Along with fellow actors Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, Boris Karloff is recognized as one of the true icons of horror cinema, and the actor most closely identified with the general public's perception of the "monster" from the classic Mary Shelley book, "Frankenstein". William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, in Camberwell, London, England, the son of Edward John Pratt Jr., the Deputy Commissioner of Customs Salt and Opium, Northern Division, Indian Salt Revenue Service, and his third wife, Eliza Sarah Millard.
He was educated at London University in anticipation that he would pursue a diplomatic career; however, he emigrated to Canada in 1909 and joined a touring company based out of Ontario and adopted the stage name of "Boris Karloff." He toured back and forth across the USA for over ten years in a variety of low-budget theater shows and eventually ended up in Hollywood with very little money to his name. Needing cash to support himself, Karloff secured occasional acting work in the fledgling silent film industry in such pictures as The Deadlier Sex (1920), Omar the Tentmaker (1922), Dynamite Dan (1924) and Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), in addition to a handful of serials (the majority of which sadly haven't survived). Karloff supplemented his meager film income by working as a truck driver in Los Angeles, which allowed him enough time off to continue to pursue acting roles.
His big break came in 1931 when he was cast as "the monster" in the Universal production of Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale, one of the studio's few remaining auteur directors. The aura of mystery surrounding Karloff was highlighted in the opening credits, as he was listed as simply "?." The film was a commercial and critical success for Universal, and Karloff was instantly established as a hot property in Hollywood. He quickly appeared in several other sinister roles, including Scarface (1932) (filmed before Frankenstein (1931)), the black-humored The Old Dark House (1932), as the namesake Oriental villain of the Sax Rohmer novels in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), as undead Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy (1932) and the misguided Prof. Morlant in The Ghoul (1933). He thoroughly enjoyed his role as a religious fanatic in John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934), although contemporary critics described it as a textbook example of overacting.
He donned the signature make-up, neck bolts and asphalt spreader's boots again to play Frankenstein's monster in the sensational The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the less thrilling Son of Frankenstein (1939). Karloff, on loan to Fox, appeared in one of the best of the Warner Oland Chan entries, Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), before beginning his own short-lived Mr. Wong detective series. He was a wrongly condemned doctor in Devil's Island (1939), shaven-headed executioner "Mord the Merciless" in Tower of London (1939), another misguided scientist in The Ape (1940), a crazed scientist surrounded by monsters, vampires and werewolves in House of Frankenstein (1944), a murderous cabman in The Body Snatcher (1945) and a Greek general fighting vampirism in the superb atmospheric Val Lewton thriller Isle of the Dead (1945).
While Karloff continued appearing in a plethora of films, many of them were not up to the standards of his previous efforts, including appearances in two of the hokey Bud Abbott and Lou Costello monster movies (he had appeared with them in an earlier superior effort, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), which theater owners often added his name to the marquee), the low point of the Universal-International horror movie cycle. During the 1950s he was a regular guest on many high-profile TV shows including "The Buick-Berle Show" (1948), "Tales of Tomorrow" (1951), "The Veil" (1958), "The Donald O'Connor Show" (1954), "The Red Skelton Hour" (1951) and "The Dinah Shore Chevy Show" (1956), to name but a few, and he appeared in a mixed bag of films including Sabaka (1954) and Voodoo Island (1957). On Broadway he appeared as the murderous Brewster brother in the hit, "Arsenic and Old Lace" (his role, or the absence of him in it, was amusingly parodied in the film version) and a decade later he enjoyed a long run in "Peter Pan," perfectly cast as "Captain Hook."
His career experienced something of a revival in the 1960s thanks to hosting the TV anthology series "Thriller" (1960) and indie director Roger Corman, with Karloff contributing wonderful performances in The Raven (1963), The Terror (1963), the ultra-eerie Black Sabbath (1963) and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired Die, Monster, Die! (1965). Karloff's last great role was as an aging horror movie star confronting a modern-day sniper in the Peter Bogdanovich film Targets (1968). His TV career was capped off by achieving Christmas immortality as the narrator of Chuck Jones's perennial animated favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) (TV). Three low-budget Mexican-produced horror films starring an ailing Karloff were released in the two years after his death; however, they do no justice to this great actor. In retrospect, he never took himself too seriously as an actor and had a tendency to downplay his acting accomplishments. Renowned as a refined, kind and warm-hearted gentleman, with a sincere affection for children and their welfare, Karloff passed away on February 2, 1969 from emphysema. He was cremated at Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, England, where he is commemorated by a plaque in Plot 2 of the Garden of Remembrance.
|Evelyn Hope||(11 April 1946 - 2 February 1969) (his death)|
|Dorothy Stine||(12 April 1930 - 10 April 1946) (divorced) 1 child|
|Helene Vivian Soule||(3 February 1924 - 6 June 1928) (divorced)|
|Montana Laurena Williams||(1920 - 1922) (divorced)|
|Grace Harding||(23 February 1910 - 8 January 1913) (divorced)|
Slight lisp to his voice
Deep smooth voice
Often played imposing, sinister villains
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 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.
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.
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 The 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.
Karlff was one of the twelve original founders of the Screen Actor's Guild and held SAG #9.
Karloff got the role in "The Criminal Code," a breakthrough role for him because he was broke. He couldn't go to the Masquers because he couldn't pay his dues and couldn't afford his second choice, a cup of coffee, so he went to Actors' Equity, where he learned that there was casting for the part.
Karloff was considered such an anonymous actor by Universal that he wasn't invited to the Dec. 6, 1931 premiere of "Frankenstein.".
Domestic partner of Olive de Wilton (1916-1919).
His performance as ''Frankenstein'' was an inspiration for the Marvel comics character The Incredible Hulk.
[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.
My leg in a steel brace... operating with only half a lung... why, it's a public scandal that I'm still around1 But as long as the people want me, I feel an obligation to go on performing. After all, every time I act I provide employment for a fleet of doubles.
I am a very lucky man. Here I am in my 80th year, and I am still able to earn my bread and butter at my profession. I am one of that very small family of the human race who happens to thoroughly enjoy his work. If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't go on.
[on Jack P. Pierce] The best make-up man in the world. I owe him a lot.
Most actors, you know, come out here with contracts from New York. They have gone through their hardships back East, and once in Hollywood, everything is easy on them. But I can remember standing outside little one-arm restaurants along Hollywood Boulevard and wishing I had an extra dime - for a couple of doughnuts to go with my coffee.
Horror means something revolting. Anybody can show you a pailful of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach - but merely to make your hair stand on end.
Certainly I was typed. But what is typing. It is a trademark, a means by which the public recognizes you. Actors work all their lives to achieve that. I got mine with just one picture. It was a blessing.
|The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)||$12,500|
|Voodoo Island (1957)||$25,000|
|The Haunted Strangler (1958)||$27,500|
|Frankenstein - 1970 (1958)||$25,000|
|Corridors of Blood (1958)||$37,500|
|The Raven (1963)||$30,000|
|The Sorcerers (1967)||£11,000|
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