His best-known non-horror role is as the Grinch, as well as the narrator, in the animated television special of Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). He also had a memorable role in the original Scarface (1932). For his contribution to film and television, Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on 23 November 1887, at 36 Forest Hill Road, Camberwell, London, England. Pratt himself stated that he was born in Dulwich, which is nearby in London. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, was a British diplomat. His mother's maternal aunt was Anna Leonowens, whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I. Produced by Kevin Burns. A&E, 1999</ref> He was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable throughout his career in the film industry.
Pratt spent his childhood years in Enfield, in the County of Middlesex. He was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother's death was brought up by his elder siblings. He received his early education at Enfield Grammar School, and later at the private schools of Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors' School. After this, he attended King's College London where he took studies aimed at a career with the British Government's Consular Service. However, in 1909, he left university without graduating and drifted, departing England for Canada, where he worked as a farm labourer and did various odd itinerant jobs until happening upon acting.
He began appearing in theatrical performances in Canada, and during this period he chose the screen name "Boris Karloff". Some have theorised 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 film 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 (from Karlov – in Cyrillic, Карлов – a name found in several Slavic countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria). 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 apparently worried they felt that way. He did not reunite with his family until he returned to Britain to make The Ghoul (1933), extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his brothers jostled for position around him and happily posed for publicity photographs. After the photo was taken, Karloff’s brothers immediately started asking about getting a copy of their own of it. The story of the photo became one of Karloff’s favorites.
Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, British Columbia, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After the devastating tornado in Regina on 30 June 1912, Karloff and other performers helped with clean-up efforts. 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.
Whilst he was trying to establish his acting career, Karloff had to perform years of difficult manual labour in Canada and the U.S. in order to make ends meet. He was left with back problems from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not enlist in World War I.
During the WWI-Era, Karloff worked in various theatrical stock companies across the U.S. to hone his acting skills. Some acting companies mentioned were the Harry St. Clair Players and the Billie Bennett Touring Company. By early 1918 he was working with the Maud Amber Players in Vallejo, California, but because of the Spanish Flu outbreak in the San Francisco area and the fear of infection, the troupe was disbanded. He was able to find work with the Haggerty Repertory for a while, (according to the 1973 obituary of Joseph Paul Haggerty, he and Boris Karloff remained lifelong friends). It was also at this time that Karloff mentioned that he appeared in a crowd scene in his first film, a Frank Borzage film at Universal Studios for which he received $5. Many have tried, but the title of this film has never been discovered. Karloff himself was very lax in his attempts to remember, let alone document, his early career, and the mystery remains.
Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labour such as digging ditches or delivering construction plaster to earn a living. A number of his early major roles were in film serials, such as The Masked Rider (1919), in Chapter 2 of which he can be glimpsed onscreen for the first time, The Hope Diamond Mystery (1920) and King of the Wild (1930). In these early roles, he was often cast as an exotic Arabian or Indian villain. A key film which brought Karloff recognition was The Criminal Code (1931), a prison drama in which he reprised a dramatic part he had played on stage. Another significant role in the autumn of 1931 saw Karloff play a key supporting part as an unethical newspaper reporter in Five Star Final, a film about tabloid journalism which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Karloff's role as Frankenstein's monster in Frankenstein propelled him to stardom. The bulky costume with four-inch platform boots made it an arduous role but the costume and extensive makeup produced the classic image. The costume was a job in itself for Karloff with the shoes weighing 11 pounds (5.0 kg) each. Universal Studios was quick to acquire ownership of the copyright to the makeup format for the Frankenstein monster that Jack P. Pierce had designed. A year later, Karloff played another iconic character, Imhotep in The Mummy. The Old Dark House (with Charles Laughton) and the starring role in The Mask of Fu Manchu quickly followed. These films all confirmed Karloff's new-found stardom.
The 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m) 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 First World War soldier in the 1934 John Ford epic The Lost Patrol.
Horror had become Karloff's primary genre, and he gave a string of lauded performances in 1930s Universal horror films, including several with Bela Lugosi, his main rival as heir to Lon Chaney's status as the top horror film star. Karloff reprised the role of Frankenstein's monster in two other films, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the latter also featuring Lugosi. Karloff revisited the Frankenstein mythos in several later films as well, taking the starring role of the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), in which the monster was played by Glenn Strange. He reprised the role of the "mad scientist" in 1958's Frankenstein 1970 as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original creator. The finale reveals that the crippled Baron has given his own face (i. e., Karloff's) to the monster.
Between 1938 and 1940, Karloff appeared in five films for Monogram Pictures. Directed by William Nigh, Karloff portrayed character James Lee Wong, a Chinese detective. More commonly referred to as Mr. Wong, Karloff's portrayal of the character is an example of Hollywood's use of yellowface and its portrayal of East Asians in the earlier half of the 20th century.
Karloff appeared at a celebrity baseball game as Frankenstein's 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 Frankenstein monster make-up, but it was deleted from the finished film. However, Karloff still appeared in that film in a brief but starring role as Dr. Hollingshead. Karloff donned the monster make-up for the last time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, which also featured Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.
While the long, creative partnership between Karloff and Bela Lugosi never led to a close friendship, it produced some of the actors' most revered and enduring productions, beginning with The Black Cat (1934). 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) as the murderous henchman of King Richard III, and with Margaret Lindsay in British Intelligence (1940). In 1944, he underwent a spinal operation to relieve his chronic arthritic condition.
From 1945 to 1946, he 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 last installment in which he appeared—House of Frankenstein—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 programmes, 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. In 1949, he was the host and star of Starring Boris Karloff, a radio and television anthology series for the ABC broadcasting network.
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 in a 1955 installment of the anthology series The Best of Broadway, and with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Somewhat less successful was his work in J. B. Priestley's 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 reprised on Hallmark Hall of Fame.
In later years, he hosted and acted in a number of television series, most notably Thriller, Out Of This World, and The Veil, but the last of these was never actually 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 cult film The Terror, the latter two directed by Roger Corman, and Die, Monster, Die! He also starred in Michael Reeves's second feature film, The Sorcerers, in 1966.
During the 1950s, he appeared on British television 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.
Karloff, along with H. V. Kaltenborn, was a regular panelist on the NBC game show, Who Said That? which aired between 1948 and 1955. Later, as a guest on NBC's The Gisele MacKenzie Show, 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 "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 character. That same year, he also played an Indian Maharajah on the installment of the adventure series The Wild Wild West titled "The Night of the Golden Cobra". In 1967, he played an eccentric Spanish professor who believes himself to be Don Quixote in a whimsical episode of I Spy titled "Mainly on the Plains."
In the mid-1960s, he 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 the American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft. The film was first broadcast on CBS-TV in 1966. Karloff later received a Grammy Award for "Best Recording For Children" after the story was released as a record. Because Ravenscroft (who never met Karloff in the course of their work on the show) was uncredited for his contribution to How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, his performance of the song was often mistakenly attributed to Karloff.
In 1968, he starred in Targets, a film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, featuring two separate stories that converge into one. In one, a disturbed young man kills his family, then embarks on a killing spree. In the other, a famous horror-film actor contemplates then confirms his retirement, agreeing to one last appearance at a drive-in cinema. Karloff starred as the retired horror film actor, Byron Orlok, a thinly disguised version of himself; Orlok was facing an end of life crisis, which he resolved through a confrontation with the gunman at the drive-in cinema.
In 1968, he played occult expert Professor Marsh in a British production titled The Crimson Cult (Curse of the Crimson Altar), which was the last Karloff film to be released during his lifetime.
He ended his career by appearing in four low-budget Mexican horror films: The Snake People, The Incredible Invasion, Fear Chamber, and House of Evil. This was a package deal with Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara. Karloff's scenes were directed by Jack Hill and shot back-to-back in Los Angeles in the spring of 1968. The films were then completed in Mexico. All four were released posthumously, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not released until 1971, two years after Karloff's death.
Cauldron of Blood, shot in Spain in 1967 and co-starring Viveca Lindfors, was also released after Karloff's death.
While shooting his final films, Karloff suffered from emphysema. Only half of one lung was still functioning and he required oxygen between takes.
He recorded the title role of Shakespeare's Cymbeline for the Shakespeare Recording Society (Caedmon Audio). The recording was originally released in 1962. A download of his performance is available from audible.com. He is also recorded the narration for Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Mario Rossi.
Records he made for the children's market included Three Little Pigs and Other Fairy Stories, Tales of the Frightened (volume 1 and 2), 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.
He edited several horror anthologies, commencing with Tales of Terror (Cleveland and NY: World Publishing Co, 1943)(compiled with the help of Edmond Speare). This wartime-published anthology went through at least five printings to September 1945. It has been reprinted recently (Orange NJ: Idea Men, 2007).
Karloff's name was also attached to And the Darkness Falls (Cleveland and NY: World Publishing Co, 1946); and The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology (London: Souvenir Press, 1965; simultaneous publication in Canada - Toronto: The Ryerson Press; US pbk reprint NY: Avon Books, 1965 retitled as Boris Karloff's Favourite Horror Stories; UK pbk reprints London: Corgi, 1969 and London: Everest, 1975, both under the original title), though it less clear whether Karloff himself actually edited these.
Tales of the Frightened (Belmont Books, 1963), though based on the recordings by Karloff of the same title, and featuring his image on the book cover, contained stories written by Michael Avallone; the second volume, Boris Karloff presents More Tales of the Frightened contained stories authored by Robert Lory. Both Avallone and Lory worked closely with Canadian editor and book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, who also ghost-edited a horror story anthology for horror film star Basil Rathbone.
Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed as Father Christmas every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital. He never legally changed his name to "Boris Karloff." He signed official documents "William H. Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff."
He was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and he was especially outspoken due to the long hours he spent in makeup while playing Frankenstein.
He married five times and had one child, daughter Sara Karloff, by his fourth wife. One marriage was in 1946 right after his divorce. At the time of his daughter's birth, he was filming Son of Frankenstein and reportedly rushed from the film set to the hospital while still in full makeup.
He spent his retirement in England at his country cottage named Roundabout in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. He contracted bronchitis in 1968 and was hospitalized at University College Hospital. He died of pneumonia at the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, in Sussex, on 2 February 1969, at the age of 81.
His body was cremated following a requested modest 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.
Four Mexican films for which Karloff shot his scenes in Los Angeles in 1968 were released over a two-year period posthumously. 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 his death; the comic lasted until the early 1980s. In 2009, Dark Horse Comics began publishing reprints of Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery in a hard-bound edition.
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. In 1998, an English heritage blue plaque was unveiled in his hometown in London.
In November 2014, Randy Bowser debuted his one-man play Karloff at the Level B Theater Pub in Salem, Oregon. Using material culled from five different Boris Karloff biographies and being granted the authorisation of daughter Sara Karloff (who attended the opening weekend of the show), Bowser crafted the play to be about more than Karloff as a monster film actor. He told the Statesman Journal, "You really don't have to be a Boris Karloff fan to enjoy the show. It's not a monster show; it's about a man."