In his last great performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s debut film Targets (1968), Boris Karloff plays the aged and exasperated horror legend Byron Orlok. In a single line he sums up his entire career, at least as viewed by the public: “Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream.” As with Gloria Swanson’s unforgettable portrayal of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), it is tempting to project too much of the real Karloff onto his onscreen counterpart. The broad strokes are similar enough, but the true man is far more complex and enigmatic. Boris Karloff was an intensely private man who shunned the spotlight as much as he could, often refusing to discuss difficulties of his past even with close friends and family. The story of his early days has been pieced together (sometimes with contradictions) by researchers and biographers, but elements of the man remain a mystery, which only adds to his mythic status as one of horror’s greatest icons.
William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, the last of nine children of Edward John Pratt and his wife Eliza. Known as Billy, he had an often-disrupted childhood as his father was seldom present and his mother was in poor health, dying in 1893 when Billy was five. Following her death, in 1894 or 95, Edward left his family behind and Billy never saw him again. His older brothers were hard at work preparing to join the British consular service and work abroad. Being of British and East Indian descent, the Pratts stood out because of their dark complexions and were often bullied by peers. As Billy grew older, he hid his ancestry to avoid discrimination even at the heights of his fame years later. Billy attended several boarding schools, on a path to follow his brothers into the consular service, which held no interest for him. At these schools, he did develop a love of sports, especially cricket, which would stay with him for the rest of his life. Also in these early days, he caught the acting bug when he was cast as the Demon King in a children’s performance of Cinderella. While attending King’s College in London in his late teens and early twenties, Billy spent much of his time attending theatrical performances rather than focusing on his studies.
Around his 21st birthday, William Pratt decided to deliberately fail his consular service exams and emigrate to Canada using a small inheritance from his mother. In May of 1909, he landed in Montreal and slowly worked his way across the country doing odd jobs to survive, many of which involved backbreaking manual labor on farms and construction sites. Eventually he reached Vancouver and joined a small stock company, and then another. On the train to join the Jean Russel Players, William Pratt decided that his name was not suitable for an actor and chose the name Karloff, believing it was a family name on his mother’s side, and pulled Boris “out of the air,” as he would later say, because it sounded good with it. During his days in stock companies, Karloff became skilled at a number of things including memorizing entire plays, acquiring suits inexpensively when they went unclaimed and cleaners, and frying eggs on a travelling iron. He would stretch cans of mulligatawny soup into two meals by separating the meat from the vegetables, also using the travelling iron to boil them. It was a challenging existence, but he became lean and strong and learned his craft by performing a variety of roles on various stages throughout the country.
Just before leaving Canada, Karloff is believed to have married Olive de Wilton, but as was the case with his early marriages, it did not last long, and the marriage was not known to the public (or anybody) for quite some time. On October 12, 1913, Karloff entered the United States for the first time at the North Dakota border and travelled with various stock companies around the country before eventually making his way to Los Angeles. Unable to get much stage work at the time, Karloff sought employment as an extra in the newly burgeoning film industry. Just as he was beginning to work in films, he married his second wife Laurena “Montana” Williams, but the marriage was brief, only lasting a couple years at most. His film roles grew slowly over the course of more than a decade from extra to bit player to supporting player. As had been the case during his years touring with stage companies, he turned to odd jobs when acting work could not be found. During a lull in film production in 1923 and 24, Karloff took a job that involved hauling 100-pound bags of concrete on his back. He held this job of loading and driving trucks for 18 months, which likely led to the chronic back problems he struggled with the rest of his life. He married for a third time in early 1924 to Helene Vivian Soule, but once again the marriage was short lived.
Though unlucky in love, Karloff was sure that his fortunes in the film world would soon turn. During these lean early years in movies, Karloff had a chance meeting with one of the greatest actors of the age, Lon Chaney, to whom he was often later compared. Though never truly friends, Chaney did offer advice and encouragement to the struggling actor including “find something no one else can or will do and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality.” It was advice that Karloff took to heart and in a few years’ time would put to good use. Few of the silent films Karloff made are of much note with the exception of The Bells (1926) opposite Lionel Barrymore. In it he plays a sinister mesmerist in the mold of Dr. Caligari, and it serves as something of a precursor to his horror roles to come. Unfortunately, The Bells failed to set his career alight and it was several more years before the industry and the public began to take notice. He did, however, finally become lucky in love when he met Dorothy Stine, a librarian, in 1929 and the two were married on April 12, 1930. This time the marriage was a happy union and would last for quite some time.
In 1930, during a period of unemployment, Karloff stopped by the Actor’s Equity office to see if he had any mail. The woman at the desk asked if he was working and, when he answered in the negative, told him about a part in a play and encouraged him to audition. The play was The Criminal Code, and he won the part of Galloway, a small but memorable role. The play was a success and when Howard Hawks was tapped to direct, he cast Karloff in the same role in the film version. Finally in 1931 at the age of 44, after working as a professional actor for more than twenty years and in films for twelve, he got his first really important part. The Criminal Code, released on January 3rd, was the first of eighteen films in which Karloff would appear in 1931, but by far the most consequential both for Karloff and film history, was released in late November of that year, and struck the world like a bolt of lightning.
Like most aspects of his career, Karloff considered his casting as Frankenstein’s creation a matter of luck. Exactly which film newly attached director James Whale (who took up the film after the departure of original director and star Robert Florey and Bela Lugosi) saw is not known. It may well have been The Criminal Code or rushes from The Graft which was currently in production when Karloff received word that Whale would like to meet with him to discuss the role of the monster. Both Whale and makeup man Jack Pierce were fascinated by Karloff’s face and Pierce worked with the actor for three weeks to develop the makeup for a screen test. Karloff was not officially cast until the test was approved by production head Carl Laemmle, Jr. not long before the start of shooting. In Frankenstein, Karloff did something that had never been seen on film before—he created a sympathetic monster. After appearing in some eighty films, Karloff became an overnight sensation. His childlike qualities as the creature, especially his awkward innocence, made him particularly popular among children. Karloff later noted that these young viewers “could see right through the makeup and could see the tragedy of this poor figure, and express great compassion for him.”
With the success of Frankenstein, Karloff finally achieved the ambition he had been seeking up to that point for his film career and was signed to a star contract with Universal. In 1932, he shuffled between fulfilling commitments to other studios and Universal’s various attempts at capitalizing upon their new horror star. In April of that year, he began shooting what he was assured would be his first starring role in James Whale’s follow-up to Frankenstein, The Old Dark House. As great as the movie is, Karloff’s mute butler character, Morgan, is a supporting role and generally overshadowed by the quirky characters that inhabit this early horror/comedy, especially those played by Ernest Thesiger and Charles Laughton. His first true starring role came in late 1932 when he played Imhotep/Ardath Bey in The Mummy. By this point, Universal was experimenting with various ways to advertise their new star, and for The Mummy, he was billed as “Karloff the Uncanny,” the first in a number of variations on his last name. The subtle, quiet dread that Karloff exuded in the film was a chance to show a different side of his abilities and the success of The Mummy proved that Frankenstein was no fluke. Boris Karloff was a bona fide horror star.
The following year brought an unusual opportunity to Karloff and his wife Dorothy as he was loaned out to a studio in England to appear in The Ghoul, the first major British horror film of the sound era. The film turned out to be a disappointing experience, both for the actor and its eventual viewers, but it was an opportunity for Karloff to reconnect with his homeland and his estranged brothers. They generally welcomed him quite warmly, but even with his new-found success, at least one brother asked when “Billy” would leave this acting nonsense behind to pursue “noble” work as the rest of them had. Upon returning to Los Angeles, Universal was keen on having him star in The Invisible Man, but its newly attached director, James Whale, did not think he was right for the role. The actor turned his attention to other pursuits. He and Dorothy were able to buy a house and begin growing a garden along with a veritable barnyard of animals. Karloff also became a charter member of the Hollywood Cricket Club and played every Sunday for many years. Ever the sportsman, he also enjoyed field hockey and tennis until his increasing arthritis prohibited his ability to play. Of all his pursuits during this time, one stands above them all as one of his proudest accomplishments.
In May of 1933, he was approached by a friend and fellow actor, Kenneth Thomson, about forming a stronger actor’s union than the current Actor’s Equity Association. Though the golden age of Hollywood is often called the “Dream Factory,” by the early 30s, conditions on sets had become nightmarish for many. Karloff had experienced extremely difficult conditions on Frankenstein, working in the blistering summer heat under heavy makeup and costume for long hours. One day on the film, Karloff worked 25 hours straight, and was forced by a vindictive James Whale, to carry Colin Clive on his back up a hill over and over, causing excruciating pain to his back. By the end of the 35-day shoot, Karloff had shed an incredible 25 pounds off his already thin frame. Karloff and a small, but steadily growing group met weekly in secret to “set the skeleton of an organization for film actors with a constitution and the machinery for making it work,” Karloff later wrote, putting their careers on the line in the process. On June 30th, articles of incorporation for the Screen Actor’s Guild were filed and Karloff officially joined the organization he helped found on July 19th. By the end of 1933, the ranks of SAG had grown exponentially and the relative unknowns on the board resigned so that better known stars including Eddie Cantor, Adolphe Menjou, Fredric March, Ann Harding, and Groucho Marx could take their positions. Karloff was personally responsible for recruiting many to the Guild’s ranks, the most consequential of which in those early days was James Cagney.
Also in 1933, Karloff walked out on his contract with Universal when the struggling studio cut his pay rather than increasing it as promised. As a freelance actor, he chose roles that were decidedly different from those he had become most associated with. Two of the most celebrated were as a religious zealot in John Ford’s The Lost Patrol and as the antagonist in the highly acclaimed The House of Rothschild. Though both were supporting roles, they gave Karloff a chance to stretch his acting talents in ways he rarely could, at least on film, before or after. It did not take long for Universal to reconsider and lure Karloff back with a lucrative offer to appear in the first of several films that would team him with their other major horror star at the time, Bela Lugosi. The two stars received similar billing for The Black Cat (1934), but as Karloff’s star rose, so did his billing and salary. Though he often had less screen time than Lugosi in this and the films that followed, The Raven (1935) and The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff was paid up to twice as much. This all led to rumors of a rivalry between the two, but according to the families of both stars, neither had a negative word to say about the other. In later years, when asked about Lugosi, Karloff usually responded, “poor Bela,” sympathizing with his former co-star’s difficult life.
1935 saw two of Karloff’s greatest performances, one well-known, the other something of a forgotten gem. His reprisal of the role of the monster in Bride of Frankenstein is rightly lauded as a landmark performance, though Karloff himself did not like that the creature was given the ability to speak. It is a continuation and deepening of the earlier portrayal, making the creature an even more sympathetic and tragic character. The other as twin brothers, one good one bad, in The Black Room is slowly being rediscovered as one of Karloff’s best. In August of 1935, SAG took notice of it and awarded Karloff an honorable mention in its best performance of the month contest. That year he also made his dramatic debut on radio, a medium that, along with its younger brother television, Karloff would find great success with in the coming years. His streak of great performances would continue into 1936 when he was loaned out to Warner Brothers to appear in The Walking Dead for director Michael Curtiz, playing a wrongfully executed man who is resurrected by a scientist. Though it has a fantastical story device at the core of its plot, the film is a powerful commentary on criminality and class in Depression-era America as well as a condemnation of the death penalty.
Unfortunately, in 1936, a number of factors worked against horror films and, by extension, Karloff’s ability to get film work. The Catholic Legion of Decency strongly opposed horror films and Britain essentially banned them outright. This coupled with the fact that the Laemmle’s lost Universal Studios that year meant that horror films were simply no longer being made for a time. Karloff’s film output was cut considerably and was generally relegated to B-pictures. This changed in 1938 when an enterprising theater owner programmed a triple bill of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein, and King Kong (1933) to smashing success, proving that there was still an appetite for horror in America. This success sparked a new wave of Universal monster movies under the studio’s new leadership beginning with Son of Frankenstein (1939) which reteamed Karloff with Lugosi with another of the studio’s stars, Basil Rathbone. During the making of the film, Karloff’s life was changed forever with the birth of his daughter Sara Jane, born on his 51st birthday, November 23, 1938.
Throughout 1939 and into the early 40s, Karloff was often relegated to playing very similar mad scientist roles in a number of movies for Universal and Columbia. The Man They Could Not Hang (1939), Before I Hang (1940), The Ape (1940), and The Devil Commands (1941) are entertaining enough but did not provide Karloff with much professional satisfaction. Two events occurred which changed all that. The first of these was that Broadway came calling. At first the actor balked at the idea, feeling he was not a good enough actor to star on the Great White Way. But writer Joseph Kesselring had written a great part specifically for Boris in his play Arsenic and Old Lace, so the actor agreed, and the play was a smash hit, running for over 1400 performances and lasting nearly four years. When Frank Capra sought to make the film version, about half the play’s cast was used in it, but Karloff’s contract demanded that he remain on stage for the entire run and his role was played by Raymond Massey in the film.
The second shot in the arm to Karloff’s career came from producer Val Lewton, who did not want Karloff to appear in his subtle and atmospheric horror films at first, but the studio brass at RKO forced his hand. Lewton cast Karloff in Isle of the Dead in 1944 and shooting began soon after but had to be halted when Karloff’s chronic back problems made him unable to work. After a surgery and recovery, there was time to shoot another film before the cast of Isle could be reassembled. The Body Snatcher (1945), in which Karloff played a “resurrection man” named John Gray, turned out to be one of his finest performances and brought him great acclaim. In the following years, he finished Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) before the Lewton unit folded at RKO.
By looking at a list of his films, it would appear that Karloff slowed down considerably in 1946, but he simply turned his attention elsewhere throughout the remainder of the decade and through the 1950s. This was also a time of personal upheaval as his marriage to Dorothy fell apart. Ever the private man, even his close friends and daughter Sara were surprised by these events. Sara later said, “I don’t have the faintest clue what went wrong. But at the same time, he married my stepmother the day after the divorce was final.” On April 11, 1946, Karloff married his fifth wife, Evelyn Hope Helmore, who had been a friend of the family.
Karloff found much of his film work of this period, which primarily spoofed his villainous persona as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff (1949), as little more than a way to pay the bills as he continued to pursue stage acting and a developing love for radio and a new invention, television. In 1949, Karloff began making a radio and television show of horror stories titled Starring Boris Karloff and soon began making recordings reading fairy tales for children that were very popular. He loved live television as it offered the feeling of being on stage without the commitment of long theatrical runs and appeared in a number of television movies in the early days of the medium. In 1950, he played one of his favorite roles as Captain Hook and his real-world alter ego George Darling in a Broadway production of Peter Pan.
By 1951, he and Evelyn had moved to New York to be near Broadway and, since most television studios were there at the time, take advantage of live television appearances. By the middle of the decade, he had a starring role in a series, Colonel March of Scotland Yard, and received a Tony nomination for his role as Bishop Gauchon, one of Joan of Arc’s tormentors, in The Lark. In 1959, Karloff and Evelyn moved to England, which he had always considered his true home, never taking U.S. citizenship despite living over half his life in the States by that time. Even after this relocation, he continued to travel to New York and Los Angeles to make film, stage, and television appearances. The television work he is best remembered for today is for two short-lived series: The Veil (1958) and Thriller (1960-62), for which he served as Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling-style host and appeared in a few episodes. Thriller began very much in the vein of a mystery show, much like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but quickly evolved into gothic horror. Stephen King would call it his favorite horror television series, topping The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, in his book Danse Macabre.
In the 1960s, Karloff’s film career was revived by the master of low-budget cinema at the time, Roger Corman, who cast him in his horror-comedy The Raven (1963) with Karloff’s friends Vincent Price and Peter Lorre. Corman held Karloff over to make The Terror (1963) before he had a script. The film went through several writers and directors before finally being released as an entertaining, though fairly nonsensical, film in the style of Corman’s other Poe pictures. Italian maestro Mario Bava also called upon Karloff for hosting duties and an appearance in one of the segments, “The Wurdalak,” of his great anthology film Black Sabbath, also in 1963. In 1966, legendary animator Chuck Jones, enchanted by Karloff’s voice, called upon the actor to narrate perhaps the only piece of media he ever made to eclipse Frankenstein in viewership and fame, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which quickly became one of the most beloved Christmas television specials ever made. In 1968, Karloff gave his last great performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, which also includes a great deal of footage from The Terror. The film acts as a bridge between classic and modern horror with Karloff representing “old horror” and a mad gunman representing the horrors of the modern world. Though it was not a hit at the time, Karloff was quite proud of it and delivers an energetic performance that stands alongside the Frankenstein monster and Cabman John Gray in The Body Snatcher as one of his three greatest performances. It has since become one of the most important cult films of the 1960s.
In this final decade, Karloff was suffering from painful arthritis and back ailments as well as emphysema. He would spend his time off camera in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask. But according to several who knew him in these years, when it was time for cameras to roll, he would remove the mask and leap with energy before them, usually with the aid of a cane in later appearances. Retirement was never an option for Karloff, and he continued to make film and television appearances as long as he possibly could. After shooting a series of films in Mexico, Karloff was admitted to King Edward VII Hospital in November of 1968 and passed away on February 2, 1969 at the age of 82.
Though his roles onscreen were primarily villains and monsters, Karloff was a man of great gentleness, a lover of cricket, gardening, animals, and children. He was a man with an innate sense of justice who championed the downtrodden. He was known to travel far on many occasions to play Santa Claus for disabled children in hospitals. He was personally very generous, but never public about his giving. By all accounts, he was a true gentleman and could not have been further from the monstrous roles he played. Even now, more than fifty years after his death and ninety since he first played his most famous role, Karloff continues to loom in the hearts and minds of horror fans and film fans in general throughout the world. He was “America’s Bogeyman” for nearly forty years, but to this day remains the Gentleman Monster to the world.