KTTV 70: Bela Lugosi, the one they call Count Dracula

From deep in our KTTV archives we present the story of a man who we all came to know as a Monster. He was a family man. A proud actor. And, like many of us at different times in our lives, a man fighting his own demons even though he was Count Dracula! Dracula -- a creature conjured up by author Bram Stoker, but, brought to life by Bela Lugosi.

He was in 23 Hungarian and German films; 113 films and shorts in the United States. He appeared in well over 200 stage performances. 48 of those were in the United States. He was on radio shows, he made public appearances… but, those movies like Dracula and White Zombie.

In our KTTV archives, we discovered footage even Lugosi's family didn't know existed. Metropolitan Hospital in Norwalk. A state mental hospital where Lugosi, who checked himself in, sought help for drug addiction.

Lugosi's son, Bela Jr, was wide-eyed as he watched our footage showing his dad doing pushups and mugging for the camera. He says his dad apparently wanted the world to see that he had gotten the upper-hand on painkilling drugs he had gotten hooked on because of a World War One injury. It's why Lugosi Sr. invited KTTV and other media to get film of him getting ready to leave the hospital in Norwalk after treatment.

His family says he loved his craft and, according to Lugosi Jr. he was good at it. He told KTTV, "Dad was one take. Some people… 10 to 13 takes before they'd get it right. But, dad was always so well prepared... so well…that he would get a lot of respect on the set."

Submitting to mental health care was a big deal back then. Today, when a celebrity has drug problems it's off to a residential treatment center for the stars! Back then...in the 1950's...different story.

Another problem the actor faced was typecasting. People looked at him and saw Dracula. Says his son, "Roles offered to him were really limited and he was very sad really." He was frustrated… didn't feel like he could get another role. "He did too good a job," said Lugosi's son who's now 81.

Lugosi Jr. remains proud of his dad saying "He was so full of life (and) doing such a brave thing of turning himself in voluntarily for treatment at a time when there was a stigma attached to having pain killers."

A year later in August of 1956, Bela Lugosi died of a heart attack. He was buried in his Dracula costume in Culver City. If still alive, he would be 137 years old in October.

Bela Junior had fame of his own in the legal arena. The copyright attorney was responsible for what's known as the California Celebrities rights act.

He says, "I was in law school in 1963 at USC and Universal started licensing various vendors to use dad's likeness on products."

Lugosi didn't feel Universal had the right to do that. And, although he hadn't graduated law school yet, he filed a lawsuit to stop the big moviemaker from being able to do that and won. It went through a rollercoaster of appeals and, ultimately the Supreme Court said it had to be enacted by the Legislature which made it possible for a celebrity's personality rights to survive their death. And, to this day, it remains the law of the land.