Bela Lugosi’s life was even more fantastical than his horror films. Though the gaunt, striking actor gained fame for his chilling portrayal of Count Dracula, he hid a lifetime of pain, frustration, and lost dreams behind that iconic stage makeup.
1. He Had A Long Way To Go
Born in Hungary in 1882, Bela Lugosi began his life far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. In his youth, he got by with very little. As the fourth and youngest child of the family, Lugosi had to learn to make his way in the world from an early age. In fact, when he was just 12 years old, he made a startling decision.
2. He Suffered A Loss
Still a child, Lugosi defiantly dropped out of school and started rigorously working. He left home and toiled away at a string of manual labor jobs. But while he was away, a tragedy darkened the doorstep of his family home. His father passed, leaving little Lugosi more independent than ever. And that’s when the real dreaming began.
3. He Talked The Talk
In the midst of his youthful turmoil, Lugosi dreamt of becoming an actor. In 1902, he took his first steps toward fame and fortune by embarking on a stage acting career. Although Lugosi later boasted that he “became the leading actor of Hungary’s Royal National Theatre,” the truth was completely different.
4. His Life Was Never The Same
Although Lugosi may have had delusions of grandeur, he was still a far cry away from stardom. He wasn’t a lead actor by any means, snagging only small or supporting roles. Unfortunately, just when it all seemed to be kicking off, WWI turned his life upside down. But in a stunning twist of fate, it also led him straight to America.
And this is where his chilling legacy would truly take root.
5. He Suffered
Bela Lugosi bravely served in WWI but suffered terribly. Not only was he severely wounded, but the conflict forced him to flee his home. He had no choice. If he stayed, he faced certain execution. However, the worst was yet to come. When Lugosi escaped to Berlin, he brought his wife, Ilona Szmik, with him. But this was no happily ever after.
6. His Wife Abandoned Him
Although Illona accompanied Lugosi on his flight to freedom, it wasn’t long before she had a brutal change of heart. In the end, she had no desire to leave her parents and filed for divorce. Alone once again, Lugosi embarked on a whirlwind adventure. In the winter of 1920, he found himself in America, working aboard a merchant ship.
Little did he know, his luck was about to change in a startling way.
7. He Defied The Odds
Bela Lugosi’s hard work led him straight to the heart of NYC, where his love of acting had another chance to blossom. Despite the challenges of being an immigrant, Lugosi broke into Broadway. However, it wasn’t until 1927 that he landed the role that would change the course of his life forever.
8. He Was The Answer To The Problem
When a small Broadway theater decided to do a production of Dracula, a huge problem arose. Actors simply didn’t want to play a creature that was half human, half monster. The lead role also included the disturbing act of sucking blood, and the actor would have to wear heavy makeup. In every way, it was an undesirable part.
That’s when Bela Lugosi stepped out of the shadows.
9. He Was The Perfect Fit
Bela Lugosi swooped in just in time, but he barely spoke English. However, there was one thing that made him seem like the perfect man to play Dracula. Lugosi claimed that he came from Transylvania, just like the vampiric character. He agreed to take on the role—but he did have one important condition.
10. He Had One Condition
Before stepping into the role of Dracula, Lugosi wanted the freedom to interpret the character however he pleased. As a result, Lugosi’s Dracula became nothing short of iconic. The play was an unbelievable success, thanks to the actor’s unique performance. He transformed Dracula into so much more than a monster.
11. He Was Too Convincing
Lugosi’s Dracula had an undeniable magnetic pull. He was a dangerous aristocrat with the most sensual presence. Lugosi injected desire and attraction into the twisted love story as it had never been done before. In fact, his performance was so convincing that some audience members came away believing that Lugosi was actually Dracula.
12. He Wasn’t Their First Choice
When Universal Pictures decided to make a film adaptation of Dracula, Bela Lugosi thought it was finally his time to steal the spotlight. But to his horror, they completely overlooked him, instead searching for a different actor to play the lead. Well, Lugosi wasn’t about to surrender the part without a fight.
13. He Was Desperate
Lugosi wanted the film role of Dracula so badly, he began a campaign. He later claimed that his hands would cramp from the sheer amount of letters that he wrote the studios. But that’s not all.
He also wrote directly to the widow of Dracula’s author, Bram Stoker. Lugosi believed that he was the one who brought the character to life, and so, he should also be the one to play him on film…And then the other shoe dropped.
14. He Fought For It
Universal Pictures resisted Bela Lugosi with all its might. They believed his last name had a difficult pronunciation and that his interpretation of Dracula was too sophisticated. Therefore, they went ahead and spurned Lugosi by casting Lon Chaney. It seemed like this was the end of Lugosi’s desperate bid for the role, that is until a timely disaster struck.
15. He Messed Up
Bela Lugosi waited in the wings as Lon Chaney faced a sudden throat cancer diagnosis. When the ill actor succumbed to the disease, Bela Lugosi finally had a chance. However, he was so excited to play the role of Dracula, he made a hasty mistake. He agreed to take on the role for a startlingly low salary.
16. He Was An Instant Hit
Accepting an income of only $3,500, Bela Lugosi finally reached his hard-won dream of playing Dracula on the big screen. The film was a stunning success, and just like he’d done on stage, Lugosi entranced audiences through the screen. But there was one surprise he never saw coming. After Dracula hit theaters, women around the world sent hundreds of letters to the lead actor.
17. He Was A Hollywood Heartthrob
Lugosi had a charisma that made him the most singular heartthrob in Hollywood. Despite the dark overtones of Dracula, for a time he became even more popular than Clark Gable. One of his co-stars, Carol Borland, attested to this, saying, “He was probably the most sexually attractive male I have ever known in my life. He could walk into a room and there was this pull from every corner and women just flocked to him”.
But though women adored him, Lugosi’s private love life had a dark side.
18. He Had Many Wives
By the time Lugosi had captured everyone’s hearts through Dracula, he’d already been married three times. At the start of the 20s, he’d married his second wife, Ilona von Montagh, but like the first time, this union was doomed. It lasted a mere three years. When filing for divorce, Ilona’s reasons were unsettling and illustrated some of the actor’s deepest flaws.
19. He Wasn’t Faithful
According to his second wife, Lugosi had cheated on her—and yet, this wasn’t the worst part. He also wanted her to give up her acting career entirely so that she could become a dutiful housewife and take care of him. For Ilona, this was the kiss of death and she promptly filed for divorce.
This should have opened Lugosi’s eyes—but as we’ll see, he failed to learn from his mistakes.
20. He Was Scandalous
In 1929, Lugosi got himself wrapped up in a real Hollywood scandal. He’d married the rich widow of a famous architect, Beatrice Weeks—but it only ended in disappointment and death. After a few months, Weeks realized that Lugosi was not the Prince Charming of her dreams. She accused him of infidelity and filed for divorce.
But this disastrous break-up only sparked an even bigger nightmare.
21. He Lost Out
Only 17 months after the divorce went through, the grim reaper came for Lugosi’s ex-wife. Due to her drinking problem, Beatrice Weeks passed at the age of 34. She left behind a fortune, but because of the recent separation, Lugosi didn’t inherit a penny of it.
The actor clumsily navigated his private and professional life, and it wasn’t long before he made his biggest blunder of all.
22. He Had A Rival
Lugosi’s most iconic scene partner was Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff, but their real relationship was dark and complicated. Despite working on multiple monster films together, the actors were mistrustful of each other, particularly Lugosi of Karloff. According to Karloff, the Hungarian actor was terrified of being upstaged.
However, there may have been another reason for Lugosi’s raging jealousy.
23. He Messed Up
After Lugosi starred in Dracula, the studio was eager to capitalize on his success and wanted to cast him as the monster in a little movie called Frankenstein. Instead, Lugosi turned the part down, sniping that it would be more suited to “a half-wit extra” than him, a serious actor.
Of course, this was a terrible mistake.
24. He Was Envious
The part of Frankenstein made Lugosi’s rival, Karloff, unbelievably famous. As Karloff thrived, Lugosi grappled with the harsh reality that he had made the biggest mistake of his life. Later, Lugosi reportedly complained, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market”. But this wasn’t the only bad blood between them.
25. He Was Always Second Best
Though Karloff and Lugosi eventually reached a professional truce with each other, Lugosi still kept a dark grudge. For one reason or another, Karloff almost always secured top billing in their collaborations—and the humiliation tore Lugosi apart.
Even in The Raven, where Lugosi played the indisputable lead character, Karloff somehow dominated the marquee. Oh, but he went even further than that.
26. He Was Unforgettable
Despite Karloff’s frequent assertions that he and Lugosi were on pleasant terms, he once dealt his rival a cold-hearted betrayal. In an interview looking back on his career, Karloff sniffed and said that Lugosi was a sub-par actor who had “never learned his trade”.
This, however, was nothing compared to the uphill battle that Lugosi climbed in the wake of his plummeting popularity.
27. He Squandered His Fortune
Sadly, the late 1930s were years of slow decline for the once-popular actor. Universal blatantly preferred Karloff over him, and Lugosi started acting more for money than for prestige. You see, Lugosi was completely careless when handling his finances. He lived in the moment, and often that meant living beyond his means.
28. He Was Foolish
Living the life of a lavish star, Lugosi spent his money frivolously. He had a couple of enormous homes and purchased expensive works of art that never appreciated in value. The consequences were beyond depressing.
In 1933, the middle-aged actor married 22-year-old Lillian Arch just as his career began to nosedive. She had no clue what she was getting herself into.
29. He Barely Scraped By
The arrival of Lugosi’s first child Bela Jr should have been a cause for celebration, but instead, it was a source of deep humiliation. The actor was so broke, he had to borrow money from the Actors Fund of America to foot the hospital bills. But as the actor struggled to stay afloat, the financial blows just kept coming.
30. He Became Desperate
Eventually, the bank had no choice but to foreclose Lugosi’s home. In many ways, Lugosi’s role in Dracula cursed the rest of his career. Incapable of breaking out of this typecasting nightmare, he not only grabbed whatever role he could, but also accepted meager compensation.
The 30s and 40s were a nonstop horror show…literally.
31. He Lost Respect
By the 50s, Lugosi became a fixture in Ed Wood’s films: This was the true marker of Lugosi’s fall from grace. These were cheap exploitation films, and though Wood loved Lugosi, his work was just awful. He successfully erased any credibility Lugosi had. Nobody respected the actor for his acting chops, or even thought he had any.
Behind the scenes, however, Lugosi fought a very different battle.
32. He Had Chronic Pain
As we know, Lugosi’s service in WWI left him with injuries. However, this caused the actor to develop some serious health problems, including chronic sciatica. This pain consumed his life in a chilling way. At first, he tried holistic treatments like asparagus juice, but it didn’t work. That’s when his doctor introduced him to something new.
33. He Couldn’t Give It Up
In 1935, Lugosi began taking morphine—and it led him down a dangerous path. Over the next two decades, addiction ruled over the actor and ruined his life.
As his health worsened, so did his career. Before he knew it, Lugosi was a sad parody of himself. But still, nobody really knew just how bad his addiction was until it reached a dreadful climax.
34. He Was Unrecognizable
Recently divorced, a very sickly Lugosi checked himself into a Los Angeles psychopathic ward. He was barely recognizable, weighing a stunning 125 pounds; he was a shell of the handsome movie star he’d once been. However, his resonant voice still rang true.
This is when he finally made his most painful confession.
35. He Confessed It All
Lugosi admitted that he just couldn’t work without morphine: “Seventeen years ago, on a trip to England, I heard of Methodone, a new drug. I brought a big box of it back home. I guess I brought a pound. Ever since I’ve used that, or Demerol. I just took the drugs. I didn’t eat. I got sicker and sicker”.
The publicity surrounding this sad chapter of the actor’s life was so sensational—the unthinkable happened.
36. He Had A Famous Fan
When Lugosi sought treatment for his morphine addiction, the announcement drew one of his biggest, most famous fans out of the woodwork. None other than Frank Sinatra helped Lugosi with his hospital bills, and even visited him during treatment.
Reportedly, Lugosi was incredibly astonished and touched to see Ol’ Blue Eyes, as the two had never even met before.
37. He Wanted A Comeback
Despite years of acting in the worst horror films, Bela Lugosi still believed that he could make a triumphant comeback. While in the hospital, he placed all of his hopes in another Ed Wood picture, The Ghoul Goes West. With all of his recent publicity, Lugosi believed that this was his moment to finally rise above. But as we’ll see, he was so, so wrong.
38. He Had An Infatuated Pen Pal
While in the hospital, Lugosi managed to spark his fifth and final romance—but it still had a creepy side. For one, Lugosi was almost four decades older. For another, Hope Lininger had actually started out as a fan, and used to write him frequent letters when he was in rehab.
Reportedly, she would end her words of encouragement with the line “A dash of Hope”. But this cringeworthy relationship certainly wasn’t Lugosi’s weirdest one to date.
39. He Had A Sordid Affair
Very little is known of Bela Lugosi’s infamous affair with actress Clara Bow—but it sure caused a scandal. Apparently, Lugosi was already on Bow’s mind when they first met. His performance of Dracula on stage intrigued her, and when she got tickets to see him, she showed up wearing only her mink coat and a bathing suit.
40. He Impressed Her
At this time, Lugosi still struggled with English, and his prowess on stage impressed Bow to no end. They were equally enthusiastic about meeting one another, and afterward, became close friends. Soon, the two embarked on a reckless affair, but the details here are hazy.
41. He Was Passionate
There’s little evidence of Lugosi and Bow’s passion play, but rumors ran rampant. Reportedly, Lugosi bragged about his intimate time with Bow, showing off scratches on his body. Bow’s bad girl image engulfed this affair, but the pair also saw other people. Weirdly enough, this is when Lugosi married the socialite Beatrice Weeks—and as we know, it did not end well.
42. He Married Another Woman
Lugosi’s doomed marriage to Weeks may have stemmed from his need for money, but it also may have been a way to make his lover, Clara Bow, envious. The union only lasted a handful of days, but the hottest gossip was yet to come.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Weeks cited Clara Bow as the reason for this hasty split. And boy, it only got more twisted from there.
43. He Kept A Chilling “Memento”
Although Bela Lugosi and Claw Bow’s red-hot romance burned out fast, there’s an infamous story that surrounds them. You see, Bow was no stranger to posing for photographs without her clothes on, and many believe that she gave him a creepy memento of their time together: Her own nude portrait. But that’s not all.
44. He Hung Her Up
Apparently, Lugosi hung the scandalous portrait in his home for the rest of his life. You know what that means? His next two wives had to see his ex-lover in all her glory, every day. But like the rest of his relationship with Bow, there’s still some mystery surrounding this painting. Perhaps not everything was as it seemed.
45. He Never Forgot Her
Some say that Clara Bow had no clue that this painting even existed and that Lugosi commissioned it after their relationship had ended, which is somehow more creepy. Some critics even say that the woman in the painting doesn’t even look like Bow.
Instead, the model might be an image from Lugosi’s own memory or not her at all. Whatever the case, it’s clear that the captivating Clara Bow carved herself into Lugosi’s legacy, whether he liked it or not.
46. He Drank Heavily
Although Lugosi left the hospital, claiming to be “a new man,” only disappointment awaited him. The Ghoul Goes West never entered production. As his expectations crumbled around him, the fallen actor turned to drink. Already living on borrowed time, it wasn’t long before Lugosi’s health passed the point of no return.
47. He Met A Ghost From The Past
According to author Gregory William Mank, Boris Karloff haunted Lugosi in his final moments. Lugosi’s last wife Hope reported that just a few days before he died, Lugosi woke up in the middle of the night. When she asked him what was the matter, his response was chilling. “Karloff!” He yelled out, still half asleep, “He’s in the living room!”
48. He Took A Nap…And Never Woke Up
On August 16, 1956, Lugosi’s wife Hope discovered his deceased body. According to the medical examiner, the actor had had a heart attack, slipping away peacefully while taking a nap. The fallout, however, was far from peaceful. You see, having drunk most of his money away, Lugosi had the most pitiful inheritance imaginable.
49. He Had A Pitiful Will
Along with a couple of inexpensive properties, the great Lugosi only had $1,000 to give to his son Bela Jr, who split it with his stepmother. Then there was the matter of Lugosi’s burial…
There’s no doubt that Lugosi’s relationship with his character Dracula was complicated. He’d starred as the count a whopping 1,300 times. It was his claim to fame and his downfall. These facts made his burial all the more controversial.
50. He Had A Fitting Burial
Lugosi’s son and fourth wife Lillian decided to bury him in his Dracula costume. What’s more? Lugosi never had such specifications for his burial. Instead, Bela Jr and his mother wholeheartedly believed that this was the right thing to do—something his father would surely have wanted.
51. He Had A Body Double
In a way, Lugosi dodged one last bullet. He was supposed to star in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, but he passed before filming began. Unfortunately, it’s considered one of the worst films ever, a “magnum opus of sci-fi schlock”. What’s worse? Wood still tried to use footage of Lugosi for the film and even used a terrible body double in his stead.