Though there have been many since - Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, etc. - there will only be one original Count. Bela Lugosi is known the world over for his dark, mesmerizing stare, thick accent, and velvety black cape, Lugosi played the role many times throughout his life and will forever be remembered as the bloodthirsty gentleman from Transylvania, even though he was really from the neighboring Hungary.
Born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó in Lugos, Austria-Hungary, the iconic actor took his stage name from his hometown, which is now known as Lugoj, Romania. He got his professional start with small parts on the Hungarian stage, though he later claimed to be a major star in his home country. Lugosi was a decorated infantry lieutenant and later captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI, though shortly after the war he was forced to flee Hungary due to the Hungarian Revolution in 1919. He moved across Europe and finally traveled to his new home in the U.S. He continued acting on stage in Hungarian, German, and phonetic English and in a handful of silent films until he was cast in Horace Liveright, Hamilton Deane, and John Balderston’s stage adaptation of Dracula on Broadway in 1927. He soon traveled with the production and acted in other plays around the same period. Lugosi got his start in various silent films throughout the ‘20s, both in Germany and the U.S., though he mostly had bit parts.
Despite his successful run in the stage play, Lugosi was not initially slated to play Dracula. It is rumored that Universal first intended this to be a collaboration between German Expressionist director Paul Leni and silent film star Lon Chaney. But after both Leni and Chaney passed away from illnesses, Tod Browning was put in the director’s chair and there was a rush to cast the film before shooting began. Lugosi was given the part at the last minute simply because he was cheap, but the role would quickly become unanimous with his brooding stare and unmistakable (and often imitated) accent.
Though Lugosi played Dracula well over a thousand times on stage, beginning in 1927, only two of his performances as the iconic Count were captured on screen, the first time in Dracula and again almost two decades later in the horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Dracula (1931) was his first major film, though he went on to make a series of interesting and acclaimed horror and sci-fi films in the ‘30s: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), the first of many movies where Lugosi played a mad scientist working with a homicidal, mutated ape, White Zombie (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1934), The Black Cat (1934), one of the few films where he received equal billing with Boris Karloff and their best work together, Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), and many more. In addition to Dracula, he had parts in some of the other Universal classic monster series, such as the role of the demented and deformed Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the lycanthropic gypsy in The Wolf Man (1941).
His career began to take a down turn in the ‘40s, when he was typecast in cheaper and flimsier films, most of which were produced by Monogram Pictures, nicknamed “poverty row” in Hollywood. Some of these films will delight fans of early Universal horror, but many of them were not acclaimed upon release or outright ignored, such as Black Friday (1940), The Devil Bat (1940), Invisible Ghost (1940), The Black Cat (1941), The Corpse Vanishes (1942), The Ape Man (1943) and Return of the Ape Man (1944, which features nary an ape), and Zombies on Broadway (1945). He also appeared in Val Lewton’s excellent Boris Karloff-vehicle The Body Snatcher (1945) as a humble, elderly servant who is killed by Karloff when he attempts to blackmail him. This is a sad, very visual example of how far he had fallen since Dracula. The ‘50s saw a career revival for Lugosi in the form of schlockmeister Ed Wood, who adored Lugosi and cast him in a number of films, including Glen or Glenda (1953) and Bride of the Monster (1955). Some footage of Lugosi was included in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), but Lugosi passed away before filming was complete and Wood’s wife’s chiropractor had to stand in for the remainder of the film.
Lugosi had a romantic, but difficult life. In addition to his five marriages, one of which was broken up by a semi-long term affair with famous silent film actress Clara Bow, he struggled with drug addiction and a series of poor financial decisions. His morphine addiction was caused by a painful back problem that is believed to have come from his time in the war and worsened later in life. His poor financial decisions began when he was cast in Dracula as a last resort and paid $500 per week. He made less money than some of the side actors, a trend that would continue throughout his career in genre films with Universal. He also turned down the role of the monster in Frankenstein, allegedly because he thought the make up would make him unrecognizable. After Boris Karloff rose to fame because of this role, Lugosi was forced to play second fiddle to him for nearly the rest of his career. Somewhat sadly, he did eventually play the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the almost comic sequel and monster mash movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). His strong accent and refusal to don monster make up typecast him and he was stuck in horror films, horror-themed sci-fi movies, and horror comedies.
Lugosi was and is undoubtedly beloved by horror fans of all generations. Towards the end of his life, Lugosi was supported by a number of fans, some of them celebrities (such as Frank Sinatra, who allegedly paid one of his rehab bills). He became good friends with the then young Forrest J. Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland), who wound up with a lot of Dracula and Lugosi-related props, except, of course, the Dracula cape that Lugosi was buried in. After his heart attack in 1956, he was buried in this cape at the request of his wife and son and, at his funeral, friend and horror actor Peter Lorre famously joked that maybe they should put a stake in his heart just to be on the safe side.
There are, unsurprisingly, dozens of Lugosi resources. Though there are a number of biographies, I don't believe any of them are definitive. Dracula scholar David J. Skal's Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen is a good place to start. For further online information about Lugosi, I recommend this blog and this heartfelt article from Lost Magazine about Lugosi’s relationship with Forrest Ackerman, though there are tons of sites. Obviously watch as many of his films as you can. This set is a great place to start and this site has a lot of Lugosi movies streaming for free.