Bela Lugosi may well be dead, but his cinematic legacy just can't be killed. The gold standard of cinematic vampires, the very image of his version of Dracula transcends time, source material, and even his own death in relative obscurity to create the nexus of the genre.
According to actress Carroll Borland, whose own sleepwalking rendition of his daughter Luna in Mark of the Vampire (1935) would inspire generations of goth girls to come, Lugosi's appearance as Dracula in the film sealed the fate for him and every other bloodsucker to come. Anyone else would have a big cape to fill, she argued writing,"Let me admit with no apology that Dracula is Bela Lugosi, and Bela Lugosi is Dracula. Many have donned his nocturnal cloak, and some, like Christopher Lee have presented most credible representations of the great undead Count – but can never be Dracula."
It's this level of association with one particular role that would both launch Lugosi's enduring stardom and arguably destroy his career. While early publicity accounts credited Lugosi's regal bearing to his family's noble origins, that was merely studio ballyhoo designed to cover a more banal road to stardom. Born on Oct. 20, 1882 in Lugos in the Kingdom of Hungaria (modern-day Romania) as Bélaorn Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó, to a modestly successful banker who descended from a long line of farmers, Lugosi had himself worked as a miner, factory worker, railroad apprentice, and lieutenant in World War I, before making it as a stage actor in his homeland and the silent films of Weimar Germany.
In 1921, circumstance would force a change when Lugosi found himself on the wrong side of the newly installed communist government. Fleeing political persecution and newly divorced from his first wife, he arrived in New York with absolutely no command of the English language, but a burning ambition to act.
Never one to be deterred from his goal, Lugosi made his English-speaking acting debut in 1922 by learning his lines phonetically. Commanding and seductive onstage, one role led to another, until 1927 when he was asked to star in the American adaption of Bram Stoker's sweeping gothic romance. Now more comfortable with English (and ever the ham), Lugosi almost turned down the role at the start, because it featured fewer lines for his character than his previous plays. In the end, he accepted, and the rest is both history and fantasy.
Before hitting the big screen, Lugosi had played the Count for 40 weeks on Broadway, and for years on the road. To say he made the role his own, would be a massive understatement. Lugosi's mesmerizing gentleman bears little resemblance to Stoker's grotesque fiend.
According to horror expert and author of Something in the Blood: the Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula, David J. Skal, the Irish author wouldn't know what to make of the actor's choices. "Bram Stoker wouldn't even recognize Lugosi's impeccably dressed, impeccably mannered Dracula as having anything to do with his original creation," Skal says. "Stoker envisioned the character as a repulsive old man who grew younger as he drank blood, but never became civilized or attractive. But that was the template for almost all adaptations after the stage play and the 1931 film adaptation."
Apparently, authenticity to the original was no obstacle for audiences, and the film was a tremendous hit, reviving the fortunes of the flagging Universal Studios, and launching the unlikely career of the middle-aged star. According to Skal, this really speaks to Depression-era audiences' attraction to the subject matter and the actor's genuine charisma, since critics were only moderately impressed. "Audiences were looking for escapism, and Dracula provided the novelty of the first supernatural monster in an American film. In the silent era, there were many horrifying characters, but in all cases, they were human beings, or eventually revealed to be human. The reviews were positive, but not wildly so. Word of mouth was probably more effective than critical opinion in making the film as successful as it was."
Whatever the formula for success actually was, what followed was a string of vehicles (including eight with his colleague-in-terror, Boris Karloff) that were intended to translate his otherworldly appeal into more box-office magic – and that meant more monsters. The results were, however, mixed. In the years the that followed, Lugosi would turn in performances in a string of horror movies that ranged from the masterful to the ridiculous. It barely seemed to matter what the form of the creature at the heart of the picture was; White Zombie, Son of Frankenstein, The Devil Bat, The Phantom Creeps, Frankenstein Meets Wolfman, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and more, all pressed him back into some version of the Dracula mold.
This typecasting was a burden that chafed at the proud actor, he was quoted as saying, "Where once I had been the master of my professional destinies, with a repertoire embracing all kinds and types of men... I became Dracula's puppet... the shadowy figure of Dracula, more than any casting office, dictated the kind of parts I played."
While mad scientists and rebranded vampires kept Lugosi variously employed throughout the thirties and early-forties, the Post-War era would mark a serious downturn in both his career and his health. Following the genuine horror of war, American movie audiences would begin to turn away from chillers in favor of brighter fare, which meant that his work opportunities began to dwindle even further. Broke, sick, and struggling for work, he was certainly a wraith of his former self, lamenting to one interviewer, "Now I am the boogieman."
As he aged, he was increasingly reduced to spoofing his signature role in nightclub appearances, television shows, and B-movies to support himself and his deepening dependence on drugs and alcohol. By the time he admitted himself to a rehab facility in 1955, he was 72-years-old and completely destitute. When he was released from the hospital three months later, he was clean, but in fragile health and anxious to revive his career. His final ambitions would go tragically unmet.
Dying of a heart attack during the filming of Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (which is widely regarded as one of the best worst movies ever made), his legacy would be cemented as a sort of cinematic one-hit wonder. Even in death he was tied to the Count, buried in his cape at the request of his widow and son, Bela Jr. (from an earlier marriage).
Looking back, it would be easy to close the casket on Lugosi's career and dismiss him as a novelty act or Hollywood footnote, but the impact of his career – even if it wasn't the one he wanted – is so broad and profound that it's become a cultural touchstone, a shorthand for the very notion of vampires in pop culture. Even children who've never seen the Tod Browning film know that Halloween decorations with their widow's peaks and tuxedos mean Dracula; which is a distinction that actors as famous as Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, and Robert Pattinson can't claim.
According to Skal, "Lugosi ended up being the most influential Dracula simply because he was the first mass media Dracula. Lugosi made an extraordinary first impression the public never forgot." And it's an imprint that can't be replaced even as generations add different versions of the vampire character. Skal adds that "Lugosi's Dracula will never go away because it's an image that has penetrated the public consciousness far, far beyond the movie." Indeed, it's Lugosi's dark legacy that has fathered generations of "children of the night," in everything from remakes to rock stars, which is as close to true immortality as Hollywood can hope for.