MEET THE REAL SON OF DRACULA; BELA LUGOSI JR.'S REFLECTIONS ON A DAD HE COULD COUNT ON.
He was mystified.
When he and his friends went to the movies, the other boys would cower in their seats, cover their eyes and scream as the sinister image of Count Dracula, the ultimate vampire, flickered across the screen.
``I always wondered why the other kids were afraid,'' said Bela Lugosi Jr., now 59 and a Glendale entertainment attorney. ``It was just Dad up there.''
It wasn't easy growing up as ``Dracula's son.'' While the relationship held a certain cachet among his youthful peers, it was a constant source of teasing when he became a teen-ager.
``I just wanted to blend into the lockers then,'' he recalls. ``But the name was always there. And people always knew that name.''
Today, the junior Lugosi - who, with his partners, represents heirs of entertainment figures for licensing and merchandising purposes - says he's proud that his father still is remembered for the role that made him famous.
An image of Lugosi in his Dracula cape and makeup now appears on a U.S. postage stamp. Many of his early movies have been remastered and rereleased on video for whole new generations of fans; the Alex Theatre in Glendale will show the full-length version of the 1931 movie ``Dracula'' on Oct. 25. And Dracula merchandise will be among items sold at Knuckleheads, a new movie nostalgia store opening mid-November in the Glendale Galleria; one of Lugosi's original Dracula capes will take center stage in the store's mini-museum.
``I think if Dad could see all this, he'd be surprised that people still remember,'' Lugosi Jr. said. ``But I think he'd like it. It's wonderful. He's left a permanent mark all over the world.''
Although he played many other roles, Lugosi is best-known for his portrayal of the Hungarian count with a thirst for blood in ``Dracula,'' the movie that made generations of little kids look in the closet one last time before they went to bed.
But long before he came to Hollywood, Lugosi - who was born Bela Blasko in October 1882, later taking his stage name from his hometown of Lugos, Hungary - was a classically trained actor in his native country. In the Hungarian National Theater, a Shakespeare company, he was ranked the top performer.
Then World War I intervened. Lugosi became a member of the daredevil Hungarian Ski Patrol, suffering a leg injury that would trouble him for the rest of his life.
After the war, he became politically active, forming a union for actors. But the new communist government opposed the union, and, when it became dangerous for him at home, Lugosi fled to Germany with his first wife; she later returned to her family, ending the brief marriage.
Before coming to America in 1921, Lugosi made several German films. He met and married his second wife, Lillian, a fellow Hungarian emigre who gave birth to his only son, in Hollywood. (After their 20-year marriage ended, Lugosi married three more times.)
Lugosi's first portrayal of the vampire Dracula was in 1927 on Broadway in a play that ran for more than 1,000 performances. He repeated the role in the 1931 movie version of the play, introducing himself to film audiences with the heavy accent and deliberate speech so many kids have since tried to imitate: ``I - am - Drac - ula. ...''
From then on, Lugosi was Hollywood's aristocrat of evil, the personification of darkness and danger thinly concealed by continental charm. Impeccably attired in evening clothes and a commodious black cape, with slicked-back hair and eyes that seemed to see into your very soul, he was suave but scary, charming but chilling, tantalizing but terrorizing.
In short, just the character to scare little kids to death on a Saturday afternoon at the movies.
But to the little boy who was his son, Lugosi was just ``Dad,'' the loving man he had to go to to plead for a new bike or extra spending money.
``I think it dawned on me who he was, what he did, when I'd go places with him and he'd get so much attention,'' Lugosi Jr. said.
One of his favorite times with his father was the summer when he was 12 and his dad was appearing in summer stock plays in New England. The trip became a father-and-son outing.
``As we'd drive along, he'd talk about the geology of the countryside, the things we'd see. He was very well-educated - self-educated - and he tried to impart that to me. And he taught me to canoe that summer.''
While Lugosi loved to act, he was frustrated that studio executives saw him only as the vampire, capable of stretching no further than to portray a mad scientist or other screen megalomaniac.
Interviews in a coffin
When Universal Pictures told him it would make a good story if he gave interviews while lying in a coffin in his Dracula get-up, he did it. But tales about him wandering around the house in full Dracula makeup and costume are totally false, his son said.
``They were costumes, put on only when he worked,'' he said.
Over the years, the classically trained actor chose to appear in some terrible movies, mostly because he spent money as fast as he made it and grabbed whatever lucrative roles were available, film historians say.
His last film - ``Plan 9 From Outer Space'' (1956) - was about a bunch of aliens who believe they can rule the Earth by reanimating corpses from a San Fernando Valley cemetery. Directed by Ed Wood Jr., it is hailed as perhaps the worst movie ever made. Lugosi died after only two days of shooting; a taller, thinner man took over the role, playing the rest of the film with a cape drawn over his face.
Lugosi Jr. said he doesn't know why his father appeared in the films he did.
``Maybe everything he did was a good idea at the time,'' the actor's son said. ``One thing I know: His performances were always good, no matter how bad the movie was.''
In his later years, Lugosi's performances were hampered by an addiction to drugs, prescribed medication he took to ease the pain of his war injury. In 1955, he had himself committed to a state hospital as a drug addict, kicked the drug habit, married for a fifth time and even returned briefly to films before he died.
Lugosi Jr. said his father discouraged him from becoming an actor, saying it was an unstable profession and allowed too little family life. He recalled the loneliness of spending first through sixth grade in a military academy and the subsequent years (until ninth grade) spent living with his grandparents while his parents traveled on movie-related trips. He chose a more stable profession: the law.
He earned his law degree from USC Law School in 1964, and until 1993 specialized in business, oil and gas, environmental, real estate and tax law. Then he joined a lawsuit filed by attorneys Earl and Robert Benjamin, stepsons and heirs of ``Curly Joe'' DeRita, one of the last of the Three Stooges, over who had the legal rights to the Stooges' name and images. The suit ended 4-1/2 years later with a ruling in favor of the Benjamin brothers.
The Benjamins and Lugosi Jr. formed their own partnership - Comedy III, which licenses and markets Stooges merchandise along with items sporting images of Lugosi/Dracula, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Humphrey Bogart, Ginger Rogers, Jackie Gleason and Annie Oakley.
As Halloween nears, costume shops are filled with Dracula masks, capes and fangs for scores of revelers who try to become Dracula for a night. But Halloween at the Lugosi house was pretty much like the holiday at any other house in the neighborhood: Junior would dress up and go trick-or-treating; his famous father would answer the door and hand out candy to the kids.
No fancy makeup, no fangs, no Dracula cape.
But still, Lugosi managed to scare the kids, his son recalled.
``They'd hear his voice and be scared to death.''
Photo: (1) Although he played many other roles, Bela Lugosi is best-known for his portrayal of the Hungarian count with a thirst for blood in ``Dracula.''
(2) ``I always wondered why the other kids were afraid,'' says Bela Lugosi Jr., now 59 and a Glendale entertainment attorney. ``It was just Dad up there.''
David Sprague/Daily News
R. Eileen Erlsten (Member): Bela Lugosi,Jr. 11/1/2010 3:47 AM
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I have always loved your father in his role of Dracula and with the accent he was just absolutely perfect for the part. I understand that he was "just" Dad when up there on the screen,to all of us other kids he was Dracula! Thanks for sharing your times with your father. It's nice to know that not all Hollywood actors and actresses ignored/ignore their children in the pursuit of their own lives.