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

Updated February 13, 2020 20.6k 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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  • Producers Almost Passed Him Over For A Movie Because They Forgot He Was Alive

    In the late 1940s, Lugosi was definitively past his prime. A string of low-quality B-movies had damaged his name, and his substance use was well-documented in Hollywood circles. A comeback seemed impossible. A potential opportunity for Lugosi hovered in the form of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a satire of the now old Universal Horror franchise and one of the few high-budget studio pictures the aging star had a real shot at getting.

    The only problem was the producers were somehow unaware Lugosi was still alive, so he was almost passed over for the role of Dracula in the film. It was a low point for Lugosi, almost being overlooked for the very part that had made him famous.

    He was eventually cast in the spoof, but it did little to turn his fortunes around and was his last picture for a major studio.

  • Photo: Ron Case/Stringer / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    His Final Tour As Dracula Was A Humiliating Disaster

    In 1951, Lugosi returned for a final time to reprise the role that made him famous, agreeing to a short run of performances of the stage version of Dracula across smaller markets in Britain. He hoped these performances would lead to a successful run in London, but that was not to be the case.

    Mismanagement plagued the tour from the beginning. It was a huge mess, and though it's difficult to separate fact from fiction, it's clear it was a bitter disappointment for Lugosi.

    Originally, Lugosi hoped to gain the interest he needed after the six-week tour to reinvigorate his career. But soon, he had been on the road for over a dozen weeks, and there was still no sign of interest from London.

    At 68 years old, Lugosi could no longer handle the rigors of such an extended tour. He began dropping cues and saying the wrong lines. After 20 weeks on tour, the show closed and Lugosi retreated to the US.

  • Photo: film screenshot (Monogram Pictures) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was Very Jealous In Relationships

    Despite his courtly demeanor, Lugosi could often be temperamental and vindictive. Nowhere is this more evident than in his divorce from his fourth wife, Lillian Arch Lugosi. When she filed for divorce, he wrote her a poem in a letter that, while intended as a bittersweet summation of their relationship, had some troubling lines:

    Dear Lilian,

    Leave me - if you can.

    If you think you have the strength to do it.

    Don't even be sorry; don't be sorry for me - go!

    Lilian left. In the court documents that followed, she testified that Lugosi was incredibly jealous and kept a constant watch on her; she "could not even go to the dentist without his calling up to check."

    Since Lugosi did not attend the hearing, the court sided with Lilian. Knowing Lugosi did not have the money to pay her proper alimony, the judge sentenced him to pay only $1 per month.

  • Photo: Bettmann/Contributor / Bettmann/Getty Images

    His Final Years Were Spent In Destitution

    If there is one specter that haunted Lugosi, it was his inability to manage money. He was always a lavish spender, and a combination of his habits, addiction, and an ever-growing pile of debt meant Lugosi spent much of his life on the edge of bankruptcy. And as his poverty forced him to accept less money for his work, his stardom faded. 

    In the later years of his life, Lugosi was often penniless. He relied on charity, often from unexpected quarters. Frank Sinatra is rumored to have made a number of anonymous donations to Lugosi. Sinatra's motives for this are unknown; perhaps he admired the older actor or had fond memories of his movies.

    Regardless, the money must have been greatly appreciated, as Lugosi had been reduced to a shadow of his former self, commenting to one interviewer, "Now I am the boogieman."