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Bela Lugosi Jr. poses with his father in the elder Lugosi’s signature costume.
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As a cold, white hand emerges slowly from its coffin later this month in Edwardsville, Bela Lugosi Jr. will be on site to raise his hand and proclaim, “That’s my dad!”
“I see it as my job to help keep my father’s memory alive,” Lugosi said while chatting with AdVantage News regarding his upcoming visit.
The Friends of the Wildey Theatre will present a special screening of “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi on Saturday, Oct. 18, with special guest Bela Lugosi Jr., who will be on hand to sign autographs and relate tales of life with his father. Guests will have two opportunities to meet Lugosi and see the film, at 2 p.m. and again at 7 p.m., with a special trivia event at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.
The event is sponsored by Saksa Funeral Homes and the Edwardsville Oral Surgery and Implant Center.
Bela Lugosi Jr. did not follow in his father’s footsteps, choosing a career in law over acting.
“Early on, Dad told me to choose an occupation with independence,” he said. “Actors were too reliant on agents, producers, and film studios to be truly independent.”
Lugosi Jr.’s legal actions in Lugosi vs. Universal Pictures led to the creation of the California Celebrities Rights Act, passed in California in 1985 to protect a celebrity’s “personality rights” after death.
“I filed that case when I was still in law school,” Lugosi said. “One of my classmates brought in an Aurora model with my dad as Dracula. It got me wondering what rights the actors actually have, as Universal was purporting to portray Dracula (in marketing), but it really was my dad’s version of Dracula.”
Bela Ferenc Dezso Blasko was born in 1882 in what is today Romania, the son of a banker and the youngest of four children.
He dropped out of school at an early age and was involved in acting by his teenage years. In 1903, he took the name “Bela Lugosi” in honor of his birthplace (Lugos) in Transylvania. A career in silent films in Hungaria followed (under the performing name Arisztid Olt), followed by a move to Germany, where his career continued to grow. In 1920, he immigrated to the United States.
When Lugosi was about 15, London theater business manager Bram Stoker wrote his iconic gothic novel, “Dracula,” in 1897, following years of research on vampires and Transylvanian superstitions. Over the next several years, Lugosi and Dracula, two names destined to become synonymous with evil, traveled their parallel journeys in preparation for an explosive connection.
In 1927, it happened. Lugosi took on the role of Count Dracula in the Broadway stage production of the novel, and in 1931, his role in the film version of Dracula forever immortalized not only the idea of the vampire as a romantic character, but his performance itself.
His greatest accomplishment also proved to be his greatest obstacle. Feeling typecast as a horror villain, Lugosi tried time and again to gain roles in drama and comedy films, while also continuing to rise as a star of horror films such as “The Black Cat,” “White Zombie” and “Son of Frankenstein.”
In an obvious example of how dismissive film companies were in the 1930s when it came to their actors, Lugosi was consigned to “B-level status” at Universal, even as audiences regarded him as a huge star, and he was forced to borrow money for hospital bills following the birth of his son in 1938.
By the early 1950s, Hollywood had all but thrown away the actor who helped make “talkies” such a success in the first place. Living in obscurity, he was befriended by low-budget filmmaker Ed Wood and starred in “Glen or Glenda” and “Bride of the Monster” in the early 1950s.
Lugosi says in spite of a 56-year age difference, he remained close to his father until the time of the actor’s death, when his son was just 18.
“I traveled with him, and I visited him at his apartment in Hollywood,” he said. “It wasn’t really a typical father-son relationship, but it was a good one.”
On Aug. 16, 1956, Lugosi died of a heart attack and was buried in his iconic Dracula cape (at the request of his son, dispelling a common urban legend that had the “cape stipulation” in Lugosi’s will).
His son went on to marry his high school sweetheart, Nancy, and have four children and seven grandchildren, as well as a successful law career.
“I just celebrated 50 years as a lawyer,” he said proudly.
Fact vs. fiction
A few months before his death, Wood shot footage of Lugosi for an upcoming film. That footage ended up in what is commonly referred to as the worst movie ever made, “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Today, Lugosi’s last film is seen affectionately by fans of both Wood and Lugosi, and enjoys its own cult following.
In 1994, Martin Landau received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lugosi in Tim Burton’s film “Ed Wood.”
“They got some things wrong (in that film),” Lugosi Jr. said. “My dad did not sleep in a coffin, and he didn’t use foul language. They also had him with small dogs, and he had Doberman pinschers and German shepherds.”
He also said his father and fellow horror actor Boris Karloff did not have the bitter rivalry portrayed in the film.
“Their personal backgrounds were very different, but they had a professional relationship,” he said. “Karloff liked gardening and tea, and my father preferred dancing and cigars, so they were definitely different.”
An immortal legend
Today, Lugosi has achieved the respect, admiration, and adulation he worked hard to achieve in life. His grave is among the most-visited of any actor, and a statue of Lugosi sits on the Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest. He has been the subject of countless books, films, documentaries and articles, and his legacy lives on with the millions who will always see him as the ultimate Count Dracula … ironically, the very thing he had to fight when chasing other roles.
“It is amazing how his legacy has grown,” his son said. “He really will live forever.”
For more information on meeting Bela Lugosi Jr. and to purchase tickets for the screening on Oct. 18, visit www.wildeytheatre.com.