Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887 in Camberwell, London, England to Edward John Pratt Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard, who was Pratt Jr.’s third wife. On his father’s side, he had some Indian heritage; this gave him his darker skin tone which led to later castings as American Indians or foreigners.
Although his mother died when he was still young, Karloff was raised by his siblings and went to King’s College, London University, in London. Karloff was the youngest of nine, so he had plenty of siblings to take care of him. His education at King’s College was meant to prepare him for a career as a diplomat; he wanted to follow his older brother into the foreign services, however with his lisp and stuttering, he ended up emigrating to Canada in 1909 instead.
Karloff began his career in vaudeville, while he was living in Ontario, Canada. It was while in Canada that he changed his name to Boris Karloff from William Henry Pratt. The origin of this name is unknown, however there are many unsubstantiated theories. Some argue that his name was taken from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, however the book was not published until 1915, six years after Karloff had begun to use the name. Others posit that the name derives from The Drums of Jeopardy, which has a character named ‘Boris Karlov’ who is a mad scientist. Karloff’s own explanation was that ‘Karloff’ was a family name and Boris sounded exciting because it seemed foreign and exotic. We will never know the exact origin, but we will never forget the name.
Karloff spent many years working to establish his acting career; during this time he traveled often around the United States for more than ten years. To supplement his income he frequently worked at manual labor jobs. This would later lead to chronic back problems throughout the rest of his life.
Eventually, Karloff landed in Hollywood and began to participate in the early silent film industry. He acted in several serials that have not survived and also had roles in early silent films, such as The Prince and Betty (1919), The Deadlier Sex (1920), The Hope Diamond Mystery (1921), Forbidden Cargo (1925), and The King of the Kongo (1929). Between 1919 and 1931 when Karloff appeared in his breakthrough role of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931), he had roles in nearly 80 films. Many of these roles were bit roles, and some of them were even uncredited.
James Whale directed Karloff in Universal’s production of Frankenstein, which told the story of Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster that he created. White added to Karloff’s mysterious persona by listing him simply as “?” in the opening credits of the film. Karloff reprised this role in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). He will be forever remembered as with the makeup and head screws that captivated audiences across the country. Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein served to establish him as a bona fide star and colleague of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr. Everyone in Hollywood immediately wanted him to star in their movies.
In 1932, the year immediately after Frankenstein was released, Karloff appeared in seven movies, most notably The Mummy (1931) as Im-ho-tep. Between 1932 and 1936, five years after Frankenstein helped Karloff breakthrough, he starred in at least twenty different movies, including his reprisal of the Monster in Bride of Frankenstein. In Son of Frankenstein, Karloff was joined by his colleague, Bela Lugosi, who played the role of Igor.
Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff shared many films together, including The Black Cat (1934), Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), You’ll Find Out (1940) and The Body Snatcher (1945).
In addition to Lugosi, Karloff also appeared with such greats of the era as Buster Keaton and Warner Oland; he joined Oland in Charlie Chan at the Opera as Gravelle, a patient who escapes from a mental hospital after a return of his memory and attempts to revenge an attempt on his life from many years earlier.
Another role that Karloff often filled was that of the mad scientist. For example, he played Dr. Laurience in The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936), Dr. Bernard Adrian in The Ape (1940), and Dr. Friedrich Hohner in The Climax (1944). His characters were often quirky and outlandish. The scientist in The Ape took to running the streets at night cloaked in an ape skin so that he can extract spinal fluid from townspeople in an attempt to cure a young woman’s polio. That is going the distance for your patient!
Karloff played spies as well. His specialty seemed to be anything that could be construed as slightly spooky or horrific. In movies such as British Intelligence (1940), he starred in the role of a spy who rendezvous with Margaret Lindsay who portrays a woman come to stay in the house that Karloff is working at as a butler.
The last specialty that Karloff seemed to cover in this phase of his movie career (through the 1940s) was that of a robber, a murderer, or a man with a secret connection to a murder. He portrayed a murderous cabbie in The Body Snatcher (1945), a robber mistakenly thought dead in Dick Tracy meets Gruesome (1947), and a sinister artist (who is a suspect but not the killer), Charles Van Druten, opposite Lucille Ball as Sandra Carpenter in Lured (1947).
While Karloff often played the villain, he also had roles as detectives, such as his role in the Mr. Wong detective movies: The Mysterious Mr. Wong (1934), Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940), and Doomed to Die (1940). In these movies he portrayed a Chinese detective, James Lee Wong, who lives in San Francisco and gets involved in several different cases. In The Fatal Hour, (also known as Mr. Wong at Headquarters in the UK) one of the last in the Wong series, Karloff investigates the murder of a police officer and nearly gets himself killed as well, while aiding his friend, Captain Street.
Karloff clearly was able to capture many different types of characters in his acting career in movies. He also acted on Broadway, spoofing himself, as Jonathan Brewster, a man who is often confused with Boris Karloff because a doctor replaced his face with that of Karloff.
When the story moved to film however, Karloff did not reprise the role; instead, it was parodied even further. Karloff was unable to play the role of Jonathan Brewster because he was still acting in the play on stage. Instead, Raymond Massey takes the role. The parody occurs because Brewster’s face has been surgically altered to look like that of Frankenstein’s monster.
Karloff also graced the television with his presence as the new medium took shape in the early 1950s. He appeared in more than 40 TV episodes during the 50s (as a decade.) Karloff guest-starred on such shows as The Milton Berle Show, The Red Skeleton Show, and The Dinah Shore Chevy Show; in shows such as these he was a regular guest.
In addition to appearing as a guest on variety shows of the times, Karloff also hosted several television series: Thriller, Out of This World, and The Veil (1958) -10 free episodes available on FMO-, which was not released to the public until the 1990s.
Thriller ran from 1960 to 1962 and boasted more than 65 episodes. The show would begin with Karloff’s setup of the story to come and then proceed to at least one original story.
Out of this World aired in England during 1962 and only had 13 episodes. As a science fiction show, Boris Karloff introduced the stories every week. The tales were generally adaptations of novels and short stories by science fiction writers.
The Veil was a 1950s pilot series which never ran. Karloff both introduced episodes and acted in them. A major network did not pick it up and so it never developed into a full series. There are only ten episodes in existence.
In the 1960s, Karloff continued to act in many mediums. He not only hosted the television series previously noted, but he also performed roles in more movies.
Karloff collaborated with Roger Corman, who directed many horror movies in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Notably, they worked together on The Raven (1963), where Karloff played Dr. Scarebus. The movie was an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem.
Karloff acted for Corman in the film The Terror (1963); this film tells the story of Lt. Andre Duvalier (played by Jack Nicholson) and his search for a mysterious woman. The trail leads him to the castle of Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe (Karloff’s role).
Boris Karloff continued his prolific career until his death on February 2, 1969. He died from emphysema and was cremated at Guildford Crematorium, in Surrey, England. The world was greatly enriched and many nightmares were spawned from Karloff’s extensive acting career.
- Watch "British Intelligence" for Free on FMO.
- Watch "Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome" for Free on FMO.
- Watch "The Ape" for Free on FMO.
- Watch "The Fatal Hour" for Free on FMO.
- Watch "The Terror" for Free on FMO.
- Watch "The Veil" episodes for Free on FMO.