Remembering Bela Lugosi, The Classic Dracula

For Bela Lugosi's birthday today, we reached back into our archives to resurrect the beginnings of Dracula!
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For Bela Lugosi's birthday today, we reached back into our archives to resurrect the beginnings of Dracula!
Bela Lugosi, in his iconic role as Dracula. (Photo: Universal/Getty Images)

Bela Lugosi, in his iconic role as Dracula. (Photo: Universal/Getty Images)

"I am Dracula...I bid you welcome." Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian-born actor, became Dracula in the eyes of moviegoers through infamous lines like these. Lugosi's starring role in the Universal Pictures adaptation of Dracula, released in 1931, became his most legendary role; his vibrant onscreen presence popularized the horror genre starting in the 1930s, and he was the first to introduce the mythology of the vampire into American pop culture. Thanks to him, the dark, bloodsucking figure continues to entrance people of all ages today. Since today marks the actor’s 132nd birthday, Bio looks back at his life and how he came to fame…or should we say, came to fang? 

With his sophisticated delivery and striking presence, Lugosi made his mark both on stage and on screen. Born Blasko Bela Ferenc Dezso on October 20, 1882, in Hungary, the man who would become Bela Lugosi lived a lifetime before he arrived in the U.S. in the early 1920s, eager to get into acting in the States. 

Watch Lugosi's mini bio:

From a young age, Lugosi was drawn to the dramatic arts. He ran away from home around the age of 11, working odd jobs and taking acting roles in local theatre productions. He made his official stage debut in 1901 after studying at the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts. But after a decade of onstage roles, Lugosi was pulled onto a grander stage—World War I. He served as an infantry lieutenant from 1914 to 1916 in the Austro-Hungarian Army and was awarded a medal after being wounded. Political disruption drove Lugosi to the U.S. In 1920, he arrived in the port of New Orleans as a crewman on a merchant ship. He later became a naturalized U.S. citizen. 

Lugosi plunged into the acting world after moving to New York City. In 1927 he won the lead role in a Broadway production, which was based on Bram Stroker's novel Dracula; it laid the groundwork for Lugosi's later film success. When Universal Pictures created the film version of Dracula in 1931, Lugosi was catapulted to national fame. Horror was on the rise, and Lugosi became one of the lions of the genre. 

In films such as White Zombie (1932), Island of the Lost Souls (1933), and Mark of the Vampire (1935), he personified the dark yet familiar leading-man character. His Hungarian accent became part of his hallmark. After rising to fame as Dracula, Lugosi won accolades for his role as the unhinged Ygor in Son of Frankenstein. In this role, Lugosi captured the crazed dementia of Ygor, a blacksmith who was left with a deformed neck after barely escaping being hanged for grave robbery. In the film, the iconic character of The Monster, played by Boris Karloff, is brought back from the dead. Ygor uses him to seek revenge on those who wronged him in the past. A sequel to the popular Bride of Frankenstein film, Lugosi reached the high point of his fame for his role as Ygor. He played him once again in The Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942, but by this time his popularity was slipping. Appearances in The Body Snatcher in 1945 and a reprise as Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) kept Lugosi in the Hollywood mix.

Boris Karloff as The Monster and Lugosi as the evil shepherd Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939). (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

Boris Karloff as The Monster and Lugosi as the evil shepherd Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939). (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

By the early 1950s, Lugosi was suffering from addiction to Demerol, and he checked himself in for treatment at the state hospital in Norwalk, California. Among his visitors in treatment was Frank Sinatra, who hoped to help inspire Lugosi to return to health and the big screen. After treatment, Lugosi connected with low budget film director Ed Wood, Jr. who aimed to help him revive his career. Together they made films such as Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space, which are now regarded as cult classics. Wood and Lugosi’s work was later chronicled in the acclaimed 1994 film Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton

Lugosi had a checkered personal life. He created a scandal in 1929 after he married his third wife, a wealthy San Francisco widow named Beatrice Weeks. Weeks filed for divorce shortly after their wedding, citing Hollywood “It” girl Clara Bow as the other woman who came between them. Though Lugosi shook off the scandal, his next marriage ended in divorce as well; his last wife, named Hope Lininger, was a fan who sent letters to him while he was in treatment, promising to give him “a dash of Hope.” Lugosi passed away on August 16, 1956, of a heart attack. He was buried wearing one of his Dracula capes, in Culver City, California. Today, he is still remembered as one of the stars who put horror on the map, making it one of the world’s most well-loved genres.

This article was originally published on October 18, 2012 and was slightly edited for timely accuracy.