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. Sweep up your silk cloak and read these 45 blood-sucking facts about Bela Lugosi.
1. A Star Is Born
Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, Lugosi was Hungarian by birth. His hometown was Lugos, though it’s now in present-day Romania.
2. Sinister and Sexy
After appearing as Dracula in the iconic 1931 film, Lugosi was briefly the most popular star in Hollywood. Maybe more surprising? His fans were mostly women, and he got more female fan mail than even Clark Gable.
3. A Looming Presence
Some actors are smaller than they appear on the big screen, but not Lugosi. The towering Hungarian stood at a natural 6’1″ tall.
4. Follow Your Dreams
As a young boy, Bela Lugosi got by with very little. As the fourth and youngest child of the family, he had to learn to make his way in the world from an early age. When he was just 12 years old, he decided he wanted to become an actor, much to his parents’ dismay. Lugosi defiantly dropped out of school and got to work.
5. Monsters’ Brawl
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.
6. Below His Pay Grade
Bela Lugosi was so desperate to play the film role of Count Dracula that he agreed to an insultingly low paycheck of $500 a week. In fact, he only made a quarter of what the actor playing John Harker did.
7. Not-So Young and Very Dumb
In 1917, Bela Lugosi wed the young Ilona Szmik. He was a mature 35 years old—but that didn’t stop the volatile marriage from crumbling. Reportedly, both their parents were unhappy with the match, and they divorced after just three years together.
8. I Can’t Quit You
Throughout all his reversals of fortune, Lugosi hid a shameful secret: He was addicted to morphine for much of his Hollywood career. His injuries from World War I likely developed into crippling sciatica, leading to his dependence on analgesic drugs and making him infamously unreliable on set.
9. Serious Actor
Actor David Manners, who played John Harker, claimed that the Dracula film set was disorganized and lacklustre, with most of the actors and even the director uninterested in the production. Bela Lugosi, however, was the lone exception. Manners witnessed Lugosi stalking the halls in his cloak and intoning seriously between takes, “I am Dracula.”
10. Pasty Prankster
Though Lugosi gained fame for his portrayal of the stone-faced, fearsome vampire, he had a heartbreaking soft side. He was actually a practical joker and often wanted to perform in more slapstick roles. According to those closest to him, his Hollywood parties would often employ a comedian acting as a butler who would run around spilling drinks on his guests.
Lugosi held socialist beliefs and was a fervent supporter of actors’ unions—and these radical ideals put him in grave danger. In 1919, there was a failed communist revolution in Hungary, and the fallout forced Lugosi to flee his motherland for Vienna, Berlin, and eventually America.
12. Never Forget
It was during this time of exile that the actor took up the stage name “Lugosi” in honor of his hometown, Lugos. He wanted to remember where he came from.
13. Poetic License
In Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, Martin Landau famously portrays Bela Lugosi. However, according to those who knew him best, the film is woefully inaccurate about the Hungarian actor’s life. He, of course, never slept in coffins—but he also never owned small dogs, and hardly ever swore.
14. Sliding Doors
Lugosi may have had another reason to envy Boris Karloff. After Lugosi starred 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, it was a fatal mistake, and the part made Karloff famous. Later, Lugosi reportedly complained, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”
15. Second Verse, Same as the First
Lugosi’s second marriage in 1921 to Ilona von Montagh fared no better than his first. They too divorced after just three years together.
16. Broadway Baby
Lugosi’s role as Dracula actually started on Broadway, when he was cast as the vampire nobleman in a 1927 stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. The production was extremely popular in the late 1920s.
17. Playing Hard to Give
Despite his history in the role and his fervent desire to play the part, Universal didn’t really want to cast Lugosi as Dracula in their upcoming film. Rumor has it that director Tod Browning wanted famed horror actor Lon Chaney to play the part, up until Chaney rather inconveniently died before production began.
Even then, the studio considered many other options before finally settling on Lugosi.
18. The Last Kiss
Romantic leads were so sparse throughout Lugosi’s career that he only got to share an on-screen kiss precisely once. It was for the 1925 film The Midnight Girl.
19. Not My Type
Dracula put Lugosi on the map as a monster icon—but fame is a cruel mistress. With his heavy accent and “exotic” looks, Lugosi was quickly typecast as a horror villain. When he tried to go even a little outside of this realm, he was sorely disappointed. He once tried out for the slightly different role of Rasputin, but lost out to Lionel Barrymore.
20. Garbo Screams!
In terms of prestige, the peak of Lugosi’s career may have been when he appeared in a minor supporting role in MGM’s Ninotchka alongside Hollywood heat-score Greta Garbo.
21. Beverly Hills Nightmare
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!”
22. Casting Craigslist
By the mid-1930s, Lugosi was practically begging not to be typecast in horror roles. He even took out a listing in the 1937 Players Directory, pleading with casting agents to consider him for non-horror parts.
23. Silent and Deadly
Though Bela Lugosi’s work in Dracula is iconic today, critics of the time had no problem tearing a strip off him in the film. Those who didn’t like the classic horror flick also sneered at what they called Lugosi’s “dull and slow performance,” and further doubted the Hungarian’s ability to perform in roles that had more dialogue.
24. Baby (and Bills) on Board
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. Even then, it wasn’t enough: When Lugosi’s son Bela, Jr. was born in 1938, the actor had to borrow money from the Actors Fund of America to foot the hospital bills.
25. No Fun With Phonics
Lugosi’s first stage role in America was in The Red Poppy, but the green actor struggled with the role. He couldn’t speak English, and had to painstakingly memorize the words phonetically.
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.”
27. Rising From the Dead
Bela Lugosi had more lives than a (black) cat. Every time he seemed to be down and out, something or someone brought him back from the brink. In 1938, a double feature of Dracula and Frankenstein at a California theater renewed interest in his work, and helped Lugosi claw his way back from B-movies into the A-list.
28. Devilishly Good
Lugosi’s mark is all over the famous Disney Fantasia sequence “Night on Bald Mountain.” He served as the animation reference for the shadowy, powerful demon Chernabog. If you watch it today, you can see trademark Lugosi traits and movements in the evil beast.
29. Tea Time
There was reportedly at least one thing about Boris Karloff that Lugosi never forgave. The British actor demanded mid-set tea breaks, which annoyed the Hungarian to no end.
30. Bela Lugosi’s Dead?
Lugosi’s last “A-list” movie paired him with funnymen Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which was also the very last time Lugosi played Dracula on film. Unbelievably, the studio almost didn’t cast him for an utterly ridiculous reason. At the time, he had slipped back into obscurity—and they thought he was already dead.
31. Putting His Stamp on It
Bela Lugosi loved collecting stamps, and he owned more than 150,000 of them. He would have approved, then, when his Dracula became an iconic monster stamp in 1997.
32. The Curse of Lugosi
Reflecting nostalgically on his horror typecasting, Lugosi sighed in his later years that, “I am the boogie man.” He also confessed that playing Dracula was “a living, but it’s also a curse. It’s Dracula’s curse.”
33. It’s Not Over Till It’s Over
Just before the end of his life, Lugosi got one last second chance. Outsider director Ed Wood loved blowing the dust off forgotten Tinseltown artifacts, and he made it his mission to rediscover Lugosi. Wood tracked down the actor—by then living in near poverty and absolute obscurity—and gave him parts in cult films like Bride of the Monster and, most famously, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
34. Curtain Call
On August 16, 1956, the 73-year-old Lugosi passed away from a heart attack while lying on his bed.
35. Life After Death
Somehow, Lugosi even managed to rise from the dead one more time. Plan 9 from Outer Space was Lugosi’s final film in terms of release date, and it actually came out three years after his death. Ed Wood’s cult masterpiece cobbled together footage of Lugosi from a previously unreleased production and performances from a body double.
36. Any Bidders?
In a tragic disappointment that mirrored his career, Lugosi’s original Dracula cape was put up for auction in 2011—and didn’t end up selling.
37. Desperate Times
According to Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi hit a terrifying, murderous low near the end of his life. One day, Lugosi called the director up in the middle of the night and begged him to come over with a bottle of scotch. When Wood did, he claims he found a disturbing sight: Lugosi shaking, crying, and holding a gun pointed right at Wood.
According to the director, Lugosi was bereft at not having money to buy drugs and said, “Eddie, I’m going to die tonight. I want to take you with me.” Wood stayed calm and defused the situation by simply saying, “Well, I’ve got your scotch here.”
38. Teenage Dream
If Lugosi’s third marriage was torn right out of the Old Hollywood Playbook, his fourth marriage somehow managed to do it one better. In 1933, the 51-year-old established actor married the 19-year-old teenager Lillian Arch. Their May-December romance raised eyebrows—but that was just the first load of Lugosi’s dirty laundry.
Lugosi was bitterly jealous of Lillian’s relationship with her boss, actor Brian Donlevy, and the pair divorced in 1953. In 1966, what would you know? Lillian married Donlevy.
39. Going out in Style
In a story so perfect it sounds fake, Lugosi was famously buried in one of his Dracula capes. However, the whole truth is much more complicated. Lugosi actually never asked for this tribute. Instead, his only son Bela and his fourth with Lillian made the decision, asserting that it was what the classic actor would have wanted in the end.
Given Lugosi’s fraught relationship with the monster that made him famous, we have to wonder if that’s true…
40. To the Letter
Lugosi’s fifth marriage to Hope Lininger lasted until his death, but it still had a creepy side. For one, Lugosi was almost four decades older. For another, Hope 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.”
41. The Naked Truth
After sneaking around with starlet Clara Bow, Lugosi commissioned a nude portrait of the actress. This is disturbing enough, but it gets worse. Apparently, he displayed the rather large painting prominently in all of his homes from 1929 until his death—including in the houses he shared with his last two wives.
42. Famous Friends
In the end, Lugosi’s collaborations with Ed Wood helped him so much that he decided to publicly seek treatment for his morphine addiction before it was too late. 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 in treatment.
Reportedly, Lugosi was incredibly astonished and touched to see Ol’ Blue Eyes, as the two had never even met before.
43. Battle Scars
Bela Lugosi fought as an infantryman and then a Lieutenant for the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I. After two years of service, he even received the Wound Medal for the injuries he sustained on the Russian front. But according to the stories he would tell on set, those “glorious” war years were incredibly harrowing for the naïve young man.
He claimed he often served as a hangman, and only escaped duty by faking insanity.
44. Karloff on Top
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.
45. Third Time’s the Harm
Lugosi’s third marriage was a typical Hollywood romance—including sex, lies, and betrayal. In 1929, Lugosi married the beautiful socialite Beatrice Weeks, only to have her file for divorce a mere four months later. According to Weeks’ testimony, there was another woman in the picture. But that’s not even the most scandalous part.
That “other woman” was actually famed Hollywood actress Clara Bow.