Boris Karloff is the man behind two of Hollywood’s most fearsome screen icons. His turns as the misunderstood monster in Frankenstein and the undead Imhotep in The Mummy cemented Karloff’s status as horror movie royalty.
Karloff’s career spread out across film, stage, television, comic books and eve U.S. Postal Service commemorative stamps. As a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, Karloff fought for regulations to control the often dangerous conditions on movie sets. Always regarded as a consummate gentleman, Karloff’s legacy may live deeper behind the scenes than in front of the camera.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in 1887 to Edward John Pratt Jr., a ranking London official, and his wife Eliza.
Karloff was groomed until his graduation for the University of London for a diplomatic career in the footsteps of his brother Sir John Henry Pratt. Ditching the haughty London aristocracy, he moved to Canada, adopted his stage name, and toured the United States for several years as part of a fledgling theatre troupe.
The natural progression for actors leads to Hollywood and Karloff left the stage for a career in film. Unfortunately he starved for several years performing in the struggling silent film industry. His big cinematic break came in 1931, when at 44 years of age he donned makeup to become Frankenstein’s monster for the critically and commercially successful horror classic.
Billed as “Karloff the Uncanny”, the actor was in high demand for several years, earning acclaim in countless horror movies like The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, to name very few.
“One always hears of actors complaining of being typed – if he’s young, he’s typed as a juvenile; if he’s handsome, he’s typed as a leading man. I was lucky. Whereas bootmakers have to spend millions to establish a trademark, I was handed a trademark free of charge. When an actor gets in a position to select his own roles, he’s in big trouble, for he never knows what he can do best. I’m sure I’d be damn good as little Lord Fauntleroy, but who would pay ten cents to see it?”
– Boris Karloff
Karloff’s roles as monsters, murderers, body snatchers and crazed scientists carried his career until his death in 1969. He was often able to break from type with roles in comedies like Gift of Gab, and television shows like “The Milton Berle Show” or “The Red Skelton Show”.
He returned to the Broadway stage well into his horror career and stretched into roles in Arsenic and Old Lace, as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and his Tony-nominated role in The Lark. Karloff enjoyed a career renaissance in the 1960’s with popular roles in films like The Raven and Die, Monster, Die!, as well as narrating the Christmas classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and lending his name and likeness to the Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery comics.
Beyond his movie roles, Karloff contributed to many children’s charities and recorded several successful albums for children. His appeal to children was always evident, even when he was under the gruesome confines of monster makeup. His easy manner and disposition ensured him of many friends and a lasting legacy as one of Hollywood’s good guys. Which is ironic in the face of the monsters he portrayed on screen.