Though no one would seriously argue that Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) was one of the movies’ greatest actors, there is little room for debate that he was one of the screen’s most iconic.
Perhaps there is something about cinema that is anathema to truly great acting – the medium is too broad, too large, too loud for subtlety. But those who make the grand gesture or can fill the screen with personality or individuality often become icons. That Bela Lugosi is recognized now, 130 years after his birth and 56 after his death, is a tribute to the innate genius he brought to the screen.
Lugosi’s legacy to motion pictures remain a handful of interesting performances, a generous number of truly bad B films, and a legend that has lost none of its potency. Typecast as Dracula forever after his 1931 film appearance, actor and role merged for eternity when the actor requested that he be buried in his vampire costume.
To the popular imagination, Bela Lugosi is Dracula, despite the considerable difference between the actor and the character as described in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Never before -- or since -- has an actor become so defined by a solitary part. The identification was so great that for the rest of his life, the actor was billed as Bela "Dracula" Lugosi. No other actor's face, voice, inflections or body language holds greater supremacy over the part than those of the Hungarian expatriate.
Lugosi first played the role on Broadway. When Dracula premiered in Broadway's Fulton Theater, neither the critics nor the audience realized that they were witnessing the creation of one of modern theater history's great signature roles. Though Lugosi was generally praised for his work, the thought of a supernatural protagonist on the Broadway stage was a concept that took a while to settle in. The passion that Lugosi brought to the part -- he so mesmerized actress Clara Bow at a performance of Dracula that it was the start of a stormy romance between the "It" girl and the undead Valentino -- along with his intensity, strange intonation and charisma, made Dracula acceptable to critics and audiences alike.
Many actors to later play the role found themselves hobbled by the long shadow of Lugosi. When Martin Landau played Dracula in a revival of the Edward Gorey production of the play, he found that audiences would accept nothing but the Lugosi conception. (And this, 10 years before Landau won the Academy Award in 1994 for playing Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood.) Gary Oldman, a terrific actor who made his mark in challenging roles, frankly admitted that the voice he used in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) was "pure Lugosi."
Dracula distilled for children -- everything from Sesame Street’s Count to General Mills' breakfast cereal Count Chocula -- is simply Lugosi and water. When George Hamilton played Dracula in Love At First Bite (1979) he portrayed him as a lovelorn Bela Lugosi, caught in a world that had forgotten romance. Leslie Nielson in Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) also closely studied Lugosi's delivery and mannerisms. Even Adam Sandler's Dracula in the current Hotel Transylvania imitates Lugosi -- and even makes an on-camera joke about it.
As Dracula, Bela Lugosi has appeared on toys, games, model kits and magazine covers. Any television or radio commercial employing Dracula also employs Lugosi, for it is the actor and not the part that other players adapt. Posters, greeting cards, record albums, Halloween costumes, iron-on patches, candy boxes and bubble gum cards have all borne Lugosi' likeness. Bela Lugosi's face adorned the cover of Bram Stoker's novel as early as 1947, when the Pocket Books edition featured a painting of Lugosi hovering over a sleeping victim. His association with the novel continues to this day, and Lugosi's visage continues to appear on the covers of many editions of Dracula, including the inexpensive Barnes and Noble reprint sold nationally.
No actor to play the part after Bela Lugosi has achieved the same long-lasting impression or has penetrated as far into popular myth. Lugosi's Dracula is the yardstick by which all other interpretations are measured, a standard which has not diminished despite the many fine performances that followed in Lugosi's wake.