Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó was born on October 20th, 1882, in Lugos, once located in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire — he would go on to take inspiration from his birthplace when giving himself a stage name that was more palatable for international audiences. His career would ultimately be defined by one role which was the leading position in 1931 film Count Dracula, a project which made Lugosi one of the biggest stars in world cinema and also inadvertently restrict him from landing other jobs because he was so intrinsically linked to the role of Dracula.
Lugosi was the youngest of four children born to his Hungarian father István Blaskó, who worked as a banker, and his Serbian-born mother Paula de Vojnich. Education, in the traditional sense, was never an aspect in which Lugosi’s could focus his attention and, instead, he decided to leave school aged just 12. Acting was always his dream from a young age and he dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star despite living on the other side of the world and, with determination, he wasn’t prepared to let geography prevent him from achieving his goal of being a professional actor.
His career then started to make a move around the turn of the twentieth century and he had to work the hard way to get his name out there. Lugosi truly started at the bottom, he began to hone his craft by touring in plays across provincial theatres throughout 1903–04 season but he was only in minor roles and was by no means the star attraction. After years of touring, it was ready for Lugosi to make the step up and he made the move to the bright lights of Budapest in 1911. During his time in the capital, Lugosi was a stalwart in the National Theatre of Hungary between 1913–19. However, he was still only getting cast in small or supporting roles despite his later claims that he “became the leading actor of Hungary’s Royal National Theatre”.
Lugosi’s acting career had a slight hiatus during the time he spent in Budapest when he during World War I, he served as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1914–16. Remarkably, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant and was even awarded the Wound Medal for wounds he suffered while serving on the Russian front. After valiantly serving to protect his country during World War I, Lugosi was then forced to move from Budapest and flee from the country after his activism in the actors’ union during the revolution of 1919 and he headed for Berlin. He spent some time in the German city before eventually travelling to New Orleans as a crewman aboard a merchant ship with the acting dream still firmly in his eyes and he would do anything possible to turn his American dream into a reality.
Upon his arrival, like many immigrants, he headed for New York and began working for a prolonged period of time as a labourer without letting go of his acting dream. Due to the vast amount of people who, like Lugosi, had headed from Hungary to the Big Apple, his first roles in America came to the theatre in New York City’s Hungarian immigrant colony. Along with fellow Hungarian actors, Lugosi formed a small stock company that toured Eastern cities, playing for immigrant audiences. This business acumen allowed Lugosi to make a living from acting before getting his break out moment in the English speaking Broadway play, The Red Poppy, in 1922. The role led to more and more parts with Lugosi growing an immaculate reputation over this period in Broadway due to his striking look and distinct characteristics that made him stand out from the pack.
His first American film role was in the 1923 melodrama The Silent Command which led to plentiful more silent roles which saw him cast as the archetypal villain. In 1927, everything would change when Lugosi was approached to play star in a Broadway theatre production of Dracula which would turn out to be a staggering success that ran for 261 performances before touring the United States to critical acclaim. Following the end of the West Coast run, Lugosi decided he was going to stay in Los Angeles and become a star of Hollywood — where he initially appeared in Fox Film silent films but little to nothing outside of that. That was until Universal Pictures bought the rights to turn Dracula into a motion picture and he was cast as the leading role, which was almost 30 years in the making for Lugosi.
Although this role helped make him the icon that is cemented in the legacy of Hollywood forever, it did lead to Lugosi finding himself typecast as a horror villain in films such as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Raven (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) all because of his foreign-sounding accent, and his look becoming so synonymous with Dracula which then limited the roles he could play. Lugosi even went out of his away and 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 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in which he called the idea that he is only fit for horror films “an error”.
Away from acting, his military service had led to him developing chronic sciatica which was first he was treated with benign pain remedies such as asparagus juice, doctors increased the medication to opiates and led to Lugosi becoming reliant on the medication. His addiction to methadone would lead to production companies opting against offering Lugosi work, more often than not. When he was finally cast in the role of Frankenstein’s monster for Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), he had no dialogue and his voice had been dubbed over that of Lon Chaney Jr., from line readings at the end of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).
His last major screen appearance came when he played Dracula for a second and last time on film in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). For the remainder of his life he rarely appeared on screen and when he did it was a forgettable, low-budget feature. He spent the rest of his career touring in productions of Dracula or Arsenic and Old Lace, sometimes just making appearances during local ‘spook shows’ across the country where he was like a freak attraction.
Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16th 1956, while lying on a bed in his Los Angeles apartment aged 73. He was buried wearing one of the Dracula cape costumes in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California which is what his family believed it was what he wanted and over 60 years on from his death — nobody has quite nailed Dracula in the way that he did.