They were two of the biggest boogeymen who ever lived: Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi. They terrified millions with their signature roles as Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula. Even today, few horror stars have the name recognition that these two have.
As it helped to sell movie tickets, Hollywood pitted the two against each other as rivals in the films and on gossip sheets. Often, yarns would be spun about the two bickering and fighting behind the scenes, but in truth they actually had a rather warm friendship. Taking a closer look at their biographies, it is not difficult to see why.
Each man was born overseas in the 1880s. Each struggled mightily to make it as an actor, never really finding much success and working back-breaking jobs into their 40s. They did not become famous until well after the stars of many of their acting peers had burned out.
Lugosi was born—not risen—in what was then part of Hungary (now Romania) in 1882. He ran away from home at age 12, and he started working wherever he could while also trying to find work as a young actor. After finding success on the Hungarian stage, he volunteered to fight in World War I. He was wounded 3 times and decorated as an officer. (It would eventually be the pain from his wounds that turned him into a morphine and methadone addict). He fled Hungary in 1920 to enter the United States illegally and escape persecution for trying to form an actors’ union. Without any knowledge of English, he scraped by to survive in the Hungarian community in New York. He managed to keep acting, eventually landing what would become his signature role in a 1927 Broadway production of Dracula. When sound was added to moving pictures, Hollywood came calling, and Lugosi hit it big in 1931 at the age of 47.
Karloff was born in London in 1887. His father was in the diplomatic corps, and his mother was of Indian heritage. Karloff went to university to follow in his father’s footsteps, but the acting bug had gotten the better of him. “When I was 9,” he once explained, “I played the demon king in ‘Cinderella,’ and it launched me on a long and happy life of being a monster.”
In 1909, Karloff set off for Canada and the United States to try his luck with acting. He bounced around, eventually making it to Hollywood in 1919. He worked as an extra in the silent movies, and was digging ditches and driving trucks when “discovered” for the role of the monster in Frankenstein (1931). He hit it big again the next year with The Mummy and then several more times with The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Lugosi and Karloff’s careers were almost entwined from the very beginning at Universal Studios. Lugosi had turned down the role of Frankenstein’s monster because he didn’t want to wear all of the make-up.
The terror duo was united for the first time on screen in 1934’s The Black Cat. They would make countless appearances together on TV and in person, but some of their more noted film roles together also included The Raven (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939).
More importantly for future generations of film actors, they worked together to develop and build The Screen Actors’ Guild. Such was their friendship, more than two decades after either man’s death, relatives protested heavily when the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp hit Ed Wood (1994) implied Lugosi hated Karloff.
Life has a funny way of working out. By playing immortal monsters on the silver screen, these two friends achieved a kind of immortality of their own. Enjoy all of their great films today on DVD or Blu-ray and have a happy Halloween.
Nathaniel Cerf firmly believes that all children must be shown the original Universal monster films by age 10 so that they can form a genuine appreciation for horror that uses the imagination far more than any special effects or torture porn of the modern era. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.