When Bela Lugosi played Dracula in 1931, the film role instantly made Lugosi one of Hollywood’s top stars as well as thrust him into immortality as the blood-thirsty count. But playing this iconic role put Lugosi at risk of being type-cast, and it ruined his sincerest desire of ever showcasing his true acting talent.
Born within miles of Transylvania, the location from which his Dracula role originated, Bela Lugosi would play the vampiric count not once but three times throughout his career. While Lugosi was successfully headlining a play that adapted Bram Stoker’s novel on Broadway in 1929, Hollywood was preparing a film on the same subject matter. Lon Chaney was set to play the film’s lead when he unfortunately passed away. Bela Lugosi was hired. Ironically, one of Lugosi’s early screen appearances, although uncredited, was as a clown extra in the Lon Chaney film, “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924).
Due to cost, the film was shot in sequence, and the some of the same sets were used from Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Moreover, despite having the lead role, Lugosi took an even smaller paycheck than lesser players. When “Dracula” struck box office gold, the studio immediately wanted Lugosi to play Frankenstein’s monster in the film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. Lugosi wanted to read the script first. He turned down that role due to the lack of lines and the requirement of heavy makeup for the role. Instead, Lugosi wanted to play Dr. Frankenstein. The studio, though taken aback by such a demand from a relatively new star, refused to be intimidated by Lugosi. They insisted that, if Lugosi rejected the offered part, he was to recommend a replacement. Lugosi’s recommendation – Boris Karloff. And another successful monster persona was created.
Despite his persistent efforts to play more serious characters, Lugosi found himself continuously being cast in films of the low-rate horror type. With the exception of being seen for a few minutes as a minor character in Ninotchka (1939) starring Greta Garbo, he made six films with Boris Karloff and a few with Lon Chaney Jr., which included him playing Ygor twice. Struggling with the reputation of being a mere two-dimensional actor despite his impressive pre-Hollywood career in Hungary where he had played in several Shakespearean productions, he began drinking heavily, even known to do so on set. During this tumultuous time, the actor also became addicted to the morphine which was supposed to be used for medicinal purposes.
By 1952, Lugosi had been absent from films for years, and desperate for money, he required a cash payment of $1,000 when director Ed Wood approached him to be in “Glen or Glenda.” During the filming, Lugosi and Wood began a friendship that lasted until Lugosi’s death in 1956. Penniless and nearly completely forgotten in Hollywood, Frank Sinatra paid for his funeral. He was buried in his infamous black Dracula cape.