Carradine was born in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, the son of William Reed Carradine, a correspondent for the Associated Press, and his wife, Dr. Genevieve Winnifred Richmond, a surgeon. William Carradine was the son of evangelical author Beverly Carradine. The family lived in Peekskill and Kingston, New York. William Carradine died from tuberculosis when his son John was two years old. Carradine's mother then married "a Philadelphia paper manufacturer named Peck, who thought the way to bring up someone else's boy was to beat him every day just on general principle." Carradine attended the Christ Church School in Kingston and the Episcopal Academy in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, where he developed his diction and his memory while memorizing portions of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a punishment.
Carradine's son, David, claimed his father ran away when he was 14 years old. He later returned, as he studied sculpture at Philadelphia's Graphic Arts Institute. Carradine lived with his maternal uncle, Peter Richmond, in New York City for a while, working in the film archives of the public library. David said that while still a teenager, his father went to Richmond, Virginia, to serve as an apprentice to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who created the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. He traveled for a time, supporting himself painting portraits. "If the sitter was satisfied, the price was $2.50," he once said. "It cost him nothing if he thought it was a turkey. I made as high as $10 to $15 a day." During this time, he was arrested for vagrancy. While in jail, Carradine was beaten, suffering a broken nose that did not set correctly. This contributed to "the look that would become world famous."
David Carradine said, "My dad told me that he saw a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice when he was 11 years old and decided right then what he wanted to do with his life". He made his stage debut in 1925 in New Orleans in a production of Camille and worked for a time in a New Orleans Shakespeare company. Carradine joined a tent repertory theater under the management of R. D. MaClean, who became his mentor. In 1927, he took a job escorting a shipment of bananas from Dallas, Texas, to Los Angeles, where he eventually picked up some theater work under the name of Peter Richmond, in homage to his uncle. He became friends with John Barrymore, and began working for Cecil B. DeMille as a set designer. Carradine, however, did not have the job long. "DeMille noticed the lack of Roman columns in my sketches," Carradine said. "I lasted two weeks." Once DeMille heard his baritone voice, however, he hired him to do voice-overs. Carradine said, "...the great Cecil B. DeMille saw an apparition – me – pass him by, reciting the gravedigger's lines from 'Hamlet', and he instructed me to report to him the following day." He became a member of DeMille's stock company and his voice was heard in several DeMille pictures, including The Sign of the Cross.
Carradine's first film credit was Tol'able David (1930), but he claimed to have done 70 pictures before getting billing. Carradine claimed to have tested, as an unknown – along with well-known leading men Conrad Veidt, William Courtenay, Paul Muni, and Ian Keith – for the title role in Dracula, but the historical record does not support the claim. The part eventually went to Bela Lugosi. Carradine would later play the Count in the 1940s Universal Studios Dracula sequels House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Carradine also claimed to have tested for the monster role in Frankenstein (1931), though again, no account exists other than his own that he actually did so. By 1933, he was being credited as John Peter Richmond, perhaps in honor of his friend, John Barrymore. He adopted the stage name "John Carradine" in 1935, and legally took the name as his own two years later.
By 1936, Carradine had become a member of John Ford's stock company and appeared in The Prisoner of Shark Island. In total, he made 11 pictures with Ford, including his first important role, as Preacher Casy in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which starred Henry Fonda. Other Ford films in which Carradine appeared include The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Stagecoach (1939), both with John Wayne.
He also portrayed the Biblical hero Aaron in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), and he dominated Hitler's Madman (1943) as Reinhard Heydrich.
Carradine did considerable stage work, much of which provided his only opportunity to work in a classic drama context. He toured with his own Shakespearean company in the 1940s, playing Hamlet and Macbeth. His Broadway roles included Ferdinand in a 1946 production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the Ragpicker in a 13-month run of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot, Lycus in a 15-month run of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and DeLacey in the expensive one-night flop Frankenstein in 1981. He also toured in road companies of such shows as Tobacco Road and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he was properly emaciated as the cancer-ridden Big Daddy, a part, he said, which Tennessee Williams wrote for him.
Carradine claimed to have appeared in more than 450 movies, but only 225 movies can be documented. His count is closer to fact if theatrical movies, made-for-TV movies, and television programs are included. He often played eccentric, insane, or diabolical characters, especially in the horror genre with which he had become identified as a "star" by the mid-1940s. He occasionally played a heroic role, as in The Grapes of Wrath, in which he played Casy, the ill-fated "preacher", and he occasionally played a sympathetic role, as in Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, in which he played Blake's shipmate, who escapes with him to a tropical island full of riches.
He appeared in dozens of low-budget horror films from the 1940s onwards, to finance a touring classical theatre company. He also played a small but important role in the very-high-budget comedy The Court Jester, which was at the time of its release the most expensive comedy film ever made. He sang the theme song to one film in which he appeared briefly, Red Zone Cuba. Carradine also made more than 100 acting appearances on television over a period of 39 years. His first performance on the "small screen" was on the DuMont Television Network in 1947, when he played Ebenezer Scrooge in a broadcast presentation of A Christmas Carol. His final role on television was in 1986 as Professor Alex Stottel on a revival of the classic series The Twilight Zone, in an episode segment titled "Still Life." Some examples of other television series on which he appeared include CBS's My Friend Flicka, Johnny Ringo (as The Rain Man), and Place the Face, NBC's Cimarron City as the foreboding Jared Tucker in the episode "Child of Fear" and on William Bendix's Overland Trail in the 1960 episode "The Reckoning" on ABC's Harrigan and Son, Sugarfoot, The Rebel, and The Legend of Jesse James, and on the syndicated adventure series Rescue 8 with actor Jim Davis.
Carradine also made recurring appearances as the mortician, Mr. Gateman, on the television comedy series The Munsters. He appeared as well in both of Irwin Allen's classic 1960s science-fiction television series Lost In Space and Land Of The Giants. In 1985, Carradine won a Daytime Emmy Award for his performance as an eccentric old man who lives by the railroad tracks in the Young People's Special, Umbrella Jack.
In 1982, he supplied the voice of the Great Owl in the animated feature The Secret of NIMH. Also, he played the voice of the Wizard in the Samuel Goldwyn Co. anime English-dubbed version of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. One of Carradine's final film appearances was Peggy Sue Got Married in 1986. Carradine's last released film credit was Bikini Drive-In, released years after his death.
Carradine's deep, resonant voice earned him the nickname "The Voice". He was also known as the "Bard of the Boulevard" due to his idiosyncratic habit of strolling Hollywood streets while reciting Shakespearean soliloquies, something he always denied.
Carradine was married four times. He married his first wife, Ardanelle Abigail McCool (January 25, 1911 – January 26, 1989), in 1935. She was mother of Bruce and David. John adopted Bruce, Ardanelle's son from a previous marriage. John had planned a large family, but according to the autobiography of his son David, after Ardanelle had had a series of miscarriages, Carradine discovered that she had had repeated "coat hanger" abortions, without his knowledge, which rendered her unable to carry a baby to full term. After only three years of marriage, Ardanelle Carradine filed for divorce, but the couple remained married for another five years.
They divorced in 1944, when David was seven years old. Carradine left California to avoid court action in the alimony settlement. After the couple engaged in a series of court battles involving child custody and alimony, which at one point landed Carradine in jail, David joined his father in New York City. By this time, his father had remarried. For the next few years, David was shuffled between boarding schools, foster homes, and reform school.
Carradine married Sonia Sorel (May 18, 1921 – September 24, 2004), who had appeared with him in Bluebeard (1944) immediately following his divorce from Ardanelle in 1945. Sonia, who had adopted the stage name of Sorel, was the daughter of San Francisco brewer, Henry Henius, granddaughter of biochemist Max Henius, and a great-niece of the historian Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Together, Carradine and Sonia had three sons, Christopher, Keith, and Robert. Their divorce in 1957 was followed by an acrimonious custody battle, which resulted in their sons being placed in a home for abused children as wards of the court. Keith Carradine said of the experience, "It was like being in jail. There were bars on the windows, and we were only allowed to see our parents through glass doors. It was very sad. We would stand there on either side of the glass door crying".
Eventually, Carradine won custody of the children. For the next eight years, Sonia was not permitted to see the children. Robert Carradine said that he was raised primarily by his stepmother, his father's third wife, Doris (Rich) Grimshaw, and believed her to be his mother until he was introduced to Sonia Sorel at a Christmas party when he was 14 years old. He told a journalist, "I said, 'How do you do.' Keith took me aside and said 'That's our real mother.' I didn't know what he was talking about. But he finally convinced me."
When John Carradine married Doris (Erving Rich) Grimshaw in 1957, she already had a son from a previous marriage, Dale, and a son from a later relationship, Michael, both of whom, along with Sonia Sorel's son, Michael Bowen, are sometimes counted among John Carradine's eight sons. She was a one-time studio typist who typed the script to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and who went on to play a few roles in film and television. Doris died in 1971 in a fire in her apartment in Oxnard, California. The fire was caused by a burning cigarette. She had been rescued from a similar fire just two weeks earlier. At the time of her death, Carradine and she were separated. Carradine was married a fourth time, from 1975 to 1988, to Emily Cisneros, who survived him.
Retired, Carradine suffered from painful and crippling rheumatoid arthritis, before he died from multiple organ failure at Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Milan, Italy, on November 27, 1988. Hours before he was stricken, he had climbed the 328 steep steps of Milan's Gothic cathedral, the Duomo. According to David Carradine, he had just finished a film in South Africa and was about to begin a European tour. David was with him, reading Shakespeare to him, when he succumbed to his condition. By the time David and Keith Carradine had arrived at their father's bedside, he was unable to speak. "I was told that his last words were 'Milan: What a beautiful place to die.'" David recalled, "but he never spoke to me or opened his eyes. When he died, I was holding him in my arms. I reached out and closed his eyes. It's not as easy as it is in the movies." There was a Requiem Mass for John Carradine at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church in Hollywood. Jane Fonda was among those in attendance. An Irish wake followed, and his body was later buried at sea between the California coast and Catalina Island.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, John Carradine has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6240 Hollywood Blvd. In 2003, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Four of Carradine's five sons became actors: David, Robert, Keith, and Bruce. David had a prolific career, amassing 227 movie and television credits by the time of his death in 2009. He also had a brief Broadway career and produced and directed a number of independent projects. His success often led to work for other members of his family, including his father. The two appeared together in a few films, including The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) and Boxcar Bertha (1972), which was produced by Roger Corman and directed by Martin Scorsese.
David's television series, Kung Fu, featured his father John and half-brother Robert in the episode "Dark Angel". John would appear as the same character, the Reverend Serenity Johnson, in two more episodes: "The Nature of Evil" and "Ambush". David's brothers Bruce and Keith also appeared in the series, with Keith playing David's character as a teenager for a brief period. David, Keith, and Robert appeared together in a humorous cameo on The Fall Guy, on an episode called "October the 31st" in which their father co-starred.
Robert appeared with his father in an episode of the first Twilight Zone revival television series in 1986. The episode segment titled "Still Life" featured Robert as a photographer who discovers an unusual camera and his father as a college professor who helps him discover the camera's secret.
David's daughter Calista, Robert's daughter Ever, and Keith's son Cade and daughters Martha Plimpton and Sorel are all actors. David's daughter, Kansas, rides horses in rodeos.
John's son Christopher is an architect and vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering.
The following are only a few examples of the many roles John Carradine performed on television between 1947 and 1986:My Friend Irma CBS Comedy (1952–1954) as Mr. Corday
The Twilight Zone (1959) Episode – "The Howling Man" (1960) as Brother Jerome
The Twilight Zone (1985) Episode – Still Life (1985) as Professor Stottel
The Munsters (1964–1966) as Mr. Gateman
Lost In Space (television series 1965–1968) Episode- "The Galaxy Gift" (April 26, 1967)
Night Gallery (episode: "Big Surprise/Quoth the Raven/Prof. Peabody's Last Lecture", 1971)
Kung Fu (3 episodes); As Preacher Serenity Johnson, John played opposite his son David, who was the star of the series.