So, it’s Bela’s birthday and you think you’re pretty hep because you know he played Dracula and he screamed “Pulled ze string!” in some Ed Wood movie. Well, you’re just scratching the surface, Daddy-O/Mommy-O. It’s time you used them pointy fangs to scratch these 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Bela Lugosi!
1. Bela Lugosi got himself discharged from the Hungarian army by pretending to be insane as a result of concussion.
2. Eleven years before his American film debut in Dracula, Lugosi appeared in Nosferatu-director F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf—a.k.a.: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Conrad Veidt played the title characters (retitled Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor) while our favorite vampire was relegated to playing his butler. Sadly, the film is lost.
(Thanks to Matt Marshall for this one!)
3. In the mid-‘20s vamp fell for vampire when celebrity flapper Clara Bow struck up an affair with Lugosi. The romance caused Lugosi’s marriage to Beatrice Weeks to end after a mere three days.
4. At the age of 13, future horror movie mogul William Castle stole $1.10 from his sister to purchase a balcony ticket for the Dracula stage play starring Bela Lugosi.
5. Horace Liveright, producer of the stage version of Dracula, was initially skeptical that Lugosi had the necessary presence to play the count. When he took the actor aside to express his concerns, Lugosi’s demeanor turned so sinister that Liveright was convinced he had the right man for the job.
6. In his stage incarnation as Dracula, Lugosi was the first actor to play a vampire as physically attractive rather than monstrous. For better or worse, the sexy vampire remains the prevailing cliché.
7. Fifteen year old Carroll Borland was so aroused by Lugosi’s stage performance as Dracula that she wrote her own sequel to the story, a novel she called Countess Dracula, and personally read it to her favorite actor. The gesture inspired Lugosi to advocate her for the role of his “daughter” Luna Mora, in Mark of the Vampire.
8. Because Lugosi never learned to drive he got around Hollywood on rollerskates.
9. Bizarrely, actor Ian Keith was the first choice to play Dracula in the only two movies in which Lugosi played the role: Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
10. Although the “Spanish” version of Dracula, filmed simultaneously with Tod Browning’s film, featured Carlos Villarias in the title role, a short outtake of Lugosi as the vampire arriving at the concert hall was cut into the film.
11. Lugosi claimed that he turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster because he didn’t like the script and producer Carl Laemmle Jr. would only release him from the film if he found a replacement. Lugosi then scoured the talent agencies until he found Karloff to assume the role. Of course, this was a huge lie.
12. According to Ed Wood, Lugosi considered White Zombie to be his greatest film.
13. Shirley Ulmer, wife of Black Cat director Edgar, said—much to her own disgust— that Lugosi once nostalgically claimed he was a hangman in the Hungarian army. He also admitted how guilty he felt about his macabre—and most likely fictional— assignment.
14. Christopher Lee was, of course, the star of Hammer Studio’s seemingly endless string of Dracula movies. However, the most famous Dracula did, indeed, appear in a Hammer production when Bela Lugosi starred in the Mystery of the Marie Celeste in 1936.
15. Bela Lugosi was originally hired to play a police inspector in Son of Frankenstein, but instead co-created the character of Ygor—arguably his greatest performance— while on set.
16. After Ygor has his brain is transferred into the monster’s body at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, he realizes that he is blind. The monster’s blindness was supposed to be a plot point in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, hense Lugosi’s lumbering, arms-outstretched approach to playing him. Oddly, the plot point was cut from the film, yet Lugosi’s blind fumbling became on of the most recognizable Frankenstein clichés.
17. Val Lewton reluctantly created the character of Joseph in The Body Snatcher when RKO executives decided that having Lugosi co-star alongside Boris Karloff would give the film a commercial boost.
18. After attending the premiere of House of Wax (which he did in full Dracula regalia), Bela Lugosi was so impressed by the 3D effects that he masterminded a letter-writing campaign to get Dracula remade in color and 3D. Sadly, Universal pictures paid the idea little mind.
19. Ed Wood claimed attending restaurants brought out serious behavior problems in Lugosi. He tended to snatch fox stoles off wealthy women and toss them into the street!
20. According to legend, Bela Lugosi died on August 16, 1956, while reading the script for a possible Ed Wood project titled, appropriately enough, The Final Curtain.
The following sources were invaluable in the compiling of this list:
Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey
Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen by David J. Skal
The Monster Show by David J. Skal (This is the greatest book about horror films ever written. If you haven’t read it, you’re really missing out!)