Prem Chopra, the third of six children of Ranbirlal and Rooprani Chopra, a Punjabi Hindu family, was born on 23 September 1935, in Lahore. After the partition of India, his family moved to Shimla, where he was brought up. His father desired that Prem be a doctor or an Indian Administrative Services officer.
Prem Chopra completed his schooling and college from Shimla after his father, who was a government servant, got transferred there. He graduated from Punjab University. He took part in college dramatics enthusiastically. At his father's insistence, he completed his graduation and then went to Mumbai. Soon after he made his debut film, his mother was diagnosed with mouth cancer and she died, leaving his then nine-year-old sister Anju to be looked after by his father and his four other brothers. The brothers had given warning to their respective wives that only if their sister is happy, would they be happy and Prem considers his sister to be his first daughter. Noted writer-director Lekh Tandon brought the proposal of Uma for marriage to Prem. Uma was the younger sister of the siblings Krishna Kapoor, Prem Nath and Rajendranath. The couple have three daughters, Rakita, Punita and Prerna Chopra. Rakita is married to film publicity designer Rahul Nanda. Punita owns a pre-school called Wind Chimes in Bandra, suburban Mumbai, and is married to singer and television actor Vikas Bhalla. Prerna is married to Bollywood actor Sharman Joshi. He resides in a duplex apartment in Pali Hill, Bandra in Mumbai.
He became estranged with two of his four brothers in the late 1980s. Prem Chopra had bought a bungalow in 1980 in Delhi, which was jointly owned by him and his father, and his father and one brother used to stay there. Prem had gotten his brother a job in Delhi, and made him stay at the bungalow. But his father, a day before his death, was made to sign a will favouring one of his brothers, taking away Prem's rights to the bungalow. Later, an income tax raid happened in that same house, and his brother said in the raid that Prem had given them the bungalow, but the house still was in name of Prem Chopra. Prem had two other houses in Mumbai also, which were sold off cheaply by his other brothers without telling him, as they needed the money. His biography titled Prem Naam Hai Mera, Prem Chopra, written by his daughter Rakita Nanda, was released in April 2014.
In Shimla, Prem Chopra developed an interest in acting as he had begun to take part in many plays in his college days. Despite stiff opposition from his parents, he managed to go to Mumbai to pursue his dream of acting in Bollywood films. In his initial days he stayed at guest-houses in Colaba, Mumbai. He started visiting film studios to display his portfolio: The response was not encouraging.
To survive in the fast life of Mumbai, he took up a job with The Times of India while trying to gain a foothold in the film industry. He looked after circulation of the paper in Bengal, Orissa and Bihar and was required to tour 20 days a month. Prem used to cut his touring time by calling the agents to come and meet him at the station so that he could quickly return. This way a tour that would normally take 20 days would get completed in 12, and he would spend the rest of the time going from one studio to the other. While traveling by the suburban train one day, a stranger accosted him and asked if he was interested in joining films. Chopra nodded in agreement and went with that stranger to Ranjit Studios where the producers of Chaudhari Karnail Singh were in search of a hero. Jagjit Sethi, a Punjabi producer, gave him a break as Jabeen's hero in Chaudhary Karnail Singh, a Punjabi film. His debut film was a Hindu-Muslim romantic love story set against the backdrop of Indo-Pak partition and it turned out to be a big hit. The film even won the National award. He was paid Rs 2500 for his debut film. The movie took almost three years to complete.
During his stint with the Times of India, he worked in Punjabi films including Sapani and Hindi films such as Woh Kaun Thi?, Shaheed, Main Shaadi Karne Chala and Teesri Manzil. Prem did not consider acting as a full-time profession in the early 1960s, but he kept trying to get roles in films due to his passion for acting. Among his early films he played Sukhdev in Shaheed, one of his rare positive leading roles. Prem had done four movies before Woh Kaun Thi?, a box office hit of 1964, had released. On the sets of Woh Kaun Thi? which had Manoj Kumar as lead hero, Prem met Manoj for the first time. Manoj offered Prem a positive role in Shaheed, for which Manoj was the presenter. During the shooting of Main Shadi Karne Chala someone suggested that he become a villain. He continued working with ToI, when he was already a part of box office hits like Nishan, Sikandar E Azam in 1965 and Sagaai, Mera Saaya in 1966. After Teesri Manzil and Upkaar, he was flooded with films as a villain.
After Upkaar in 1967, he left The Times of India to concentrate solely on acting.
Since 1967, he has been a leading villain in Hindi films and his peak period as main villain was from 1967 to 1994. In the 1970s he got plum roles as villains often with Amjad Khan and Ranjeet. In a few films he played secondary villain to villainous characters of Ajit, Madan Puri, Pran, Jeevan in the 1970s and 1980s and to Amrish Puri and Amjad Khan in the late 1980s. In the critically acclaimed comedy film Hulchul (1971), a remake of Anubhavam Pudhumai, he played the lead hero in this suspense thriller. He played the main lead in the 1970 box office hit small budget comedy film Samaj Ko Badal Dalo as lead hero, and was paired opposite Telugu actresses Kanchana and Sarada. The song sung by Rafi and picturised on Prem Chopra - "Tum Apni Saheli Ko Itna Bata Do Ki Usse Koi Pyar Karne Laga Hai" from this 1970 film and the song "Rah Mein Kaliya" - a song sung by Kishore Kumar and performed on-screen by Prem Chopra in the film Nafrat (1973), a box office flop, continues to be popular. The dialogue " Prem naam hai mera, Prem Chopra" (My name is Prem, Prem Chopra) from the film Bobby has been very popular. Another famous Prem Chopra dialogue is from the film Souten - "Main wo bala hoon jo sheshay se pathar ko todte hai" which closely translates to "I am that trouble which crushes stones with glass". Another dialogue from Souten was - "Jinke Ghar Sheeshe Ke Hote Hain Woh Batti Bhujakar Kapde Badalte Hai". "Main jo aag lagata hoon use boojhana bhi jaanta hoon" from Kati Patang was famous as well. He was the regular in villainous roles in the films with Rajesh Khanna in the lead role from 1969 to 1991 from Doli (1969) till Ghar Parivaar (1991). The duo of Prem and Rajesh Khanna acted in 19 films together and 15 of them were box office hits, and they were very close friends in real life till Khanna's death. Prem quoted in an interview "Rajesh Khanna and I were considered a lucky pair and distributors used to tell Rajesh Khanna that we don't care who your heroine is, all we want to know is whether Prem Chopra is in the film." He also mouthed dialogues in the song "Aaj Pila Dey Saathi Apni" sung by Mahendra Kapoor from the film Doli (1969).He also mouthed dialogues in the song "Lo Mera Pyar Lelo" from Nafrat in 1973 with Asha Bhosle and "Kab Se Ye Dil Hai Pyaasa" from Mera Muqaddar in 1988.
Unlike other villains, Chopra's on-screen evil didn't rely on gizmos, his characters didn't rely on henchmen to do the dirty work and he never needed wicked names. Some of his famous dialogues from the 1990s include - "Sharafat aur imaandaari ka certificate ye duniya sirf unhe deti hai jinke paas daulat hoti hai" from Aag Ka Gola (1990), "Bhains poonch uthayegi to gaana to nahi gayegi, gobar hi degi" from Aaj Ka Arjun (1990), "Tu Madhuri se thodi kum aur Mandakini se thodi zyada hai" from Aaj Ka Goonda Raj (1992), "Rajneeti ki bhains ke liye daulat ki lathi ki zaroorat hoti hai" from Khiladi (1992), "Kar bhala to ho bhala" from Raja Babu (1994) and "Nanga nahayega kya aur nichodega kya" from Dulhe Raja (1998).
After 1995, he appeared as a villain in very few films. He took up positive character roles from 1996 and started getting more positive roles from 2005. His screen space got reduced in the films after 2005.
He had a good career spanning 50 years and was popular for villain roles in Bollywood. Prem Chopra considers that his best roles were in Shaheed (1965), Upkaar (1967), Purab Aur Pashchim, Do Raaste (1969), Kati Patang (1970), Do Anjaane (1976), Jaadu Tona (1977), Kala Sona, Dostana (1980), Kranti (1981), Oonche Log (1985), Indira (1989), Phool Bane Angaarey (1991), Bewaffa Se Waffa and the 19 films with Rajesh Khanna. He considers that his best performances in positive roles came in Sikander-e-Azam, Kunwari, Shaheed, Jaadu Tona and Chori Chori Chupke Chupke.He disclosed in an interview that "My films with Rajesh Khanna are very special to me. Right from Doli then Do Raaste, Kati Patang, Daag, Ajnabee, Prem Nagar, Maha Chor, Mehbooba, Tyaag, Bebus, Aanchal, Jaanwar, Souten, Maqsad, Awaaz, Shatru, Oonche Log, Waapsi and Ghar Parivaar. 15 of 17 released were hits. Each of those films showed different shades of my personality in villainous role." When asked how he could continue so long in a cinematic career, he quoted "Although I came to be a hero, my films as a leading man flopped. Which was good in a way because a whole new world opened in front of me. There were so many more roles I could do. When I established myself as a villain it could continue for years."1976 - Filmfare Best Supporting Actor Award for his role in Do Anjaane
2004 - Legend of Indian Cinema Award at Atlantic City
Amongst other awards won, the Giants honoured him with the "Lifetime Achievement Award". His talent won him the Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award in 1998, and he has also been a recipient of the "Lions Club Award", "Ashoka Award", "Ashirwad Award" and the "Punjabi Kala Sangam Award."