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Who Played Renfield In 1931's Dracula?

Written by Ryan Ridley and directed by Chris McKay, "Renfield" has become one of the most talked-about films of 2023 so far, albeit with a rocky production history and a somewhat underwhelming ROI on its gigantic $65 million budget. The latest film from Universal Pictures to offer a take on the studio's near-centennial vault of horror properties (commonly dubbed "Universal Monsters"), "Renfield" was originally intended as part of the non-starter "Dark Universe" of Universal Monsters flicks. The film ended up going in a very different creative direction, turning out all the better for it: If most previous cinematic iterations of Count Dracula tend to opt for a dark, somber, Gothic-esque tone, "Renfield" casts the iconic Bram Stoker creation in a humorous light.

As such, "Renfield" is largely a comedic two-hander between stars Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult, who respectively play the Transylvanian bloodsucker and his put-upon assistant, the titular R. M. Renfield. And, although Cage's larger-than-life performance as Count Dracula has inevitably become a central point of discussion among the film's nascent fanbase, it's undeniable that "Renfield" is only as fun as it is because Hoult is every bit as perfectly cast in the role of Renfield, becoming the latest and one of the most striking in a long line of actors who served as foils to the Count in the mythos' many adaptations over the years. 

Speaking of which, who was the original actor to play Renfield? Well, before Nicholas Hoult, the crazed Drac assistant was played by Dwight Frye in the 1931 Tod Browning adaptation.

Dwight Frye played Renfield in the 1931 film

Bram Stoker released "Dracula" in 1897, meaning the novel and the character were at the height of their popularity and cultural momentum just as the film medium was on its rise towards world domination. The first film to feature Dracula as a character was the 1921 Austrian silent "Dracula's Death," now a lost film, which was not actually a proper adaptation of Stoker's novel. Then there was F. W. Murnau's 1922 classic "Nosferatu," a liberal, unauthorized Dracula adaptation that changed the character names to avoid copyright infringement, and featured Alexander Granach as Knock, a composite character fusing R. M. Renfield with Mr. Hawkins.

The first actor to portray Renfield himself, however, was Dwight Frye in the 1931 Todd Browning film, which was also the first official film adaptation of "Dracula." Born in Salina, Kansas, Dwight Frye rose as a comedic theater actor on Broadway through the late 1910s and 1920s. 

But, when he made the jump to film acting, Frye also hopped on over to a different genre and casting type altogether, and became widely known as a go-to man for twisted, eccentric, vicious villain parts in horror films — largely due to the success of his performance as Renfield, which was stringently faithful to the Bram Stoker character's gnarly, bug-munching spirit. Frye would go on to have roles in several other Universal Horror films, as well as several popular proto-noirs and dark crime thrillers.