9 Classic Film Actors who Played Dracula
Say the name Dracula and who do you see? Most likely Bela Lugosi.
The Hungarian actor remains the face of Bram Stoker’s iconic character even for some who have never seen him play the role. So here’s a surprising fact that I have to remind myself of: Lugosi only played Count Dracula twice on film: First in the original 1931 Universal film, then 17 years later when he donned the cape again in the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Christopher Lee, in contrast, played Count Dracula 10 times and he remains equally memorable.
But perhaps it’s because Lugosi starred in so many horror films that we equate him with the face of Dracula. He also was in two other non-Dracula vampire films, Mark of the Vampire and The Return of the Vampire. Whatever the reason, Lugosi has owned the character since he walked on stage in the 1927 Broadway production of the play from Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderson. (Just look at the face on Halloween plates and decor and tell me it doesn’t look like Lugosi.)
Lugosi is credited with creating the makeup, style of dress and mannerisms for the stage and bringing them to the Universal films. (Stoker’s original description of his creation was of a “tall old man, clean shaven, save for a long white mustache.” For that look, see Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
There are hundreds of vampire films but a decidedly smaller number that are retellings of Dracula or use the character, not a generic creature. And while we love Bela Lugosi, let’s take a quick look at other actors who have played Dracula. This list only includes films made up to 1980, my upgraded cutoff for the classic movie genre, otherwise there would be entries on two of my favorites: Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Luke Evans in Dracula Untold (2014).
Max Shreck in Nosferatu (1922). OK, this is the only film here without Dracula in its title or as the name of the vampire. But it is a Dracula film as proven by the fact that Bram Stoker’s widow fought the production for what could have been the first case of copyright infringement. That led to an order for all copies of the film to be destroyed. Decades later, copies began to resurface, and the once-thought lost film was found. Shreck’s nightmarish portrayal of the vampire is notable for its demonic look. He’s a repulsive creature with rat-like facial features – a hideous contrast to the sensual cinematic vampires to follow. Orlock’s makeup would be replicated for the 1979 Werner Herzog remake Nosferatu: The Vampyre starring Klaus Kinski.
Carlos Villarias in Dracula (Spanish, 1931). The advent of talking pictures caused more than one adjustment for the film industry including ways to reach the foreign-language market. For some studios, including Universal, that meant making a second version of the movie in Spanish like Dracula. During the day, Tod Browning filmed the Lugosi Dracula; at night, the sets were turned over to director George Melford to make a Spanish-language version of the film. Sometimes the cast even used the same markings for actors that were used by the Browning crew. Dracula would be the most famous role for Vallarias, who was born in Spain. His portrayal was met with mixed reviews but was generally lauded. His co-star Lupito Tovar recalled in interviews how Vallarias rehearsed by himself and when he came to the set “he was absolutely marvelous … never did you need to do a second take,” she said. Tovar’s grandsons are filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz who announced earlier this year that they would co-write and direct Spanish Dracula, a film about their grandmother and the making of this film.
Christopher Lee in multiple films. Though Lugosi’s halting speech pattern and hypnotic gaze captivated audiences in 1931, it wasn’t until Hammer Films started its vampire franchise that the creature became overtly sexual. Thank the casting of the handsome, aristocratic and imposing Christopher Lee that made his Dracula both sexy and terrifying. His first of seven appearances as Count Dracula for Hammer was the 1958 film Dracula (released in the states as Horror of Dracula). His screen presence could be so intense that you could watch Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965), without realizing Lee never spoke a word. In total, Lee played the role 10 times during his illustrious career.
John Carradine in multiple films. Tall and gaunt, Carradine isn’t the typical physical idea of Dracula. But he has that hypnotic “stare down” look and that’s a big part of the character. Carradine played Dracula twice for Universal pictures in the monster mash-ups House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945); later, he was part of the campy horror WesternBilly the Kid vs. Dracula (1966).
Jack Palance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula/Dan Curtis’ Dracula (1974). Jack Palance is one scary dude and that would seem to indicate his portrayal of Dracula would be more evil than romantic. However, this adaptation of Stoker’s novel by Richard Matheson used the idea of a reincarnated love story between the Count and Lucy that would again be used in the similarly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola. Palance has the natural ability to look dangerous without doing a thing, so watching his restraint and softness in scenes with his great love is a pleasant surprise. The film is directed by Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) who previously worked with Palance in the TV movie The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1968).
Francis Lederer in The Return of Dracula (1958). Lederer was tall, dark, handsome and stoic as the Count who takes over the identity of an artist he murders and then visits his American family in his search for “freedom.” In a nice touch, Lederer wears his coat on his shoulders like a cape. The actor is from Prague, so his accent and halting speech will be reminiscent of another Dracula.
Louis Jourdan in Count Dracula (1977). This BBC miniseries is clearly a product of the ‘70s with psychedelic graphics used to increase scary moments. Jourdan puts an intriguing spin on the Count: he’s handsome, elegant and hip in his black suit, but there is a blank intensity to his face that makes him appear soulless.
Frank Langella in Dracula (1979). Like Lugosi, Langella originated his Count Dracula on Broadway in the Hamilton Deane/John L. Balderdash play. Langella said he wanted to separate himself from Lugosi and Lee in his portrayal and he succeeded: “I decided he was a highly vulnerable and erotic man, not cool and detached and with no sense of humor or humanity. I didn’t want him to appear stilted, stentorian or authoritarian as he’s often presented. I wanted to show a man who, while evil, was lonely and could fall in love,” he’s quoted in Film Review magazine (1979). His seductive and graceful portrayal made the film more of a Gothic romance than a horror film. Langella’s performance is echoed by the gorgeous yet menacing score by the great John Williams.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.