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Friday, February 3, 2012

Bela LUGOSI; Hollywood's Dark Prince

Bela Lugosi is one of my favorite actors, if not my favorite (I really like Bogie and Cary Grant too though).  I'm fascinated by Lugosi's career.

From all I've read about him-- and trust me it's been a lot-- when he walked into a room people noticed, he had that kind of charisma.  Tall, dark and imposing he had a presence that was unique even by Hollywood standards.

Lugosi came to America after a successful career in his native Hungary where he played characters as varied as Jesus Christ and Satan!  Lugosi landed the role of Count Dracula in the Broadway play which began its popular run in New Haven Ct  in 1927 and then went on tour.

When Universal bought the film rights he expected to be the first choice for the lead role but that went to Lon Chaney, who was considered the King of the Macabre but died before filming began.  Lugosi still wasn't the first choice, instead the studio looked at Ian Keith and Paul Muni for the vampire king.  Lugosi wanted the role so bad that he petitioned studio heads for it via telegram and finally undersold himself to the tune of $500 a week for the lead which was less than the pay rate for some of the supporting players.    Sadly, Lugosi continued to undersell himself and his thick accent which suited him well for Dracula hurt him in other roles.  DRACULA was a huge blockbuster and Universal rocketed FRANKENSTEIN into production in the same year, announcing Lugosi as the lead in that film too.

Years later Lugosi would claim he turned down the role because it was a non-speaking role, but this was likely untrue.  It's rumored that the initial test footage of Lugosi as the monster was met with chuckles by studio heads who thought his makeup ludicrous-- alleged to feature a giant Beatles-like hairdo and a creature more akin to the golem than the monster we came to know.  The original director was replaced with James Whale who soon opted to use Boris Karloff as the monster leaving Lugosi with a role in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932) with the original director.

FRANKENSTEIN was an even bigger hit than DRACULA and pretty soon KARLOFF became the name most associated with horror films while Lugosi took pretty much any role offered to him, often with sub-par so called poverty row studios.

Lugosi fell on some hard times, becoming addicted to pain killers and soon he was forced to take to the stage to make his way, leading a series of live horror performances all over the world (including a stop here in the Big Woo).  Lugosi never phoned it in, always giving it his all-- sometimes to the point of some incredibly hammy performances, but he made you buy what he was selling.

His penchant for working for nearly any rate at any studio combined with his growing addiction caused his career to spiral downward even further to the point that he was barely working, with the exception of a few really low films with Ed Wood, he lived in near poverty.

Lugosi's choices stand as an example to all of us in a creative field; respect yourself and your talents.  Know when to turn down a project, sometimes it's better to pass.