All it took was a hypnotic glance, or a macabre entrance into a room that any other Universal Studios monster movie star of the 1930’s or 40’s would die for, and audiences were glued to their seats. With the 1931 nationwide premiere of “Frankenstein,” audiences were so convinced by Karloff’s portrayal of the monster that many fainted dead away in their seats, with some needing medical assistance. Karloff, and only Karloff, could achieve such a response, and in many more diverse roles offered to him in the decades ahead as well.
Born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887 in Dulwich, London, England, to Edward Pratt, a Deputy Commissioner of Customs Salt and Opium, and the former Eliza Sarah Millard, Karloff never knew his father, and hardly was raised by his mother, as she died when he was quite young. Karloff was then brought up by his many brothers and sisters, along with his half-sister, Emma. Karloff was particularly impressed by his oldest brother, George, an actor, who may have influenced his younger brother’s choice to go into acting at a later date.
Despite his parent’s early deaths, Karloff had a rather pleasant childhood, attending Uppingham and King’s College, both preparatory institutions educating him towards a diplomatic position. But with an acting desire in his blood, Karloff left for Canada in 1909, where he was a railroad track layer, ditch digger, and participated in performing touring companies.
Karloff moved to the States in 1919 and got his first movie roles filling small spots as extras. The 1920’s saw steady acting work, but basically found Karloff portraying a villain, with no lead parts in sight. It was not until the 1931 film production of “Criminal Code” by Director Howard Hawks that Karloff got his first big break.
Karloff could not have imagined that his very next role would catapult him to the heights of Hollywood fame; a role that was first offered to Bela Lugosi and turned down and later regretted, and a role that would forever be associated with Karloff, the monster in “Frankenstein.”
The 1930’s also found Karloff filming a string of movies that sealed his horror personna including: “The Old Dark House” (1932), with Gloria Stuart, “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932), “The Mummy” (1932), “The Ghoul” (1933), “The Black Cat” (1934), with Bela Lugosi, “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), with Elsa Lanchester, “The Raven” (1935), and “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), with Basil Rathbone. Karloff was not to be found in just the horror genre, though. He managed to film such classics as “Scarface” (1932), with Paul Muni, “The House of Rothchild” (1934) and “Charlie Chan at the Opera” (1936).
The 1940’s found Karloff’s movies turning away from the monsters we were familiar with to ones of evil-hearted men. Thrillers such as “Before I Hang” (1940), “House of Frankenstein” (1944), “The Body Snatcher” (1945), “Isle of the Dead” (1945) and “Bedlam” (1946), made one sense that Karloff was heading towards a new chapter in his acting. And he was. It was called “television.”
Karloff proved to be a gifted and highly diversified entertainer, and he definitely showed it during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, with such appearances on “The Ford Theatre Hour” (1949), as Jonathan Brewster from “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Chevrolet Television Theatre” (1949), “Masterpiece Playhouse” (1950), and his own continuous thriller program called “Suspense.” Karloff even added a bit of campy humor to a couple of movies entitled “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer” (1949) and “Abbott and Costello Meet Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1953), all while he continued to star in the movie style he was originally known for, including: “Voodoo Island” (1957) and “Corridors of Blood” (1958).
The 1960’s continued to be another successful era for Karloff, starting with his two year run of “Thriller,” a weekly spine-tingling series that ran from 1960-62. Karloff also managed time to get involved with a line-up of horror flicks; many derived from Edgar Allan Poe and produced by Roger Corman that centered on the whimsical and bizarre. They included: “The Raven” (1963), with Vincent Price, “The Terror” (1963), with Jack Nicholson, and “Die, Monster, Die!” (1965) with Nick “The Rebel” Adams. But, besides his role as the monster in “Frankenstein,” Karloff will forever be immortalized to both young and old as the voice in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” (1966).
In his personal life, which he kept very private; Karloff enjoyed the simple task of gardening and watching the game of cricket. It had been established that he had been married three times, while some sources reported up to six marriages. Whatever the case, Karloff had been blessed with one child, a daughter, named Sara, who has kept his great legacy alive by her promotional appearances at Karloff honorary events. Karloff passed away on February 2, 1969 at his home in England after a long battle with emphysema. He was eighty-one years old.
No matter what time of day, in any country or language, someone is turning to the television for amusement, and there is Boris Karloff, Master of Horror and Suspense! With an incredible magnetism and staying power, he will be entertaining audiences for years to come.