Since his inception in Bram Stroker’s 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula, the titular character has become the archetypal vampire in subsequent works of fiction, films, animated media and even breakfast cereals. For one actor, portraying the bloodsucking villain helped launch his career in the horror genre.
Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known simply as Bela Lugosi, was born on October 20, 1882 in Austria-Hungary. The youngest of four children, Lugosi began his acting career playing small roles in several plays and operettas in provincial theaters throughout the 1903–04 season. His first official film appearance was in the movie Az ezredes (The Colonel, 1917). He slowly ventured into Shakespearean plays and started landing major roles. After moving to Budapest, he played dozens of small and supporting roles with the National Theatre of Hungary. During World War I, Lugosi served as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian Army before rising to the rank of captain in the ski patrol. His activism in the actors' union in Hungary during the revolution of 1919, Lugosi was forced to flee his homeland.
While in exile in Germany, Lugosi began appearing in a small number of films, including adaptations of the Karl May novels Auf den Trümmern des Paradieses (On the Brink of Paradise) and Die Todeskarawane (The Caravan of Death). Eventually, Lugosi immigrated to the United States and was naturalized in 1931. As part of New York City's Hungarian immigrant colony, Lugosi toured with a small theater group performing for immigrant audiences. His first English Broadway play came in 1922 with The Red Poppy, followed by a five-month run in the comedy-fantasy The Devil in the Cheese, Arabesque and the melodrama The Silent Command. In the summer of 1927, Lugosi was approached star in a Broadway adaptation of Dracula.
This production was successful, both critically and with audiences, running for 261 performances and later touring the United States between 1928 and 1929. His work piqued the interest of Fox Studios who cast him in the studio's 1929 silent film The Veiled Woman. He later returned to the stage as Dracula for a short West Coast tour of the play and began lobbying for the role in the film version. Based on the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, Tod Browning directed the Universal film with Lugosi as Count Dracula. Although he was not the company’s first choice, Lugosi’s turn as Dracula was a huge hit. To many, Lugosi’s powerful presence and deliberate pacing was regarded as the definitive Dracula.
Lugosi’s additional roles for Universal included Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Invisible Ray, Black Friday, The Raven, and Son of Frankenstein along with the independent film White Zombie. He went on to play General Nicholas Strenovsky-Petronovich in International House as well as the two RKO Pictures You’ll find Out and The Body Snatcher. He later portrayed Frankenstein's monster in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and played Dracula once more in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
His compelling on-screen authority, icy stares and altogether mesmerizing performances, firmly cemented his status as a Universal Horror legend and made his Dracula a cultural icon.