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From Obscurity To Old Hollywood Monster Movies To Destitution: The Rise And Fall Of Bela Lugosi

Updated February 13, 2020 20.3k views15 items

Picture this: a struggling movie studio gambles big on an adaptation of a story that's existed for a long time. The director lobbies to cast a relatively risky actor. The movie is ultimately a success based on the performance of that actor and goes on to spawn a connected universe of films that dominate the box office for a decade to come. No, it's not the story of Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man. It's the story of Bela Lugosi's life and the monster movie that made him a star, Dracula.

From his humble origins as an actor in his native Hungary to the heights of worldwide fame to a long slide into dependency and obscurity, Lugosi's career was marked by bad luck and tragedy. His poor command of English made him both mistrustful yet easily duped, and his success as Dracula turned his career into one where he played increasingly cheap knockoffs of the Count.

It's difficult to tell how much of what happened to Lugosi was bad luck, and how much was the result of his own choices. By many accounts, he was vain, impetuous, and insecure. He had lavish tastes and no discernible skill with money. But he was also polite, and many of his former colleagues remember him fondly, if with a certain reserve. To many, he seemed from another era: chivalrous, aristocratic, and often aloof.

Perhaps it was this reserve, this distance from other people, that allowed him for so long to conceal his slide into substance reliance and bankruptcy. When the spotlight faded for Lugosi, he never recovered. In the end, he was laid to rest with his famous Dracula costume - the figurative memento that defined his legendary status as the first king of horror.

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  • His Screen Test For The Role Of Frankenstein's Monster Was A Disaster

    Video: YouTube

    The success of Dracula was a huge boost to Universal, and they quickly turned to make more monster movies. Naturally, Lugosi was immediately considered for Universal's next project: Frankenstein. The actor was brought in for a screen test, which sadly has not survived.

    At the time, Frankenstein's monster hadn't been designed to look the memorable way it does now, so for the test, Lugosi wore a cheap wig. By all accounts, it only trivialized his performance. As a result of the disastrous screen test, the original director was fired, and the filmmakers began looking elsewhere for their monstrous lead.

    Lugosi, however, was reportedly uninterested in the project due to its lack of lines. "I was a star in my country - I won't be a scarecrow in this one!" he allegedly said.

  • Photo: Archive Photos/Stringer / Moviepix/Getty Images

    He Had A Hot And Cold Relationship With Boris Karloff

    After Boris Karloff was cast as Frankenstein's Monster instead of Lugosi, one would assume these two titans of horror would have become fierce rivals. From time to time, however, there was genuine warmth in their relationship.

    According to Karloff, his relationship with Lugosi was a little complicated:

    Poor old Bela. It was a strange thing. He was really a shy, sensitive, talented man who had a fine career on the classical stage in Europe. But he made a fatal mistake. He never took the trouble to learn our language. Consequently, he was very suspicious on the set, suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene-stealing. Later, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.

    On the other hand, Lugosi's widow later said, "Bela didn’t like Karloff; he thought he was 'a cold fish.'"

  • He Constantly Undervalued His Talents, Even As Dracula

    Despite playing Dracula onstage to great success, Lugosi had a hard time breaking into film. He often played supporting roles or bit parts. When Universal chose Tod Browning to direct Universal's adaptation of Dracula, however, he lobbied hard to give the part to Lugosi.

    At first, Universal was unconvinced, but Lugosi volunteered to cut his salary down to $500 a week, an insultingly low figure at the time. 

    This became a pattern for Lugosi, who often found himself dramatically underselling his talents. He was constantly bankrupt, forced to accept measly offers to ward off his creditors. One of his biographers estimates:

    Lugosi from 1929 averaged less than $10,000 a year. From these earnings, one must deduct an agent's fee of 10%. Certainly Lugosi was one of the worst paid of Hollywood's so-called stars.

  • After 'Dracula,' Typecasting Ruined His Career

    Throughout Hollywood history, many good actors break through with a desirable role, only to find themselves stuck playing a version of that part for the rest of their lives. But few actors had it as bad as Lugosi. After his success in Dracula, he found he could not be cast as anything else.

    Universal had a stranglehold on the Dracula property, so Lugosi was often asked to play mad scientists and sinister hypnotists. Even in these cases, however, it's clear that he was directed to be as much like the Count as possible.

    Lugosi was able to keep a sense of humor about it, though, saying:

    I discovered that every producer in Hollywood had definitely set me down as a "type" - an actor of this particular kind of role. Considering that before Dracula I had never, in a long and varied career on the stage of two continents, played anything but leads and straight characters, I was both amused and bitterly disappointed.