Life of Boris Karloff: Frankenstein and Beyond

The Career of a Hollywood Horror Legend

Boris Karloff In 'Frankenstein'
English actor Boris Karloff (1887 - 1969) in full make-up for his role as The Monster in James Whale's horror films 'Frankenstein' and 'Bride of Frankenstein', circa 1935. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Actor Boris Karloff (born William Henry Pratt; November 2, 1887–February 2, 1969) is chiefly remembered by audiences today for his portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster in three films in the 1930s. However, the English actor had a prolific career in entertainment that spanned several decades and included film, television, Broadway, and radio. Karloff played numerous horror and non-horror roles, all of which took advantage of his commanding presence and deep, expressive voice.

Boris Karloff Fast Facts

  • Given Name: William Henry Pratt
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: November 23, 1887 in Camberwell, Surrey, England
  • Died: February 2, 1969 in Midhurst, Sussex, England
  • Education: King's College London (did not graduate)
  • Memorable Roles: Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Raven (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (Broadway, 1941-1944), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (TV 1966), Targets (1968)
  • Key Accomplishment: Starring as Hollywood’s definite version of Frankenstein’s Monster
  • Spouse(s): Grace Harding, Montana Laurena Williams, Helene Vivian Soule, Dorothy Stine, Everlyn Hope Heimore
  • Child: Sara Karloff (daughter with Dorothy Stine)

Early Life

Boris Karloff was born on November 2, 1887 in England with the given name William Henry Pratt. He was the youngest of nine children. His father worked for the British government, and young Pratt was educated in private schools.

Pratt began pursuing acting after ceasing his college studies and moving to Canada. There, Pratt adopted the stage name "Boris Karloff. The origin of the name is unclear, though it is thought that Karloff adopted the pseudonym so that his acting career would not tarnish the reputations of his older brothers, who had followed in their father's footsteps by working in the government. To support himself between stage performances, Karloff worked as a laborer.

By 1918, Karloff was acting in Southern California and appearing in small roles in films, with his first confirmed film role being an unnamed part in 1919's The Lightning Raider. Over the next twelve years, Karloff appeared in over seventy films in a variety of roles, though he usually appeared as a villain and rarely received prominent credit. He was making a living as an actor, but Karloff was far from a Hollywood star.

Frankenstein and Stardom

In 1931, Karloff got the role that would define his career and legacy. Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi had been a smash success for Universal Studios early in the year, so Universal quickly produced an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a follow-up. Lugosi proved unsuitable for the role in early screen tests, so Karloff was cast as Frankenstein's monster.

The resulting film, directed by James Whale, was a huge success, launching Karloff into Hollywood superstardom—even though he was only billed as "?" in the film's credits. Karloff reprised the role in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Karloff's appearance as Frankenstein's monster, with makeup designed by horror makeup legend Jack Pierce, remains the most popular depiction of the character in popular culture.

While Karloff appreciated the fame he received from playing Frankenstein's monster, the long, demanding hours in the makeup chair and the heavy costume took significant toll on his body. To support safer working conditions for actors, Karloff became a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild (his member number is 9).

Following the success of Frankenstein, Universal cast Karloff as the title character in another horror film, The Mummy (1932). That same year Karloff appeared in another film directed by Whale, The Old Dark House, a more comedic horror film that has received acclaim from modern audiences. Karloff also appeared in a small role in the original version of Scarface (1932) as a gangster, which actually was filmed before Frankenstein but not released until afterward because of censorship issues. Karloff remained very prolific throughout the 1930s in a wide array of roles, including starring in the highly-acclaimed John Ford-directed war film The Lost Patrol (1934) and starring as Chinese-American detective Mr. Wong in five films from 1938 to 1940, though his best-remembered films of the era are his horror movies, including The Ghoul (1933), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Walking Dead (1936), and The Invisible Ray (1936) and Tower of London (1939), some of which featured Karloff alongside fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi, and later starred in Universal's House of Frankenstein (1944) as a mad scientist and as the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein 1970 (1958).

Broadway and Television

Though Karloff was a horror movie star, he continued to act outside of Hollywood films. From 1941 to 1944, he starred in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace as a murderer who is said to look like Boris Karloff (he reprised the role in two television versions that aired in 1949 and 1955). Karloff did several short stints on Broadway throughout the latter half of the 1940s, including performing as Captain Hook in the 1950 production of Peter Pan. In 1956, Karloff was even nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for his performance in The Lark.

At the same time, Karloff found additional success acting on television, including three series that he starred in: Colonel March of Scotland Yard (1954-56), The Veil (1958), and Thriller (1961-62). Karloff's popularity with audiences also allowed him to be a frequent guest star on a variety of other television shows, including The Red Skelton Hour, Route 66, and The Wild Wild West.

Meanwhile, Karloff continued to star in films. Most of them were horror films, such as The Body Snatcher (1945). In addition, Karloff hosted a radio series, Starring Boris Karloff, which was also adapted and as a television program.

Later Years

Karloff's stature as a horror icon made him an in-demand actor even in his later years. Younger filmmakers, like low-budget filmmaking pioneer Roger Corman, hired Karloff to bring his fame to their projects. In 1963 alone, Karloff appeared in a new take on The Raven as well as The TerrorBlack Sabbath, and The Comedy of Terrors. He also parodied his public image in lighter films, like Bikini Beach (1964) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). His most acclaimed film role of his late period came in Targets (1968), a Corman-produced film directed by Peter Bogdanovich in which Karloff portrays an aging horror star whose final scheduled public appearance is interrupted by a sniper.

Karloff also had another career peak when he performed the narration and the voice for the Grinch in the 1966 television adaptation of Dr. Seuss' children's book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Not only was the cartoon a massive success and quickly became a Christmas classic, but the narration was released as a record and in 1968 Karloff won a Grammy Award for Best Recording for Children for his performance.

Death and Legacy

Although he worked up until the final months of his life, Karloff's health declined significantly in the 1960s. In particular, his lifelong smoking habit developed into emphysema. Karloff died in an English hospital on February 2, 1969 after suffering from pneumonia.

Karloff's birthplace is marked with an English Heritage plaque and he has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for film and one for television). He is also commemorated by a plaque at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden, London. But perhaps Karloff's biggest legacy is that his version of Frankenstein's monster remains the standard for all that have followed.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Jacobs, Stephen. Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster. Tomahawk Press, 2011.
  • Lindsay, Cynthia. Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff. Knopf, 1975.
  • Longworth, Karina, narrator. "Boris and Roger Corman (Bela & Boris Part 6)." You Must Remember This, 20 November 2017.