Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff

“The monster was the best friend I ever had” – Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff Biography

75-year-old Boris summed it up: ‘It is not true that I was born a monster – Hollywood made me one. That was thirty-one years ago, and I have lived accordingly ever since.

You could say his fame is sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas.   At Halloween, images of his horror characters are seen in cards and costumes, and recordings of his “monster” voice filter through sound systems hidden in makeshift haunted houses.  Then, the Christmas season arrives and with it, the annual television re-broadcast of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  The man behind the iconic monster roles and the beloved Grinch character is Boris Karloff.

Before he was the monster or the Grinch, Boris Karloff was William Henry Pratt.  William was born on November 23, 1887 in London, England.  He was the youngest of nine children born to Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah (Millard) Pratt.

William’s mother died while he was a child and he was raised by his older brothers.  It was expected that William would follow in their footsteps in the consular service.  He attended King’s College London in preparation for a consular career but dropped out in 1909, apparently not content with that career path.  He worked as a farm laborer and at odd jobs until he discovered acting, eventually migrating to Canada in hopes of building an acting career.

At some point early in his stage career in Canada, William changed his professional name to “Boris Karloff”.  There are differing stories as to how he chose that particular name but he maintained that he chose “Boris” for its exotic and foreign-sounding quality; “Karloff” was a Slavic-origin family name although this has been discounted by his daughter, Sara Karloff.

There was no overnight stardom for Boris Karloff.  He joined the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911, performing in towns in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and continued to work as a laborer in order to survive between acting jobs.  His years of difficult manual labor caused back problems, keeping him from service during World War I, and affecting him for the remainder of his life.

Karloff eventually reached Hollywood and made dozens of silent movies but had to continue his manual labor work between films.  In this first decade of Karloff’s film career, he was often cast in exotic or villainous roles. He finally began receiving recognition in his films of the early 1930s including The Criminal Code (1931), a dramatic role he had also played on stage.  Karloff appeared in a key supporting role in the 1931 film, Five Star Final, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

By 1931, Karloff had already worked for more than 20 years as an actor but achieving only modest success.  But 1931 would be his breakthrough year with a part that became his signature role.  Karloff was cast as the monster in a loosely-adapted film version of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

Karloff was not producer Carl Laemmle Jr.’s first choice for the monster.  Bela Lugosi had already been cast but his screen test in full makeup proved to be disastrous and the part was re-cast.  (A different legend has it that Lugosi turned the role down because it was a non-speaking role and he would be required to wear a considerable amount of makeup.)

The role as Frankenstein’s monster was physically difficult and exhausting.  The monster’s 4-inch platform boots weighed 11 pounds, each.  It took hours to apply the monster’s makeup.  “The makeup had this greenish tint because, in black and white film, on the screen, it would translate into a deathly gray,” according to Karloff’s daughter, Sara.

Clive Colin, the British actor cast as Dr. Frankenstein, received top billing and second billing went to Mae Clark as the bride of Dr. Frankenstein.  Boris Karloff was listed in the opening credits only as, “?”  This most likely was a studio promotion gimmick they felt safe in using with a relatively unknown actor.   According to Sara, Karloff was not even invited to the premier.

Karloff may have served a long acting apprenticeship but his role as Frankenstein’s monster launched him into stardom.  Frankenstein would quickly be followed by leads in The Mummy, The Old Dark House, and The Mask of Fu Manchu.  Karloff would also return to his role as Frankenstein’s monster in two sequels Bride of Frankenstein, and Son of Frankenstein.

Despite being versatile and leading man handsome, Karloff spent much of the next 20 years being cast as villainous characters in horror films.  He occasionally appeared in other non-horror roles including the original Scarface (1932), and the 1934 John Ford film, The Lost Patrol in which he played a religious fanatic serving as a soldier in World War I.

Karloff also spent time on the American stage – most notably parodying himself in the original 1941 Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace.  He also played Captain Hook in Peter Pan and was nominated for a Tony Award for his role in The Lark.  Karloff would spoof his horror image on radio and television broadcasts and, later in his career, hosted and acted in numerous television programs.  He returned to England in the 1950s to appear in the British TV series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, portraying a fictional crime-solving detective.

Karloff’s career had waned by the 1960s but another surprise breakthrough role brought him fresh and happy recognition.  Karloff was cast to voice the mean-spirited Grinch in the 1966 made-for-television animated film, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, based on Dr. Seuss’ popular children’s story.  An album of the story was recorded and Karloff received a Grammy Award for “Best Recording for Children”.  (Although many believe that Karloff sang the “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” that song was recorded by the voice artist, Thurl Ravenscroft.)

In private life, Boris Karloff was considered an elegant, highly intelligent, soft-spoken man, a devoted father, and a kind gentleman.   He gave generously, particularly to children’s charities.  Despite being married five times, he had only one child, Sara, by his fourth wife.

Karloff lived and worked through much of his film career in the United States.    He championed safe working conditions for actors and was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild, union member #9.  Sara said that her father’s proudest work was with the Screen Actors Guild.

Boris Karloff remained devoted to his homeland and never applied for American citizenship.  He returned to England, living his final years at his cottage, ‘Roundabout’, in the Hampshires.  He had battled arthritis and emphysema for years and finally died of pneumonia on February 2, 1969, age 81.

In 2011, the Mayor of New York City declared “Boris Karloff Weekend” and noted that 2011 was the 80th anniversary of the premier of Frankenstein, the 75th anniversary of the premier of Arsenic and Old Lace, and the 45th anniversary of the first showing of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Boris Karloff’s career was long and diverse.  He appeared on stage, film, radio, and television.  Often parodied (and self-parodying), he was graciously resigned to being stereotyped in his roles.  Karloff continues to be celebrated today as the master of the horror film and for his treasured performance as the Grinch


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