Karloff, Boris (1887-1967)

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Karloff, Boris (1887-1967)

One of the most famous horror movie stars of all time, Boris Karloff has become virtually synonymous with Frankenstein. As depicted by Karloff in 1931, Frankenstein was a sympathetic figure, a gentle monster. This image of Frankenstein has remained in the popular psyche for almost 70 years. Although he acted in over 150 films, Boris Karloff will always be irrevocably associated with his monster, and thus will remain a popular culture icon for eternity.

Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887 in a London suburb. The youngest of nine children, William never knew his father, a British Civil Servant who died in India when William was a baby. After the death of his mother a few years later, William was raised by his siblings, one of whom enjoyed a brief career as an actor on the London stage. From boyhood, William was drawn to the theatre and attempted to emulate his older brother the actor by appearing in school theatricals. The rest of his family, however, wished him to follow in the footsteps of his father and so William prepared for a career in the Civil Service.

William graduated from Kings College, London, with the intention of applying to serve in the consulate in Hong Kong. But his passion for acting had not waned and he attended the theatre every chance he could get. Finally he decided to pursue his theatrical ambitions and, to escape family disapproval, at 22 he left England for Canada. William traveled across the country for more than a year, taking odd jobs, before arriving in Vancouver, where he tried to break into the local repertory company. After months of rejections, William spotted an advertisement for an experienced character actor in a company in Kamloops, British Columbia. Deciding to change his name to fit the "role," he remembered an obscure relative on his mother's side of the family named Karloff. Feeling William also was not quite right, he settled on Boris, and he got the job.

For almost ten years, Boris Karloff honed his craft in repertory companies throughout Canada. In 1917, Karloff arrived in Los Angeles, where the fledgling movie industry was booming. After a slow start, the tall, striking actor began to win extra roles and small speaking parts in silent pictures. Because of his strong, dark features, Karloff was usually cast as a villain, appearing in more than 40 silent pictures. But when Hollywood switched to sound, the actor's theatrical training proved an asset, and he found his niche.

In 1930, Universal Pictures gambled on a film based on Bram Stoker's Dracula. Starring Bela Lugosi in the title role, the film was a huge success. Universal decided to capitalize on the public's new-found taste for horror movies with Frankenstein, also starring Lugosi. But the actor did not like the role and wanted to drop out. When the studio informed him that he would only be released from his contract if he could find another actor for the part, Lugosi suggested Boris Karloff.

Directed by James Whale, Frankenstein became an immediate classic. Karloff, whose strong features, athletic build, and considerable height were perfect for the role, gave a subtle and sympathetic performance that won over critics and touched the hearts of audiences. Universal immediately cast the versatile actor in two more leading roles, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and The Mummy (1932). The two films cemented his popularity and, in 1932, 45-year-old Boris Karloff became a star.

Throughout the 1930s, Karloff starred in a string of popular horror pictures for Universal, including The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Raven (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939), playing mad scientists and tormented monsters. He was also regularly cast as Asian characters and starred in a series of "Mr. Wong" detective movies. By the early 1940s, however, with the world at war and the United States on the brink of joining in, public interest in horror movies had waned and Karloff's livelihood was threatened. But the veteran actor trouped on. In 1941, he starred in the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace and, throughout the decade, Karloff found work in a wide variety of films, from the occasional horror picture to comedies such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).

Unlike many Hollywood stars, Karloff never fought his type-casting. He understood that he owed his fame to Frankenstein and thus was good-humored about spoofing his horror image in films such as Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949). By the early 1960s, with horror movies once again in vogue, the aging actor found himself a cult hero and very much in demand. He appeared with fellow horror stars Basil Rathbone, Peter Lorre, and Vincent Price in two popular films for American International Pictures, The Raven (1963) and The Terror (1963). He brought his creepy voice to the role of the Grinch in the television version of Dr. Seuss's children's Christmas tale, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). And in 1968, the 81-year-old Karloff gave an extraordinary turn as an aging horror-movie star in Peter Bogdanovich's first film, Targets.

Karloff loved his profession, and he never stopped acting in movies. Famous for playing monsters, Karloff's real-life gentle spirit and gracious demeanor shone through on screen, no matter how scary the role. He embraced his cult status, becoming in the process one of popular culture's most beloved figures, the man behind the gentle monster.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Bojanski, Richard, and Kenneth Beale. The Films of Boris Karloff. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel Press, 1974.

Jensen, Paul M. Boris Karloff and His Films. South Brunswick and New York, A.S. Barnes & Co., 1974.

Underwood, Peter. Karloff: The Life of Boris Karloff. New York, Drake Publishers, 1972.