi had learned English. He was not nearly as prominent an actor in Hungary has he allowed people to believe (although to be fair, he was far from unknown and did have to flee in the wake of a failed revolution he supported). Likewise, the Tim Burton feature Ed Wood to the contrary, he did not own chihuahuas.
The facts of his real life were actually interesting enough! For example, after hitting it big in the theatre which in turn led to a nation-wide tour, the handsome Lugosi (who was something of a ladies’ man, even marrying five times) attracted the attention of the “It Girl” herself, Clara Bow. At the time Bow was one of the biggest movie stars of the day, easily the equivalent of Angelina Jolie or Anne Hathaway in recent years. She insisted on going to see Dracula wearing nothing but a bathing suit and fur coat! Their affair didn’t last long, but she did give him a nude portrait of herself he kept the rest of his life.
Lugosi’s career was partially hurt by his ‘type’ which of course included a thick accent he never managed to shed. In truth, though, much of the downward spiral came from his own lack of business sense, which in the cutthroat world of Hollywood’s heyday made him something of a target. He refused to smooze with directors and producers, for example, to spend time cultivating a network of friends and allies in the studios. Rather, he insisted on spending his off-hours with the fairly sizable Hungarian expatriate community (where he met his fourth wife Lillian, when she was 17 to his forty). Likewise he notoriously let it be known he’d play the lead in the original film version of Dracula for very nearly anything, which in terms of lead salaries of the day he very nearly got. But when the film became a hit, he tended to act as if he were a bigger star than he was.
Of course, while we think of him as the vampire Count, he only played the part twice on film (four times if you include Mark of the Vampire and Return of the Vampire). When Universal brought the Count back in their series of horror mashups, the part went to John Carradine. Not until Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein did Lugosi officially portray Dracula once more on screen.
Yet he played many other roles as well. One of his most notable was The Invisible Ray with his rival Boris Karloff, in which for once Lugosi played a Van Helsing like figure (given that character’s accent, it seems a shame no one ever thought to do a bit of interesting reverse casting–or at least no one ever did it). Likewise he had a major role in one of the finest romantic comedies of the 1930s, Ninotchka with Greta Garbo! Even in terms of genre, his legacy equals far more than the notorious vampire from Transylvania. He created the role of Igor, Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant/blackmailer in Son of Frankenstein. More, he was one of cinema’s first werewolves in The Wolf Man, a master of the walking dead in White Zombie and even led the victims of Dr. Moreau’s experiments in Island of Lost Souls.
But even after his star faded, in some small part due to his accidental addiction to painkillers (a not uncommon tragedy then as now, although in a far less forgiving environment), those who worked with him insisted his work ethic remained intense and perfectionist. He went so far as to note that as an actor he owed every single audience member his total commitment, pulling no stops and treating every role with absolute seriousness. One wonders in today’s Hollywood, would he have fared better?
As it is, he’s certainly achieved a kind of immortality. Martin Landau even won an Academy Award portraying the man!