Boris Karloff (23 November 1887 – 2 February 1969), whose real name was William Henry Pratt, was an English-born actor who emigrated to Canada in the 1910s. Karloff performed in a variety of contexts throughout his career, but is best remembered for his roles in horror films and his portrayal of Frankenstein's monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein, 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, and 1939 film Son of Frankenstein. His popularity following Frankenstein in the early 1930s was such that for a brief time he was billed simply as "Karloff" or, on some movie posters, "Karloff the Uncanny".
Karloff was born at 36 Forest Hill Road, East Dulwich, London, SE22, England, where a blue plaque can now be seen. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His paternal grandparents were Edward John Pratt, an Anglo-Indian, and Eliza Julia (Edwards) Pratt, a sister of Anna Leonowens (whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I.) The two sisters were also of Anglo-Indian heritage.
Karloff was brought up in Enfield. He was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother's death was raised by his elder siblings. He later attended Enfield Grammar School before moving to Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood, and went on to attend King's College London where he studied to go into the consular service. He dropped out in 1909 and worked as a farm labourer and did various odd jobs until he happened into acting. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, became a distinguished British diplomat. Karloff was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable all through his career.
In 1909, Pratt travelled to Canada and some time later changed his professional name to "Boris Karloff". Some have theorized that he took the stage name from a mad scientist character in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy called "Boris Karlov". However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in silent films (Warner Oland played "Boris Karlov" in a movie version in 1931). Another possible influence was thought to be a character in the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy novel H.R.H. The Rider which features a "Prince Boris of Karlova", but as the novel was not published until 1915, the influence may be backward, that Burroughs saw Karloff in a play and adapted the name for the character. Karloff always claimed he chose the first name "Boris" because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that "Karloff" was a family name. However, his daughter Sara Karloff publicly denied any knowledge of Slavic forebears, "Karloff" or otherwise. One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family. Whether or not his brothers (all dignified members of the British foreign service) actually considered young William the "black sheep of the family" for having become an actor, Karloff himself apparently worried they did feel that way. He did not reunite with his family again until 1933, when he went back to England to make The Ghoul, extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his elder brothers jostled for position around their "baby" brother and happily posed for publicity photographs with him.
Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Co. in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, BC and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. In 1912, while at Regina, Saskatchewan, he was present for the devastating Regina Cyclone. He later took a job as a railway baggage handler and joined the Harry St. Clair Co., that performed in Minot, North Dakota, for a year, in an opera house above a hardware store.
Due to the years of difficult manual labour in Canada and the U.S. while trying to establish his acting career, he suffered back problems for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not fight in World War I.
Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labor such as digging ditches and driving a cement truck to earn a living. His role as Frankenstein's monster in Frankenstein (1931) made him a star. A year later, he played another iconic character, Imhotep, in The Mummy.
The five-foot, eleven-inch, brown-eyed Karloff played a wide variety of roles in other genres besides horror. He was memorably gunned down in a bowling alley in the 1932 film Scarface. He played a religious WWI soldier in the 1934 John Ford epic The Lost Patrol. Karloff gave a string of lauded performances in 1930s Universal horror movies, including several with his main rival for heir to Lon Chaney, Sr.'s horror throne, Béla Lugosi. Karloff was chosen over Lugosi for the role of the monster in Frankenstein, making his subsequent career possible. Karloff played Frankenstein's monster three times, the other films being Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), which also featured Lugosi. Karloff would revisit the Frankenstein mythos in film several times after leaving the role. The first would be as the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), where Karloff would be contrasted against Glenn Strange's portrayal of the Monster.
Karloff returned to the role of the "mad scientist" in 1958's Frankenstein 1970, as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original inventor. The finale reveals that the crippled Baron has given his own face (i.e., "Karloff's") to the Monster. The actor appeared at a celebrity baseball game as the Monster in 1940, hitting a gag home run and making catcher Buster Keaton fall into an acrobatic dead faint as the Monster stomped into home plate. Norman Z. McLeod filmed a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Karloff in the Monster make-up, but it was deleted. Karloff donned the headpiece and neck bolts for the final time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, but he was playing "Boris Karloff," who, within the story, was playing "the Monster."
While the long, creative partnership between Karloff and Lugosi never led to a close mutual friendship, it produced some of the actors' most revered and enduring productions, beginning with The Black Cat. Follow-ups included Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Black Friday (1940), You'll Find Out (also 1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945). During this period he also starred with Basil Rathbone in Tower of London (1939).
From 1945-1946, Karloff appeared in three films for RKO produced by Val Lewton: Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his three-picture deal with RKO, his reasons for leaving Universal Pictures and working with producer Lewton. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. The latest installment was what he called a "'monster clambake,' with everything thrown in—Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback and a 'man-beast' that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so." Berg continues, "Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul."
During this period, Karloff was also a frequent guest on radio programs, whether it was starring in Arch Oboler's Chicago-based Lights Out productions (most notably the episode "Cat Wife") or spoofing his horror image with Fred Allen or Jack Benny.
An enthusiastic performer, he returned to the Broadway stage in the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941, in which he played a homicidal gangster enraged to be frequently mistaken for Karloff. Although Frank Capra cast Raymond Massey in the 1944 film, which was shot in 1941, while Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway, Karloff reprised the role on television with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Somewhat less successful was his work in the J. B. Priestley play The Linden Tree. He also appeared as Captain Hook in the play Peter Pan with Jean Arthur. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his work opposite Julie Harris in The Lark, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh about Joan of Arc, which was also reprised on Hallmark Hall of Fame.
In later years, Karloff hosted and acted in a number of television series, most notably Thriller, Out of This World, and The Veil, the latter of which was never broadcast and only came to light in the 1990s. In the 1960s, Karloff appeared in several films for American International Pictures, including The Comedy of Terrors, The Raven, and The Terror. the latter two directed by Roger Corman, and Die, Monster, Die!. He also featured in Michael Reeves' second feature film The Sorcerers (1966).
During the 1950s Karloff appeared on British TV in the series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, in which he portrayed John Dickson Carr's fictional detective Colonel March who was known for solving apparently impossible crimes.
As a guest on The Gisele MacKenzie Show, guest star Karloff sang "Those Were the Good Old Days" from Damn Yankees, while Gisele MacKenzie performed the solo, "Give Me the Simple Life". On The Red Skelton Show, Karloff guest starred along with horror actor Vincent Price in a parody of Frankenstein, with Red Skelton as the monster "Klem Kadiddle Monster." In 1966 Karloff also appeared with Robert Vaughn and Stefanie Powers in the spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., in the episode "The Mother Muffin Affair." Karloff performed in drag as the titular Mother Muffin. That same year he also played an Indian Maharajah on the adventure series The Wild Wild West ("The Night of the Golden Cobra"). In 1967, he played an eccentric Spanish professor who thinks he's Don Quixote in a whimsical episode of I Spy ("Mainly on the Plains").
In the mid-1960s, Karloff gained a late-career surge of American popularity when he narrated the made-for-television animated film of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and also provided the voice of the Grinch, although the song, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" was sung by American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft. Karloff later received a Grammy Award in the spoken word category after the story was released as a record. (Because Ravenscroft was uncredited for his contribution to How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, his performance of the song was often mistakenly attributed to Karloff, who could not sing.)
In 1968 he starred in Targets, a movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich about a young man who embarks on a spree of killings carried out with handguns and high powered rifles. The movie starred Karloff as retired horror film actor, Byron Orlok, a thinly disguised version of himself—facing an end of life crisis, resolved through a confrontation with the shooter.
Karloff ended his career appearing in a trio of low-budget Mexican horror films that were shot shortly before his death; all were released posthumously, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not released until 1971, two years after Karloff's death.
William Henry Pratt
23 November 1887, Camberwell, London, England, UK
2 February 1969, Midhurst, Sussex, England, UK
Mary Shelley completed her writing in May 1817, and Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was first published on 1 January 1818 by the small London publishing house of Harding, Mavor & Jones. It was issued anonymously, with a preface written for Mary by Percy Bysshe Shelley and with a dedication to philosopher William Godwin, her father. It was published in an edition of just 500 copies in three volumes, the standard "triple-decker" format for 19th century first editions. The novel had been previously rejected by Percy Bysshe Shelley's publisher, Charles Ollier and by Byron's publisher John Murray.
Karloff recorded the title role of Shakespeare's Cymbeline for the Shakespeare Recording Society (Caedmon Audio). The recording was originally published in 1962. It is very rare today, although a download of it is available from audible.com.
Records Karloff made for the children's market included Three Little Pigs and Other Fairy Stories, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories and, with Cyril Ritchard and Celeste Holm, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark.
In contrast to the sinister characters he played on screen, Karloff was known in real life as a very kind gentleman who gave generously, especially to children's charities. Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital.
Karloff was genuinely superstitious - once, he refused to appear on the radio program Information Please because the episode would be broadcast on Friday the 13th.
Despite living and working in the United States for many years, Karloff never became a naturalized American citizen, and he never legally changed his name to "Boris Karloff." He signed official documents "William H. Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff."
Karloff was also a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and was especially outspoken regarding working conditions on sets that actors were expected to deal with in the mid-1930s, some of which were extremely hazardous. He married six times and had one child, a daughter, by his fifth wife.
In 1931, Boris Karloff took out insurance against premature aging that might be caused by his fright make-up.
Boris Karloff lived out his final years at his cottage, 'Roundabout,' in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. After a long battle with arthritis and emphysema, he contracted pneumonia, succumbing to it in King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex, England, on February 2, 1969. He was cremated, following a requested low-key service, at Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, where he is commemorated by a plaque in the Garden of Remembrance. A memorial service was held at St Paul's, Covent Garden (The Actors' Church), London, where there is also a plaque.
However, even death could not put an immediate halt to Karloff's media career. Four Mexican films for which Karloff shot his scenes in Los Angeles were released over a two-year period after he had died. They were dismissed, by critics and fans alike as undistinguished efforts. Also, during the run of Thriller, Karloff lent his name and likeness to a comic book for Gold Key Comics based upon the series. After Thriller was cancelled, the comic was retitled Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery. An illustrated likeness of Karloff continued to introduce each issue of this publication for nearly a decade after the real Karloff died; the comic lasted until the early 1980s.
For his contribution to film and television, Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1737 Vine Street for motion pictures, and 6664 Hollywood Boulevard for television.
Karloff was featured by the U.S. Postal Service as Frankenstein's Monster and the Mummy in its series "Classic Monster Movie Stamps" issued in September 1997.
He was the original inspiration for the first illustrations of the Incredible Hulk.
Great-nephew of Anna Leonowens.
Received a Tony nomination in 1956 for his dramatic role in 'The Lark.'
Shares a birthday with his daughter Sara Karloff.
Considered a late bloomer in Hollywood. Frankenstein (1931) premiered when he was 44 years old.
Pictured on two of a set of five 32¢ US commemorative postage stamps, issued 30 September 1997, celebrating "Famous Movie Monsters". He is shown on one stamp as the title character in The Mummy (1932) and on the other as the monster in Frankenstein (1931). Other actors honored in this set of stamps, and the classic monsters they portray, are Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera (1925); Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931); and Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man (1941).
A photograph of Karloff in his Frankenstein (1931) monster makeup appears on one stamp of a sheet of 10 USA 37¢ commemorative postage stamps, issued 25 February 2003, celebrating American Filmmaking: Behind the Scenes. The stamp, which honors makeup artists, shows Jack P. Pierce and an unidentified assistant applying the monster makeup.
In contrast to the image he presented in most of his films, the private Karloff was, by every account, a quiet, bookish man off- screen. A true gentleman, he had many friends, both in and out of show business, and he was particularly fond of children. For the latter, among other things, he recorded many successful albums of children's stories.
When told by a mutual friend that Bobby Pickett, who recorded the hit song "Monster Mash", was a big fan of his, Karloff replied, "Tell him I enjoy his record very much." Pickett still considers that the greatest compliment he's ever gotten, and Karloff eventually sang the song himself on a television special.
Suffered from chronic back trouble for most of his adult life, the result of the heavy brace he had to wear as part of his Frankenstein costume. He never let it slow him up, though, and kept active to the end of his life.
He had East Indian heritage on this father's side. This gave Karloff a dark skin tone. In several films he was cast in roles such as Arabs and American Indians.
His favorite author was Joseph Conrad. In the 1950s he was cast as Kurtz in a production of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" on "Playhouse 90" (1956).
His first Broadway play was "Arsenic and Old Lace" in a role that was written for him. He played Jonathan Brewster, whose face has been changed by a disreputable plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein so that he now looks like Boris Karloff. He also performed the role in the road company of this production.
When he traveled to England to shoot The Ghoul (1933), it was the first time in nearly 25 years that he returned to his home country and reunited with the surviving members of his family,
In the final years of his life, walking, and even just standing, became a painful ordeal. Some directors would change the script to place Karloff's character in a wheelchair, so that he would be more comfortable.
He would mark his lines in the script. Jack Nicholson saw this and adopted the procedure himself.
1956: He was a celebrity contestant on "The $64,000 Question" (1955). The category he chose was children's fairy tales. He won the $32,000 level and quit due to tax considerations.
Often thought of as a very large man, he was in reality a slim man of medium height. He wore huge lifts and much padding to give him the massive look as Frankenstein's monster.
On June 30, 1912, a then-unknown Karloff had taken some time off to canoe while touring around the city of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. When he came back to the city, he returned to find his accommodation had been destroyed by a tornado that killed 28. He organized a concert that raised some much needed funds for the city.
According to daughter Sara Karloff, he had to have three major back surgeries in his lifetime.
Refused to reprise his role as the Frankenstein Monster in Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), because he felt spoofs wouldn't sell to the audience. He did agree to do publicity for the film and posed for pictures of himself going to see the film.
Appeared in 80 films before his breakthrough role in Frankenstein (1931).
Played cricket for Enfield Cricket Club (just north of London, England) before emigrating, and the club has his picture hanging in the pavilion.
A photo of him keeping wicket while C. Aubrey Smith was batting was included in a display in the Long Room at Lord's cricket ground in 2004. The display was to celebrate Sussex (the oldest county side) winning the County Championship for the first time and the photo was included because Smith had been a captain of Sussex CCC.
When he died, the New York Times obituary featured a picture of Frankenstein's monster. Unfortunately, the image was actually Glenn Strange in full makeup, not Karloff.
During the production of Frankenstein (1931) there was some concern that seven-year-old Marilyn Harris, who played Maria, the little girl thrown into the lake by the creature, would be overly frightened by the sight of Karloff in costume and make-up when it came time to shoot the scene. When the cast was assembled to travel to the location, Marilyn ran from her car directly up to Karloff, who was in full make-up and costume, took his hand and asked "May I drive with you?" Delighted, and in typical Karloff fashion, he responded, "Would you, darling?" She then rode to the location with "The Monster.".
He celebrated his 51st birthday during the production of Son of Frankenstein (1939) and remarked that he received the best birthday present ever: the birth of his daughter Sara Karloff. He reportedly rushed from the set to the hospital in full makeup and costume.
Was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild. His daughter recounts that, due to the Hollywood studio chiefs' distrust of unions and their attempts to keep them from forming, he always carried a roll of dimes in his pocket. This was because he had to use pay phones when conducting union business, since he knew his home phone had been tapped.
Is portrayed by Jack Betts in Gods and Monsters (1998)
He is commemorated by a plaque inside St.Paul's Church (The Actors' Church), Covent Garden, London.
He was the biggest star to lend his voice to a sound effect. Universal added his anguished scream over the dead Ygor from Son of Frankenstein (1939) to its stock sound effects library and used it for subsequent films, including House of Frankenstein (1944) (the cry when Daniel the hunchback falls from the roof).
Raised rare Bedlington Terriers while he lived in Brentwood, CA. One day he was walking them with his four-year old daughter Sara Karloff when they broke free and they ran up to an inebriated man stumbling down the street. The drunk begged Karloff for a ride to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, claiming he "just saw three sheep bark!" Karloff obliged.
Although he will forever be linked to Frankenstein's Monster, Karloff actually played Frankenstein's creation only three times--once in the original Frankenstein (1931), again in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and finally in Son of Frankenstein (1939). He played Dr. Frankenstein only once, in Frankenstein - 1970 (1958).
His voice was the basis for future Tony the Tiger commercials by Kellogg's.
He was Christopher Lee's neighbor for many years.
Once did a television commercial for A-1 Steak Sauce.
Rejected by the British Army in World War 1, because of a heart murmur.
Took out his false teeth to achieve the metamorphosis in "Grip of the Strangler.".
Maintained an apartment in New York's The Dakota apartment house.
Never legally changed his name to Boris Karloff. He always signed contracts and documents as "William Henry Pratt AKA Boris Karloff".
The mad scientist character in the Bugs Bunny short Water, Water Every Hare (1952) is patterned after Boris right down to his slight lisp and heavy eyebrows.
Both of Karloff's parents died when he was still a child.
He was the youngest of eight sons.
He was raised by his older brothers and a stepsister.
His siblings pushed him toward a career in government service, but he turned to acting instead.
In his book, Mark of the Werewolf, novelist Jeffrey Sackett has a character named William Henry Pratt. The character's description fits Karloff perfectly.
[on whether he resented being typed as a "horror star"] One always hears of actors complaining of being typed - if he's young, he's typed as a juvenile; if he's handsome, he's typed as a leading man. I was lucky. Whereas bootmakers have to spend millions to establish a trademark, I was handed a trademark free of charge. When an actor gets in a position to select his own roles, he's in big trouble, for he never knows what he can do best. I'm sure I'd be damn good as little Lord Fauntleroy, but who would pay ten cents to see it?
When I was nine I played the demon king in Cinderella and it launched me on a long and happy life of being a monster.
My wife has good taste. She has seen very few of my movies.
[in 1936, on his appeal to children, who empathized with the monster] I don't really scare them any more than do Jungle Jim, Dan Dunn, Tarzan, and the other heroes of the comic sections.
You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time.
The monster was the best friend I ever had.
(On his rival, Bela Lugosi): Poor old Bela, it was a strange thing. He was really a shy, sensitive, talented man who had a fine career on the classical stage in Europe, but he made a fatal mistake. He never took the trouble to learn our language. He had real problems with his speech and difficulty interpreting lines.
My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He's my best friend.