The Surprising Thing You Should Know About Bela Lugosi's Broadway Debut

These days, Bela Lugosi is remembered mostly for the role of Count Dracula in the seminal 1931 movie "Dracula," his later work in horror films, and at the end of his life, for being a drug-addicted, washed-up actor forced to work in no-budget Ed Wood films (per Open Culture). Yet, prior to that breakout film role and his subsequent success in the U.S., the Hungarian actor had been one of the biggest things in Europe, making a name for himself on the stage and the screen across the continent. 

However, as The Wyman Institute noted, he'd been a union organizer in Hungary and was soon unwelcome there. Rather than hang around in Europe, he boarded a cargo ship bound for New Orleans, eventually made his way to New York, got the ball rolling on his U.S. citizenship, and started over as an actor. Here, he got by in small stage productions, according to the National Park Service. He spent two years slogging it out in the minors before The Great White Way — Broadway — came calling in 1922. He absolutely killed in his supporting role in the "The Red Poppy," according to Mental Floss, paving the way for his later success. However, he did so while dealing with a pretty major handicap.

Bela Lugosi made his Broadway debut with limited English

Bela Lugosi first appeared on Broadway in 1922, according to Mental Floss, landing the role of Fernando, a dashing Latino, in "The Red Poppy." Lugosi certainly could pull off playing a foreigner, considering that he came naturally with a thick accent, albeit a Slavic one and not a Latin one. Another, considerably larger problem with Lugosi taking the role is that his grasp of English at the time was, depending on whom you ask, somewhere between limited and nonexistent. However, he wasn't going to let that minor language barrier stop him: He hired a tutor to help him learn his lines phonetically, and he delivered them with aplomb on the stage, despite understanding little to nothing of what he was saying or what the other actors were saying to him.

Despite his handicaps, Lugosi absolutely killed, and his performance opened the door for further success in the U.S. According to the National Park Service, by 1927, he was performing as Count Dracula on the stage, and four years later, he brought the role to the Silver Screen.