Chances are, if you think of Dracula, without question the world’s most famous vampire in all of pop culture, who you see in your mind’s eye is actor Béla Lugosi, who portrayed the Count in the 1931 film Dracula. Lugosi’s performance set the bar and the standard for depictions of the sophisticated, monstrous killer for generations.
However, while Lugosi is perhaps most famous for that role, there is much more to the man, both in front of the camera and in his life outside performing for the world. From his faith to his military service to his union activism, the man was as multifaceted as the characters he portrayed. Recently, Clover Press launched a Kickstarter focused on Lugosi, crowdfunding Lugosi biographer Robert Cremer’s book Béla Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape, a comprehensive tome filled with stories, photographs, and documents about the performer.
I spoke Mr. Cremer recently about his fascination with Béla Lugosi, delving into the life of the man, the impetus for writing the book, and the inspirational life of Lugosi and what readers can take from that.
FreakSugar: What is it about Bela Lugosi that pulls you in as a fan and as an academic?
Robert Cremer: I first saw Béla in Dracula in 1957 as a 10-year-old, when Universal Studios released their package of classic horror films to TV as Shock Theater. He left a lasting impression on me, even at that age. I had a gut feeling ‒ I can’t really describe it any other way ‒ that there was definitely something unusual about him. As I became familiar with his other appearances in film, my fascination for Béla grew. He didn’t just play vampires, but also madmen like Dr. Vollin in The Raven, mad scientists like Roxor in Chandu the Magician, a most sympathetic rogue called Ygor in Son of Frankenstein and occasionally a good guy! However, even when he was cast as a hero, film critics still labeled his performance “sinister” ‒ an indication of the mark he left on the film industry!
Later, as a researcher and his biographer, I came to realize exactly what differentiated him from other actors. Béla did not just portray a character, he became indistinguishable from the character, in spite of his unique voice and accent. His portrayals were always original and very creative. Béla never just played himself. The reasons for his ability to create so many distinct interpretations of roles became clear to me as I delved into his personal life with the help of family and close Hungarian friends. His dramatic and stirring life story was, in reality, the negative from which his stage and film roles were developed. It is really a unique and riveting story that is loaded with surprises for fans who thought they knew Béla already!
FS: What was the impetus for tackling The Man Behind the Cape?
RC: My fascination with Béla did not end in my youth. When I began working as a syndicated columnist for the Hollywood Reporter in the mid-70s, I spent my free time researching Béla’s life at the Margaret Herrick Library. That is where I decided to tackle a new job as biographer. The impetus for this decision came from my reading so much conflicting information about his life in newspaper and magazine articles at that time! In one article, I discovered that his son was a practicing attorney in Los Angeles, so I contacted him to propose a collaboration on a biography of his father. He then arranged a meeting for me with his mother, Lillian, who was married to Béla for 20 years. I explained my desire to her to correct all the misinformation regarding Béla’s life in an honest and straightforward biography, based on exclusive information from the family and Béla’s closest Hungarian friends. Lillian responded, “There is nothing I would rather do, because so much false information has been repeated again and again, some of it from Béla himself. I want to set the record straight. Béla deserves that the truth be told and that is what he would have wanted.”
FS: What’s one of the most surprising things you learned about Mr. Lugosi in your years of research?
RC: The extensive interviews I conducted with Lillian, her sister Valeria, his nephew Béla Loósz, and his closest confidant, Vili Szittja, who knew him in Budapest, provided no end to the eye-openers that awaited me. The man behind the cape was much more remarkable than I could have ever imagined. His story is unparalleled in Hollywood or elsewhere, for that matter, because he was such a multi-faceted and complex individual with remarkable personal principles and convictions. Here are just a few examples of aspects of his life that emerged from these exclusive interviews:
- Why Béla volunteered for military service in 1914, although actors were exempt from active duty, and, two years later, feigned insanity to be honorably discharged from the army.
- Why Béla feared meeting Jesus Christ in person, instead of just portraying him on the stage in Budapest
- How two sailors and one cat named Zichy saved Béla’s life during his transatlantic crossing to the U.S. aboard the Count Stephen Tisza.
- Why Béla’s union activism on behalf of actors in Budapest cost him his first wife, family, country ‒ and almost his life.
- Who was really responsible for the ban on horror films in 1936.
- Why Béla himself inflated his dependence on drugs from just three years to 20.
- Why Béla asked his son not to drive him to his wedding ceremony with Hope Lininger.
FS: What is your personal favorite of his perhaps lesser-known performances?
RC: Since we, of course, have no footage of his stage performances, I find his appearance on the popular TV show You Asked for It in 1953 very interesting, because he reenacts his vaudeville sketch from Dracula that he performed on cross-country barnstorming tours in the 1940s. The sketch, in which he hypnotizes the maid in the second act of the play, was such a critical component of his career at that time, it is wonderful to get a taste of what it might have been like to see him live on stage.
FS: If you had any takeaways that you’d want readers to get from your book, what would they be?
RC: There is certainly a tragic element to Béla’s life, but there is also an uplifting and inspirational side to this story that, I hope, will also inspire readers and enhance their appreciation of the man as actor. He was a man of uncompromising principles and standards of excellence in both his private life and professional career for which he paid a monumental price. The book details these events. For example:
- Béla’s service in the army later resulted in his becoming dependent on painkillers to ensure that the show would go on. He never wanted to disappoint his audiences, never compromising his standards of excellence as an actor.
- When he was abandoned by the major film studios in the 1940s, he didn’t give up; he fought back at the age of 60 with physically exhausting barnstorming tours across the U.S. at great cost to his health.
- Béla made great sacrifices in his professional career to lend his total support to the war effort during WWII.
His dedication to his profession, to his family and to the principles he set for himself in every aspect of his life reveal a remarkable man, who only becomes familiar when the reader has this unique opportunity to look behind his cape.
As of press time, the Kickstarter for Béla Lugosi: The Man Behind the Cape has more than quintupled its initial goal with 17 days left. Make sure the check out the campaign centering on the fascinating actor.