Bela George Lugosi was born on January 5, 1938 in Los Angeles. He is also known as Bela Lugosi Jr. – he is the son of our legendary transylvanian actor, Béla Lugosi. He didn’t become an actor like his father, but he is deeply involved with the film industry through his work and his family legacy. He works as a attorney in California, and his long legal battle versus Universal Pictures led to the creation of the California Celebrities Rigths Act, which means that the rights of publicity survive the celebrity’s death and descend to heirs by wills. We reached the 77 year old lawyer via e-mail to talk about his father and his legal work, among other things.
You had a key role in introducing the California Celebrities Rights Act. What is it about?
In 1963, while I was in law school, it was brought to my attention that Universal Studios had begun to license Dad’s image on various items of merchandise. I obtained one of those items, a model kit with his image on the box and I filed suit against Universal. The case took almost 16 years before the California Supreme Court’s decision. The court held that if the celebrity did not merchandise his likeness while he was living, the right to do so did not survive his death.
Several years later, the California Legislature enacted the Celebrity Rights Act and thereby reversed the California Supreme Court decision making the right to exploit the name and likeness of a celebrity a property right which survived his or her death. As a result, I control the commercial use of Dad’s name and likeness and the trademarks associated with that use. I formed Lugosi Enterprises to oversee the business of the use of Bela Lugosi’s name and likeness.
Are the legal battles for your father’s legacy frequent? Does it take up a lot of energy?
Lugosi Enterprises has to address infringers once in a while, and dealing with those issues does take quite a bit of time and energy. For the most part, we find that our rights are being respected. We are attentive to our rights and to opportunities to partner with companies to use film clips in meaningful ways and to produce quality merchandise. Having the ability to approve all aspects of the use of Dad’s name and likeness has enabled us to extend his legacy. Lugosi Enterprises is very proud of the items we have licensed, and the fans have expressed their appreciation for these officially licensed products.
What does the Lugosi-legacy worth? How can someone estimate or assess something like this? Who is the owner of the legacy?
For me, the legacy is priceless. Bela Lugosi is an icon and he represents the beginnings of the horror genre and classic Hollywood. His portrayal of Dracula – his make-up and costume, his mannerisms, his voice – have become the benchmark for all other portrayals and caricatures. I believe my father’s face and name will always be synonymous with Dracula and horror films, making him a part of film history worldwide. It is my wish that the stewards of the legacy will continue to be the descendants of Bela Lugosi.
Are there any relics in your possession?
I do have a few film related items, but most importantly, I have our family photos and some of my dad’s personal items.
What is your relationship with Universal Studios at the present?
We presently do not have a business relationship with Universal, although we do work from time to time on the same licensing projects.
What was it like to introduce yourself as Lugosi Béla in the past? How about now?
Growing up, I actually did not like the attention my name brought me, and I went by “Bill” through my college years. I was a swimmer and in the sports section of the paper the relationship was always noted, and of course I was always proud to be Bela Lugosi’s son. While in law school, I began using “Bela” again, and 55 years later, almost on a daily basis I get a comment on my name –- always complimentary of my father.
What kind of memories do you have of your father? Have you ever been on his movie sets while he was working?
My parents were very involved with the Hungarian community in Los Angeles and we spent many weekends at the clubhouse. I had a pretty normal home life as a very young child and have nice memories of playing in our home in Los Angeles. We also spent a lot of time in Lake Elsinore, California, which is an hour outside of Los Angeles. My grandparents on my mother’s side lived there and I thrived in the outdoor life of the community. I attended a military school from kindergarten through sixth grade and it was during this time that I first realized that my dad was different. When my parents would visit me on Sundays, the attention of the whole school, including other visitors, was on their arrival. Later, when my mom took my friends and me to see Dad’s movies, they would be scared, but to me, it was just my dad on the screen. One summer while my dad was doing Summer Stock, I took the trip with my parents to the East coast. While we drove, Dad would talk to me about everything we were seeing. He even tried to teach me how to canoe – that was quite a scene! And I remember seeing my dad preparing for films and plays. He had an incredible work ethic and would go over every line again and again until it was perfect.
I did visit some of the movie sets. I was too young to remember, but there are photographs of me as a baby on the set of Son of Frankenstein with me standing between the legs of Boris Karloff as The Monster. There is also a photo with me at about four years old with my Dad on the set of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in his makeup as the Frankenstein Monster. I do have very clear memories of visiting the set of Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein. I saw the comedians the studio brought in to liven up the set and I went to the commissary with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Glenn Strange while they were in their Wolf Man and Monster make-up!
What were his feelings – if you remember from this kind of distance in time – about being iconified and typecast as the vampire? Has his accent changed later on after the 1931 Dracula?
My dad first created his version of Count Dracula on the stage in 1927, so when he was cast in Universal’s film, he brought his character to the role. The film, Dracula, was the beginning of Universal’s horror movie success and it brought my dad a lot of attention. Because of the success of the film and his portrayal, he was cast in other Universal and other studios’ horror pictures, but was never able to transition to other genres. He mentioned to me, that for him, Dracula was both a blessing and a curse. Of course, he could never have imagined the longevity of the character in every form of media or that his portrayal would be the inspiration for every actor playing Count Dracula after him. To this day, his characteristics have become the Count Dracula to which every other interpretation is compared, whether a serious role or a parody. I know he would have liked to have achieved success in his lifetime by playing more varied roles, but he has become an icon because of his role as Count Dracula and he would have been so surprised and proud of his great popularity still today. His is quite an amazing legacy.
Regarding his accent, my dad had learned to speak English by the time he played the part of Count Dracula in the Universal film. His command of the English language could have improved over time. He did speak Hungarian with his friends in the Hungarian community and did not lose his accent.
What do you think of the movie Ed Wood and especially Martin Landau’s performance as Lugosi?
This is a question I receive all the time. Martin Landau gave a wonderful performance as Bela Lugosi and did a nice job with the script that he was given. I find it disappointing that many biographers focus on the end of Dad’s life. The Ed Wood film does not do justice to the man he actually was, and in fact, falsely depicts many aspects of his personalty. Unlike the character in the Ed Wood film, Bela Lugosi was a gentleman, he was brave and he held on to his work ethic until his death in 1956.
Did you know that your father’s hometown Lugos (now Lugoj, Romania) has a cinema named after him? Was he homesick ever?
I have heard about the theater from several fans. Thank you for sending me the picture. What a nice memorial to have in Lugoj.
Dad was 56 when I was born and by that time had been in the United States for 17 years. I do not remember him talking about being homesick, but I do know that he surrounded himself with friends in the Hungarian community in New York and Los Angeles, as well as with the things special to him from his culture, especially Hungarian music, food and wine.
Have you ever been to Lugos? Or Transsylvania? Did you speak any Hungarian at home?
I have never been to Lugos or to Transylvania. It would be wonderful to visit, though. As a child, I spoke Hungarian as my first language and transitioned to English. I still understand some of the language, but I cannot speak it.
What do you think about Twilight and similar „young adult”-vampire movies?
Truthfully, I haven’t seen the more recent young adult vampire movies. I do keep informed about the press when these films come out, and I am pleased that with each new interpretation of the vampire, new life is breathed into my dad’s role and into the original Dracula film. All of the attention surrounding vampires in pop culture has introduced new generations to my dad and to his place in Hollywood history.
[The Hungarian version of this interview can be read by clicking here. Images courtesy of Bela Lugosi jr., except the Cinema from Lugoj and Boris Karloff on set.]