Were Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff Friends?

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are two of the most iconic horror movie actors of all time. They appeared together in several classic Universal monster movies in the 1930s and 1940s, creating some of the most memorable on-screen moments in horror history.

However, there have long been rumors and legends of an intense rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff during their time working together at Universal Studios. Some say they despised each other and were engaged in a bitter competition for top billing and prestige. Was this actually the case, or were Lugosi and Karloff friends behind the scenes?

Were Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff Friends?

The Origins of the Rivalry Rumors

So where did the idea of a rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff come from? Several factors likely contributed to this perception over the decades:

  • Their On-Screen Personas: In movies like Dracula and Frankenstein, Lugosi and Karloff played archetypal horror figures representing good and evil. This contrast fed into an inherent sense of conflict between their screen personas.
  • Typecasting: Both actors struggled to break free of the horror typecasting that overshadowed the rest of their careers. This may have fueled resentment between them.
  • Competing for Roles: Evidence suggests Lugosi and Karloff did occasionally compete for the same roles, particularly in the early 1930s as they tried to establish themselves in Hollywood. Most famously, Lugosi turned down the role of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), a part that then catapulted Karloff to stardom.
  • Universal Marketing: When Lugosi and Karloff co-starred in films like The Black Cat (1934), Universal Studios played up the supposed rivalry in their marketing campaigns. Posters portrayed the two lurking behind each other, evoking a tense adversarial relationship.

So in many ways, Universal itself perpetuated this idea of Lugosi and Karloff as rivals competing for horror dominance. But what was the real story behind the scenes?

Debunking the Rivalry Myth

In truth, most evidence indicates Lugosi and Karloff were on generally good terms as colleagues and professionals. Here are some key facts that debunk the notion of a heated feud between the two horror icons:

They Publicly Praised Each Other

Far from denigrating each other in interviews of the period, Lugosi and Karloff expressed mutual admiration and recognition of each other’s talents.

For example, in a 1933 newspaper profile, Karloff applauded Lugosi’s unique performance as Dracula, saying: “He is the only actor I have ever seen who could make the dreadful silence of the tomb seem uncanny.”

In turn, when asked if he felt competitive with Karloff, Lugosi remarked: “He makes Frankenstein, I make Dracula. Why should we compete? Each character is entirely different.”

They Worked Well Together on Set

If Lugosi and Karloff harbored an intense dislike and rivalry toward each other, it did not affect their ability to collaborate professionally.

Director Edgar G. Ulmer, who worked with both actors on The Black Cat, commented: “The two got along famously. They were actors, professionals at their craft.”

Their on-screen work exhibited no signs of personal animosity, only immersive performances that benefitted the films overall.

They Socialized Outside of Work

Beyond simply maintaining a cordial working relationship, evidence suggests Lugosi and Karloff sometimes socialized casually off-set as well.

Karloff’s daughter Sara has recalled: “He enjoyed Bela’s company when they weren’t working. They used to meet up at the studio commissary, talking like old friends.”

While they may not have been the closest of companions, they shared a meal or chat as fellow colleagues without any obvious ill-will or bad blood.

Competition Was Not Uncommon in Old Hollywood

Whatever professional jealousy or competition existed between Lugosi and Karloff was likely not much different than that faced by many actors in the classic studio system era.

Typecasting was rampant, and actors frequently had to vie for limited roles that suited their established on-screen personas. An inherent sense of rivalry came with the territory back then, but did not necessarily translate to personal bitterness.

As cinema historians note, rumors of feuds and animosity were also often exaggerated by studio publicity departments to stoke interest. This conflating of on-screen “rivalries” with real-life relationships likely contributed to the mythology of Lugosi vs. Karloff.

Working Together at Universal Horror

The idea that Lugosi and Karloff were sworn enemies makes for good publicity, but becomes harder to believe when examining their long collaborative history together at Universal Pictures during the 1930s and ’40s:

The Black Cat (1934)

This Edgar G. Ulmer film was the first time Lugosi and Karloff shared significant screen time together. Despite later rumours of rivalry, their work together was professional and effective, with no reports of on-set troubles.

With Karloff cast as the villain Poelzig and Lugosi as the vengeance-driven Dr. Vitus Verdegast, The Black Cat offered roles that played well to each actor’s strengths. Audiences responded enthusiastically to seeing these two horror icons act opposite each other for the first time.

Gift of Gab (1934)

In a rare chance to break out of horror typecasting, Lugosi and Karloff played a pair of gangsters in this crime comedy. They apparently enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate in a different genre and play against type.

The Raven (1935)

Reunited in a more directly horror-based project, Lugosi and Karloff starred as feuding doctors (Dr. Vollin and Dr. Thorkel) in this well-received Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. While tense and adversarial on screen, behind the scenes the actors seemed to get along fine even in an ambitious pairing that required much interaction between them.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

In what would be their last collaboration in a feature film, Lugosi took on the role of the sinister Ygor while Karloff returned for the final time as the Monster. By all accounts, the two stars were able to work well together despite heavy makeup and costumes that made communication difficult.

Through these and other shared film roles, Lugosi and Karloff demonstrated time and again that any rivalry between them was mostly fictional hype. As professionals, they appeared capable of putting aside personal differences, if any even existed, to get the job done.

Were They Actually Friends?

Clearly Lugosi and Karloff were not outright enemies engaged in bitter feuding as sometimes depicted. But does that mean they considered each other friends?

The reality seems to be that they had a relationship of mutual respect as colleagues in the same field, rather than a profoundly close personal friendship. They didn’t socially interact much outside of work hours, but they didn’t harbor ill-will toward each other either.

Director Arthur Lubin, who helmed both actors in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), summed it up best when he said:

“Lugosi and Karloff were not really close friends, but they were always gentlemen with each other. They understood they were both part of something special, with a shared legacy in Hollywood horror.”

Key factors that point to a courteous but somewhat distant rapport between the two stars include:

  • Different Personal Lives: Lugosi was known for living flamboyantly and partying in his free time, while Karloff enjoyed quieter hobbies like gardening. Their lifestyles outside work didn’t naturally overlap much.
  • Age Difference: Lugosi was over 20 years older than Karloff, so they were at quite different stages of life even during their Universal horror heyday. This contributed to a semblance of seniority and respect from Karloff’s side, more so than chummy friendship.
  • Rival Studios: By the 1940s, Lugosi and Karloff were often working for competing studios rather than frequently crossing paths at Universal. This reduced opportunities for casual social interaction on the job.

So while Lugosi and Karloff always spoke highly of one another in public and cooperated successfully on projects, they don’t seem to have become drinking buddies or gotten together for game nights. Mutual professional respect appears more accurate than close friendship when describing their nuanced relationship over the decades.

Conclusion: Horror Icons, Not Sworn Enemies

In the end, it’s clear the legendary “rivalry” between Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff was exaggerated by hype and rumors more than grounded in reality. Far from detesting each other, they recognized one another’s contributions to horror cinema and collaborated numerous times to effectively bring icons like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and other classic characters to life on the screen.

Off-screen, did they consider each other dear personal friends? Perhaps not in the deepest sense, but they also were far from hated adversaries as portrayed in some sensationalized accounts. They had cordial relations as veteran professionals in a tough business, supporting a shared horror legacy that benefitted them both and entertained the world.

While Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff may not have been joined at the hip, when they appeared on screen together they used their contrasting presence and acting styles to complement each other effectively. This allowed them to create unforgettable horror cinema moments in films that continue to inspire the popular imagination generations later.

About The Author

Scroll to Top