Hand color tinted photo of Boris Karloff from the 1935 movie, The Bride of Frankenstein
Boris Karloff (November 23, 1887 – February 2, 1969) was a British actor who emigrated to Canada in the 1910s. He 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 William Henry Pratt at 36 Forest Hill Road, Peckham Rye, London, England, where a blue plaque can now be seen. He was brought up in Enfield. His paternal grandmother was 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. Her maternal grandmother was of Indian origin, being from Kolkata. In 1845, Anna’s 15-year-old sister, Eliza Julia Edwards, married Edward John Pratt, a 38-year-old Anglo-Indian civil servant who had served in the Indian Navy. Eliza and Edward had a son, Edward John Pratt, Jr., who in 1887, with his wife, Eliza Sarah Millard, had a son named William Henry Pratt, who later became known as Boris Karloff. Because Pratt Sr. was an Anglo-Indian, Anna never approved of Eliza’s marriage, and her disconnection from the family was so complete that decades later, when a Pratt relative contacted her, she replied threatening suicide if he persisted.
Research for a new biography has shown the actor was not orphaned in his youth, as has always been believed. Following his mother’s death he was raised by his elder brothers and sister and attended Enfield Grammar School before moving to Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School, Northwood, and eventually King’s College London. Karloff’s first goal in life was to join the foreign service — his brother, Sir John Henry Pratt, became a distinguished British diplomat — but instead he fell into acting.
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.
Early acting career and name change
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 spent years testing the waters in North America while living in smaller towns like Kamloops, BC and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. In 1912, while appearing in a play in Regina, Saskatchewan, Karloff volunteered to be a rescue worker following a devastating tornado. He also lived in Minot, North Dakota, for a year, performing in an opera house above a hardware store.
Due to the years of difficult manual labor 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.
Career in Hollywood
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 pay the bills. 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 as heir to the horror throne of Lon Chaney, Sr.: Béla Lugosi, whose refusal to play the monster in Frankenstein made Karloff’s 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 final twist reveals 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 each actor’s 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 Comedy of Terrors, The Raven, and The Terror, the latter two directed by Roger Corman, and Die Monster Die (1965 film).
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, Karloff sings “Those Were the Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees, while Gisele MacKenzie performs 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 provided “the sounds of the Grinch” (the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung not by Karloff, but by American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft). Karloff later won a Grammy in the spoken word category after the story was released as a record.
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 lightly-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-budgeted Mexican horror films that were shot shortly before his death; all were released posthumously, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not seeing release until 1971, two years after Karloff’s death.
Other 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 also a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and was especially outspoken regarding working conditions on sets (some extremely hazardous) that actors were expected to deal with in the mid-1930s. He married six times. He had one child, a daughter, by his fifth wife.
In 1931, Boris Karloff took out insurance against premature aging from 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 the 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.