Vampires are immortal, especially if you’re judging that based on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”
Born in a novel in 1897, the character of Count Dracula is the most-portrayed literary character in film and television history (beating out another classic British figure, Sherlock Holmes), according to guinnessworldrecords.com.
Last year, NBC brought Dracula to the small screen in the form of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in a television series that was canceled after one season. Earlier this month, the film “Dracula Untold,” starring Luke Evans, arrived in theaters.
Bram Stoker’s character, who fed on the blood of others so he could live forever, is fulfilling his creator’s destiny over decades of screen time.
Here is a short list of some of the other, sometimes well-known and sometimes surprising, actors who have donned the cape and fangs since Bram Stoker’s classic novel was written 116 years ago:
The very first screen interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel, directed by German filmmaker F.W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the vampire count, very nearly never made it to the screen because of a troubled production. According to a 2007 Film Threat article, the producers of the film were using Stoker’s copyrighted novel without permission, and Stoker’s widow successfully sued to have the prints destroyed. Luckily for history (though not for Stoker’s widow), the film was already in circulation, and all the copies could not be destroyed. Thus, “Nosferatu” became a classic horror film and inspiration for generations of vampire films, and Schreck’s performance as the rat-like monster was referenced in the design of the vampire in the TV movie version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
The film adaptation most people remember, and the performance that created what most think of as the prototypical Dracula, “Dracula” (19310 was a career relaunch for silent director Tod Browning and the beginning of America’s obsession with Bela Lugosi. Turner Classic Movies writer John M. Miller points out that, although Lugosi was already successfully playing Count Dracula on stage since 1927, the producers at Universal had to be convinced that he could play the role, and Lugosi ended up accepting the part for a very low sum of $500 a week. Though his pride would cost him greater recognition in other roles (he passed on playing Frankenstein’s creature because of the makeup), he did return many years later to play Dracula again, in the horror-comedy “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Lon Chaney Jr.
It seems only fitting that Lon Chaney Jr. (born Creighton Tull Chaney), son of the silent screen’s most famous monster actor (his father played the lead roles in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Phantom of the Opera”), would grow up to play a series of monsters himself. After a run of small or uncredited roles in the 1930s, Chaney found success playing Lawrence Talbot, the cursed main character in “The Wolf Man.” The success of the film, coupled with Chaney’s famous father, led to a fruitful relationship with Universal in their horror films, with Chaney being the only man in history to play all four of the big Universal monsters: Frankenstein (“The Ghost of Frankenstein”), Dracula (“Son of Dracula”), The Mummy (“The Mummy’s Tomb”) and The Wolf Man (“The Wolf Man”). Though his career would be plagued with stories of his well-known alcohol problems, Chaney left a legacy that has still not been matched.
Beloved film actor and father of a Hollywood family legacy that spawned sons David, Keith and Robert Carradine, John Carradine’s career began in the 1930s. His thin, tall frame and unique voice got him noticed, and he began appearing in small roles in Universal horror films like “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man” before stepping in as Dracula after Lugosi and Chaney Jr. in the crossover horror film “House of Frankenstein.” He played Dracula for Universal again one year later in 1945 in “House of Dracula,” and would play the role once on television. However, in what might be the strangest film on the list, Carradine also played Dracula in the weird horror-western hybrid “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” Second only to Christopher Lee in the number of times he has played Dracula onscreen, Carradine has the distinction of also appearing in several John Ford films such as “Stagecoach” and “Grapes of Wrath.”
Though Lugosi will be the most well-remembered of all the screen Draculas, there is no doubt that British actor Christopher Lee holds the record for the most times a single actor has portrayed the character. From his first appearance in Hammer Studios’ “Horror of Dracula” in 1958, Lee went on to play the character an astounding seven more times for the studio, from 1966’s “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” to the final nail in the coffin, 1973’s “The Satanic Rites of Dracula.” As if that weren’t enough, he also snuck off to make a version of the original “Dracula” with Spanish director Jesus Franco in 1970, the year when he played Dracula four times (including two Hammer films and a cameo appearance in the comedy “One More Time,” directed by Jerry Lewis). With steely eyes and a booming voice, Lee was the perfect reinvention of Dracula for the 1960s. Still working today with fans of his Dracula films such as Tim Burton and Peter Jackson, Lee is second only to Lon Chaney Jr. when it comes to playing the icons: he played Frankenstein and The Mummy for Hammer Studios as well.
Following in the footsteps of Lugosi, Frank Langella was coming off a successful and Tony-nominated performance as Dracula onstage when he played the lead role in director John Badham’s 1979 film. In a year that would see several vampires onscreen (including Klaus Kinski in the remake of “Nosferatu” and George Hamilton in “Love at First Bite”), Langella’s intense and quiet performance was lost at the time and has unfortunately not been much remembered historically (though Langella himself would go on to an excellent career and an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of President Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”).
Probably the least known of the actors on this list, Geordie Johnson played Dracula (and his alias, Alexander Lucard) on the short-lived television series “Dracula: the Series.” Only running for one season, the series quickly fell into a typical rhythm of Dracula hatching some fiendish plot and the four lead characters finding a way to defeat him. A staple of Canadian television (including appearances on “Largo Winch,” “Starhunter” and the recent “Durham County”), Geordie Johnson has had a resurgence of late, appearing as Norbert Morehouse in the BBC America series “Copper.”
For a director as brazen, shocking and full of ideas as Francis Ford Coppola, it makes perfect sense that Gary Oldman, known at the time for his edgy and striking performances in “JFK” and “Sid and Nancy,” would be the director’s choice as the melancholy count. A performance with intensity and bluster perfectly matching the gothic drama and excess of Coppola’s vision, Oldman’s work as both the young and old versions of the count (this film is one of the rare times when the story element of aging from lack of blood has been used in film) raised his profile in Hollywood and assured him a career in big-budget blockbusters, from “The Professional” and “Hannibal” to all three of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” films. The film was a commercial success and won three Academy Awards for costume design, makeup and sound effects editing.
Before he was showing off his singing ability in “Phantom of the Opera” or his muscles in “300,” Gerard Butler played a reinvented version of Dracula in “Dracula 2000,” an entry into the post-”Scream” horror film boom. Directed by Patrick Lussier (who also directed this film’s two sequels and the remake of “My Bloody Valentine”), Butler plays an interesting Dracula whose ancient origins tie surprisingly into a well-known biblical story. Though he only played Dracula once, Butler is also of note for having appeared in Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy’s “Tale of the Mummy” with fellow Dracula actor Christopher Lee.
(Chris Vander Kaay is a screenwriter and author who lives in central Florida with his wife and co-writer, Kathleen. They write for smartdoglovespopculture.blogspot.com.)