Famous for playing monsters in classic Hollywood movies, Bela Lugosi’s life on and off the screen was filled with dramatic turns no one could see coming. Playing roles that made him a bigger name than Clark Gable, fame proved to be a lot for the horror icon to handle. From disputes with co-stars on set to being unable to find respectable dramatic work later in his career, Lugosi became haunted by his roles. Here is everything you need to know about Bela Lugosi. Sink your teeth into cinema’s most famous Count Dracula!
No Star Was Bigger In 1931
In 1931, Bela Lugosi became an instant Hollywood icon playing the title role in Dracula. His performance turned him into Tinseltown’s biggest star. At a time when Clark Gable was thought of as everyone’s first choice, it was Lugosi who was arguably the hotter commodity.
In an interview years after playing the count, both on-screen and on Broadway, Lugosi said most of his fans were female. “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women,” he confessed.
Universal Wanted To Cast Someone Else As Dracula
Bela Lugosi made his Broadway debut in Dracula in 1927. The show was an immediate success and ran for one year before touring the United States for another two. This inspired Universal Studios to turn the play into a movie — the only exception being that they didn’t want Lugosi in the lead role.
At the time, the actor was relatively unknown, and the studio, as well as director Tod Browning, didn’t want to give him top billing. After considering several other bigger stars, they circled back around to Lugosi and offered him the iconic role.
Lugosi Served As A Lieutenant In World War I
Born in what is now present-day Romania, Bela Lugosi made a decision early in his acting career to enlist in the Austro-Hungarian Army. It was 1914 at the time, and although the actor was exempt from service as a member of the National Theater, he chose to fight anyway.
During World War I, Lugosi served as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While fighting off Russian forces, he sustained several injuries and left the service after he healed. By 1916 he was back on stage with the National Theater.
Playing Dracula Led To Other Monster Opportunities
Dracula was a huge hit for Universal. The studio was struggling at the time, and many film historians credit the movie’s success with saving the studio. Flying high on horror, Universal quickly attached itself to another property: Frankenstein.
Universal also tried to attach Bela Lugosi to the lead role, but he turned them down. He saw himself as a serious actor and felt the role was best for a “half-wit extra.” Moving on from Lugosi, the studio dipped back into the well of unknowns and gave Boris Karloff the job.
Eventually, He Put Bolts In His Neck
While Bela Lugosi initially rejected playing Frankenstein’s monster, he eventually put the legendary bolts in his neck. In 1943, he starred in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which has gained fame as a cult classic today.
Even though he played the monster, Lugosi still hated the role. It required him to yell constantly instead of act. He said, “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!”
His Rivalry With Karloff Was Love/Hate
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff ended up starring in five films together. While they kept a pleasant working relationship, rumors swirled that the two hated each off-screen. Karloff fought the rumors, even saying the two were friends.
He said Lugosi was, “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene-stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” Lugosi was less cordial, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”
Stamps Were One Of His Passions
Lillian Arch, Bela Lugosi’s fourth wife, claimed that her husband loved stamps and had a collection of more than 150,000. Lugosi backed up the claim, saying stamp collecting “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss.”
Unfortunately, Lugosi passed away well before he was able to see his own likeness memorialized in stamp form. In 1997, the USPS issued a commemorative Dracula stamp.
He Took His Iconic Cape To The Grave
Bela Lugosi passed on to his next life in 1956 at 73 years old. When he was buried, his fourth wife and his son made sure he took something special with him — his cape. Although Lugosi had a love/hate relationship with the role that made him famous, the cape was something he couldn’t escape.
Or is this story simply an urban legend? Other versions claim that his cape was found later in his closet. Did it rise from the grave? No, it did not. Lugosi wore several capes over the years playing the Count and other vampires and was not buried with all of them.
An Underpaid Icon
When Universal was looking for other actors to play Dracula, Bela Lugosi showed them just how desperate he was for the role. The actor agreed to a meager $500 a week paycheck, which was a quarter of what David Manners made playing John Harker.
Lugosi had the last laugh over Manners, though. He might have made more money, but his acting career ended much quicker. Manners’ last role was in 1936, playing Jack Wycoff in Lucky Fugitives.
He Wanted To Try Comedy
It’s easy to get pigeonholed into one type of role in Hollywood. For Bela Lugosi, that role was as the monster in horror films. Unfortunately, that meant he never got to try what he really wanted — comedy.
Throughout his career, Lugosi wanted to take a stab at slapstick comedy but never found a studio willing to give him a chance. To make up for this, he turned into a prankster during parties, often hiring a butler whose only job was to spill drinks on guests.
Karloff Sped Up The End Of Lugosi’s Career
By the end of the ’30s, good roles were beginning to dry up for Bela Lugosi. Boris Karloff was a more desired actor, leaving the Hungarian in his dust. When Bela Jr. was born in 1938 it became clear to Lugosi he needed to act for money instead of prestige.
Taking on these roles still wasn’t enough for Lugosi to support his family, though. At the lowest point of his career, he was forced to borrow money from the Actors Fund of America to help pay for hospital bills.
His Last Appearance As Dracula Almost Didn’t Happen
Bela Lugosi’s last “A-list” acting role came in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. He played Dracula in the film, and it was the last time he ever wore the cape on-screen. And just like the first time Lugosi played the role, the studio tried to cast someone else first.
When the movie was announced, Lugosi had fallen back into obscurity, and some producers at the studio even thought he was dead. For these reasons, his career came amusingly full circle.
Lugosi Called Playing Dracula A Curse
Late in his life, Bela Lugosi came to terms with being typecast in horror films. He confessed, “I am the boogie man,” while also revealing that playing Dracula was, “a living, but it’s also a curse. It’s Dracula’s curse.”
On the silver screen Lugosi only ever played Dracula twice, even though the role came to define the rise, and later fall of his career. He was credited as playing a vampire in two other films, but not as the Count.
Ed Wood Tried To Revive Lugosi’s Career For A Third Time
Near the end of his life, Bela Lugosi was living in near poverty. His career was over and his finances were drying up. It was the perfect time for up-and-coming director Ed Wood to come along.
Wood made a habit of tracking down old Hollywood stars to put in his movies, and Lugosi was his crown jewel. The actor appeared in several Wood films, most notably Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
The Rivalry With Boris Karloff Haunted Him
Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff stopped working together in 1945, but that wasn’t the end of their “friendship.” According to the actor’s fifth wife, Hope, Lugosi woke up a few days before his 1956 death believing Karloff was in his living room.
Lugosi woke up in the middle of the night, and Hope said when she asked him what was wrong he yelled, “Karloff!” Then he added, “He’s in the living room!” This story was documented by author Gregory William Mank.
Plan 9 From Outer Space Was Lugosi’s Final Film
Bela Lugosi’s final film role came in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Considered one of the worst films ever made, it wasn’t even finished until after Lugosi had passed away. To finish the film, Wood used footage from other Lugosi movies as well as a body double on set.
The movie came out three years after Lugosi died and was brought back to public attention thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show featured the movie and helped turned it into a “so bad it’s good” cult classic.
His Fourth Marriage Was His Most Explosive
In 1933 Bela Lugosi married his fourth wife, Lilian Arch. He was 51 years old and she was 19 years old. He courted her for less than one year before proposing. As with any marriage, Lugosi hoped it would last forever. Instead, it was ruined by his jealousy.
Lugosi didn’t approve of the relationship Arch had with actor Brian Donlevy, her boss. His jealousy over it ended the marriage in 1953 after 20 years. Then, in 1966, Arch married Donlevy.
His Final Wife Was A Fan First
Bela Lugosi’s fifth and final marriage was to Hope Lininger. Before meeting her and falling in love, he knew her as a fan. While he was in rehab, she would send him letters of encouragement that were signed, “A dash of Hope.”
Lininger knew when she saw Lugosi for the first time in Dracula she had found a special person, “I chose Bela Lugosi when I saw him in Dracula as my hero. That was because I wanted someone all to myself. I knew the other little girls would never be Lugosi fans. I felt this was a hero I had all to myself.”
Ed Wood Saved Lugosi’s Life
Ed Wood may be a cult icon in the film world, but to Bela Lugosi, he was a real-life superhero. The friendship they formed ended up saving Lugosi’s life. It was Wood who helped the actor make the choice to go to rehab.
The announcement that Lugosi was going to seek help shocked Hollywood. Frank Sinatra, who was a big Lugosi fan, took it upon himself to foot the entire bill and visited him during treatment. Prior to this, the two had never met.
His Original Cape Failed To Sell At Auction
Bela Lugosi might have been buried with one of his Dracula capes, but it wasn’t the original. The original cape from the 1931 horror classic went on auction in 2011 and was expected to be sold for a hefty sum.
The cape was put up on the block by Bela Jr. and had a starting price of $1.2 million. The hefty price proved to be too much for anyone to spend. That cape wasn’t the only movie memorabilia that failed to sell, however. A pair of Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers were also left behind.