Childhood & Early Life
Boris Karloff was born as William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, at Forest Hill Road, Camberwell, London, to Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. He had eight elder siblings including his brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, who became a British diplomat. When his mother passed away, his elder siblings brought him up. Later, his brothers considered him the "black sheep of the family" for pursuing a career in acting.
As a young boy, he was bow-legged, had a speech defect, and stuttered. While he eventually overcame his stutter, his lisp could not be controlled and was noticeable in his films.
He grew up in Enfield, the County of Middlesex, and attended Enfield Grammar School, Uppingham School, and Merchant Taylors' School. He also went to King's College, London, where he took subjects that would help him pursue a career with the British Government's Consular Service. However, in 1909, he dropped out of university and eloped to Canada with his girlfriend Grace Harding, whom he married later.
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In Canada, Pratt worked as a farm laborer and did other odd jobs before he started performing small roles in plays. During this time, he started using Boris Karloff as his stage name. In 1911, he joined Jeanne Russell Company and performed at different towns. He later joined Harry St. Clair Co. and performed in an opera house for a year.
He worked in acting companies like Billie Bennett Touring Company and Maud Amber Players in California as well. While he was struggling to establish his acting career, he also worked as a manual laborer to make both ends meet. As a result, he suffered from back problems throughout his life.
After he moved to Hollywood, he appeared in several silent films, but since work was not regular, he had to continue doing labor work. Some of his initial films were ‘The Masked Rider’ in 1919, ‘The Hope Diamond Mystery’ in 1920, and ‘King of the Wild’ in 1930. In these films, he was usually cast as a villain.
In 1931, his role in the movie ‘The Criminal Code’ brought him to prominence. In the American crime film, he reprised a role he had played on stage. That year, he played another major supporting role as an unethical newspaper reporter in ‘Five Star Final’.
The year 1931 proved to be a breakthrough year for Boris Karloff when James Whale discovered him after he had already appeared in around 80 films. Whale cast him in his movie ‘Frankenstein’ in 1931—a role that launched him into stardom. While playing the role, he spent long hours donning the makeup of Frankenstein's monster.
In 1932, he was featured in two movies—as Imhotep in ‘The Mummy’, and as a mute butler in ‘The Old Dark House’. He also appeared in John Ford’s epic ‘The Lost Patrol’ in 1934, which was about the World War I.
Horror films became the actor’s primary genre and he did a number of horror movies for Universal, for which he was highly praised. These roles made him a sensation. He played Hjalmar Poelzig in ‘The Black Cat’ released in 1934, and in the same year, was also cast in ‘Gift of Gab’, followed by ‘The Raven’ in 1935, and ‘The Invisible Ray’ in 1936.
He reprised the role of Frankenstein's monster in three more films—‘Bride of Frankenstein’ in 1935, ‘Son of Frankenstein’ in 1939, and ‘House of Frankenstein’ in 1944. He was also featured in ‘Tower of London’ in 1939; the film was based on Shakespeare's Richard III. In 1941, he did the Broadway stage play ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’, in which he played a homicidal gangster.
Starting from the late 1940s, he did some roles on the small screen, although none was regular. He appeared in series like ‘Tales of Tomorrow’, ‘Lux Video Theatre’, and ‘The Veil’. He was also featured on the British television series ‘Colonel March of Scotland Yard’, in which he played detective Colonel March. In 1966, he appeared in one episode of the spy series ‘The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.’
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During the late 1940s, he took interest in radio programs like Arch Oboler's ‘Lights Out’, and hosted ‘Starring Boris Karloff,’ a radio and television anthology series on the ABC broadcasting network, in 1949.
In 1950, he performed the villain Captain Hook’s role in ‘Peter Pan’, a musical adaptation of J. M. Barrie's play ‘Peter Pan,’ which opened on Broadway in April.
He permitted Gold Key Comics to use his name and mannerisms for their comic book series ‘Thriller.’ After ‘Thriller’ ended, the comic was retitled ‘Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery’. The comic continued even after his death. In 2009, Dark Horse Comics published reprints of ‘Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery’.
Towards the end of his life, he did four Mexican horror films—‘The Snake People’, ‘The Incredible Invasion’, ‘Fear Chamber’, and ‘House of Evil’. All four were released after his death.
Boris Karloff was best known for his roles in horror films, especially the Frankenstein movies which made him a star. Despite the fact that his face was hidden by makeup, his powerful performance earned him critical acclaim and made him a sensation.
His roles as the villain in dark films like ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Old Dark House’, the sci-fi horror film ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu,’ and the horror film ‘The Mummy’ were highly applauded. These negative roles earned him the reputation of being a formidable actor in the horror genre and critics started comparing him with actors like Vincent Price and Lugosi.
Awards & Achievements
Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1737 Vine Street for motion pictures, and 6664 Hollywood Boulevard for television.
He was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the play ‘The Lark’ in 1956.
The U.S. Postal Service portrayed him as the Frankenstein's monster and the mummy in its stamp series ‘Classic Monster Movie Stamps’ released in September 1997.
In 2016, the British magazine ‘Empire’ ranked his Frankenstein's monster character as the ‘6th Greatest Horror Movie Character of All Time’.
Boris Karloff was married five times. While the first three of his marriages were short-lived, his fourth marriage to Dorothy Stine in 1930 spanned 16 years. He had one daughter, Sara Karloff, from this marriage. His last marriage was to Evelyn Hope Helmore in 1946. The couple remained together till his death.
Since 1940, every year on Christmas, he dressed as Father Christmas and distributed gifts to physically disabled children.
After retirement, he spent his life in England at his country cottage in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. In 1944, he faced acute arthritic problems and underwent a spinal operation.
A heavy smoker for a prolonged period, he suffered from emphysema and his lungs were affected badly. In 1968, he was hospitalized with bronchitis. He died of pneumonia on February 2, 1969, at the age of 81.