On August 16, 1956, the unthinkable happened: a member of the undead –a vampire – died. But it wasn’t just any vampire, it was the man who had played Count Dracula, the greatest vampire of them all, on screen, Béla Lugosi.
Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, 20 October 1882, better known as Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor of stage and screen, best known for having played Count Dracula in the Broadway play, a play which ran for three years, and was subsequently, and memorably, filmed by Tod Browning in 1931. This role established Lugosi as one of the screen’s greatest personifications of pure evil.
Through his association with Dracula (in which he appeared with minimal makeup, using his natural, heavily accented voice), Lugosi found himself typecast as a horror villain in such movies as Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Raven, and Son of Frankenstein for Universal, and the independent White Zombie. His accent, while a part of his image, limited the roles he could play.
Desperate to break type, he too happily accepted any part (and script) handed to him, and ended up playing pathetic parodies of his greatest role, in low-grade poverty row shockers. This was particularly ironic as Lugosi, before coming to the US from Hungary, enjoyed a long, extensive classical career in Hungary.
He had appeared in roles such in “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, “Taming of the Shrew” and “Richard III”. His first stage role in the US was “The Red Poppy”. Unable to speak English, he was forced to learn the role by rote. He was rewarded with excellent reviews and earned his first US film role, a villainous part in The Silent Command (1923) as a result.
Because of wounds he had experienced in WWI, Lugosi developed severe, chronic sciatica. Doctor prescribed opiates lead to his dependence on pain-killers, particularly morphine and methadone, and was directly proportional to the dwindling of screen offers.
Late in his life, Ed Wood, a fan of Lugosi, found him living in obscurity and near-poverty and offered him roles in his films. During post-production of Wood’s Bride of the Monster, Lugosi decided to seek treatment for his drug addiction. The premiere of this film was said to be intended to help pay for his hospital expenses.
Following his treatment, Lugosi made one final film, in late 1955, The Black Sleep, for Bel-Air Pictures. To his disappointment, however, his role in this film was of a mute, with no dialogue.
Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956, while lying on a couch in his Los Angeles home. He was 73.
Lugosi was buried wearing one of the Dracula Cape costumes, per the request of his son and fourth wife, in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. The cape Lugosi wore in the 1931 film Dracula still survives today in the ownership of Universal Studios.
A statue of Lugosi can be seen today on one of the corners of the Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest.
1924 – Fess Parker (actor: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Westward, Ho the Wagons!; singer: The Ballad of Davy Crockett, Wringle Wrangle; died Mar 18, 2010)
1928 – Ann (Marie) Blyth (actress: The Merry Monahans, The Helen Morgan Story, Rose Marie, Kismet, The Student Prince, The Great Caruso, The Buster Keaton Story)
1930 – Robert Culp (actor: I Spy, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, The Pelican Brief, The Greatest American Hero; died Mar 24, 2010)
1933 – Julie Newmar (Newmeyer) (actress: Batman, My Living Doll, Deep Space, Li’L Abner, MacKenna’s Gold, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers)
1936 – Anita Gillette (Luebben) (actress: Quincy, Moonstruck, Marathon, Boys on the Side)
1939 – Carole Shelley (actress: The Elephant Man, The Odd Couple)
1945 – Bob Balaban (actor: The Late Shift, For Love or Money, Alice, Whose Life is It Anyway?, Absence of Malice, Altered States, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Little Man Tate, Midnight Cowboy)
1952 – Reginald VelJohnson (actor: Die Hard series, Ghostbusters, Family Matters)
1954 – James Cameron (director: Titanic, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, True Lies 2)
1958 – Angela Bassett (actress: Waiting to Exhale, FX, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood)
1960 – Timothy Hutton (actor: Taps, Made in Heaven, Ordinary People, The Dark Half, The Temp, Q&A)