William Henry Pratt in London, England, 23 November 1887.
Attended Merchant Taylors' School, London, Uppingham School,
1903–06; King's College, London, 1906–09.
Married 1) the dancer Helene Vivian Soule, 1924 (divorced 1928); 2)
Dorothy Stine, 1930 (divorced 1945), one daughter; 3) Evelyn Helmore,
1909—emigrated to Canada, and joined the Ray Brandon Players in
western Canada; during the next ten years played with other touring
companies, including the Henry St. Clair Players and Billie
Bennett's road company; 1919—billed film debut in
; 1930—in stage version of
The Criminal Code
, and in film version the following year; 1931—acclaim for his role
as the monster in
; Universal contract; 1941—stage success in
Arsenic and Old Lace
, and later in
The Shop at Sly Corner
, 1949, as Captain Hook in
, 1950, and in
, 1955; 1949—host and star in TV series
Starring Boris Karloff
; 1954–55 panelist on TV series
Down You Go
; 1960–62—host and occasional star of TV series
2 February 1969.
The Dumb Girl of Portici (Ratinoff) (as extra)
The Masked Raider (Kennedy); The Lightning Raider (Seitz); His Majesty, the American (Henabery) (bit role); The Prince and Betty (Thornby) (bit role); The Deadlier Sex
The Last of the Mohicans (Tourneur) (as Huron Indian)
Without Benefit of Clergy (Young) (as Ahmed Khan); The Hope Diamond Mystery ( The Romance of the Hope Diamond ) (Payton) (as Priest of Kama-Sita/Dakar); Cheated Hearts (Henley) (as Nei Hamid); The Cave Girl (Franz) (as Baptiste)
The Man from Downing Street ( The Jade Elephants ) (José) (as Dell Monckton/Maharajah Jehan Dharwar); The Infidel (Young) (as Nabob); The Altar Stairs (Hillyer) (as Hugo); Omar the Tentmaker (Young) (as Holy Imam Mowaffak); The Woman Conquers (Forman) (as Raoul Maris)
The Gentleman from America (Sedgwick); The Prisoner (Conway) (as Prince Kapolski)
Riders of the Plains (Jaccard); The Hellion (Bruce Marshall) (as outlaw); Dynamite Dan (Bruce Marshall) (as Tony Garcia)
Perils of the Wind (Francis Ford); Parisian Nights (Santell) (as Pierre); Forbidden Cargo ( Dangerous Cargo ) (Buckingham) (as Pietro Castillano); The Prairie Wife (Ballin) (as Diego); Lady Robin Hood (Ince) (as Cabraza); Never the Twain Shall Meet (Tourneur) (as South Sea villain)
The Greater Glory (Rehfeld) (as scissors grinder); Her Honor, the Governor ( The Second Mrs. Fenway ) (Withey) (as Snipe Collins); The Bells (Young) (as mesmerist); The Eagle of the Sea (Lloyd) (as pirate); Old Ironsides ( Sons of the Sea ) (Cruze) (as Saracen pirate); Flames (Moomaw) (as Blackie Blanchette); The Golden Web (Lang) (as Dave Sinclair); Flaming Fury (Hogan) (as Gaspard); The Man in the Saddle (Clifford Smith) (bit role); The Nickel Hopper (Yates) (as lecher); Valencia ( The Love Song ) (Buchowetzki) (bit role)
Tarzan and the Golden Lion (McGowan) (as Owaza); Let It Rain (Cline) (as crook); The Middlin' Stranger (Thorpe) (as Al Meggs); The Princess from Hoboken (Dale) (as Pavel); The Phantom Buster (Bertram) (as Mexican smuggler); Soft Cushions (Cline) (as Chief Conspirator); Two Arabian Knights (Milestone) (as Purser); The Love Mart (Fitzmaurice) (as Fleming)
Vanishing Rider (Taylor); Vultures of the Sea (Thorpe); The Little Wild Girl (Mattison) (as Maurice Kent)
Burning the Wind (MacRae and Blache) (as Pug Doran); The Fatal Warning (Thorpe) (as Mullins); The Devil's Chaplain (Worne) (as Boris); The Phantom of the North (Webb) (as Jules Gregg); Anne against the World (Worne); Two Sisters (Cummings) (as Cecil); Behind That Curtain (Cummings) (as Soudanese servant); The Unholy Night ( The Green Ghost ) (Barrymore) (as Abdoul)
The Bad One (Fitzmaurice) (as prison guard); The Sea Bat (Ruggles) (as Corsican); The Utah Kid (Thorpe) (as Baxter); Mother ' s Cry (Henley) (as murder victim)
King of the Wild (Thorpe) (as Mustapha); The Criminal Code (Hawks) (as Ned Galloway); Cracked Nuts (Cline) (as revolutionary); Young Donovan's Kid ( Donovan's Kid ) (Niblo) (as Cokey Joe); The Public Defender (Ruben) (as Professor); Smart Money (Green) (as Sport Williams); I Like Your Nerve (McGann) (as Luigi); Pardon Us (Parrott) (as convict); Five Star Final (LeRoy) (as T. Vernon Isopod); The Mad Genius (Curtiz) (as father); Dirigible (Capra) (bit role); The Last Parade (Kenton) (bit role); The Guilty Generation (Lee) (as Ton Ricca); Graft (Cabanne) (as Joe Terry); The Yellow Ticket ( The Yellow Passport ) (Walsh) (as drunken Czarist aide); Tonight or Never (LeRoy) (as waiter); Frankenstein (Whale) (as the Monster); Business and Pleasure (Butler) (as Sheik)
Behind the Mask (Dillon) (as Jim Henderson); Alias the Doctor (Curtiz) (as Autopsy Surgeon); Scarface (Hawks) (as Gaffney); The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (Dillon) (as himself); The Miracle Man (McLeod) (as Nikko); Night World (Henley) (as Happy MacDonald); The Old Dark House (Whale) (as Morgan); The Mummy (Freund) (as Im-Ho-Tep/Ardath Bey); The Mask of Fu Manchu (Brabin) (title role)
The Ghoul (Hunter) (as Professor Morlant)
The Lost Patrol (John Ford) (as Sanders); The House of Rothschild (Werker) (as Count Ledrantz); Screen Snapshots, Number Eleven (as himself); The Black Cat ( The House of Doom ; The Vanishing Body ) (Ulmer) (as Hjalmar Poelzig); Gift of Gab (Freund) (as himself)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale) (as the Monster); The Raven (Friedlander) (as Edmond Bateman); The Black Room (Neill) (as Baron Gregor de Berghman/Anton de Berghman)
The Invisible Ray (Hillyer) (as Dr. Janos Rukh); The Walking Dead (Curtiz) (as John Ellman); The Man Who Lived Again ( The Man Who Changed His Mind ; Dr. Maniac ; The Brainsnatcher ) (Stevenson) (as Dr. Laurience); Juggernaut ( The Demon Doctor ) (Henry Edwards) (as Dr. Sartorius); Charlie Chan at the Opera (Humberstone) (as Gravell)
Night Key (Corrigan) (as Dave Mallory); West of Shanghai ( The War Lord ) (Farrow) (as General Wu Yen Fang)
The Invisible Menace ( Without Warning ) (Farrow) (as Jevries); Mr. Wong, Detective (Nigh) (title role)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee) (as the Monster); The Mystery of Mr. Wong (Nigh) (title role); Mr. Wong in Chinatown (Nigh) (title role); The Man They Could Not Hang (Grinde) (as Dr. Henryk Savaard); Tower of London (Rowland V. Lee) (as Mord)
Devil's Island (Clemens) (as Dr. Charles Gaudet); The Fatal Hour ( Mr. Wong at Headquarters ) (Nigh) (as Mr. Wong); British Intelligence ( Enemy Agent ) (Morse) (as Franz Strendler); Black Friday (Lubin) (as Dr. Ernest Sovac); The Man with Nine Lives ( Behind the Door ) (Grinde) (as Dr. Leon Kravaal); Doomed to Die ( The Mystery of Wentworth Castle ) (Nigh) (as James Lee Wong); Before I Hang (Grinde) (as Dr. John Garth); The Ape (Nigh) (as Dr. Bernard Adrian); You'll Find Out (Butler) (as Judge Mainwaring)
The Devil Commands (Dmytryk) (as Dr. Julian Blair); Information Please Number Eight (as guest panelist); Information Please Number Twelve (as guest panelist)
The Boogie Man Will Get You (Landers) (as Professor Nathaniel Billings)
The Climax (Waggner) (as Dr. Hohner); House of Frankenstein (Kenton) (as Dr. Gustav Niemann)
The Body Snatcher (Wise) (as John Gray); Isle of the Dead (Robson) (as General Nikolas Pherides)
Bedlam (Robson) (as Master George Sims)
Lured ( Personal Column ) (Sirk) (as Charles Van Druten); The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (McLeod) (as Dr. Hollingshead); Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome ( Dick Tracy's Amazing Adventure ) (Rawlins) (as Gruesome); Unconquered (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Seneca Chief Guyasura)
Tap Roots (George Marshall) (as Tishomingo)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (Barton) (as Swami Tapur)
The Strange Door (Pevney) (as Voltan); The Emperor's Nightingale ( Cisaruv Slavik ) (Makovec) (as narrator)
The Black Castle (Juran) (as Dr. Meissen)
Colonel March Investigates ( Colonel March of Scotland Yard ) (Endfield) (title role); The Hindu ( Sabaka ) (Ferrin) (as General Pollegar); Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Lamont) (as Dr. Henry Jekyll); The Monster of the Island ( Il mostro dell'isola ) (Montero and Vecchietti) (as smuggler)
The Juggler of Our Lady (Kousel) (as narrator); Silent Death ( Voodoo Island ) (Le Borg) (as Phillip Knight)
Frankenstein (Koch) (as Baron Victor von Frankenstein); The Haunted Strangler ( Grip of the Strangler ) (Day) (as James Rankin/Dr. Tenant)
Corridors of Blood ( The Doctor of Seven Dials ) (Day) (as Dr. Thomas Bolton); The Raven (Corman) (as Dr. Scarabus)
The Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur) (as Amos Hinchley); Black Sabbath ( I tre volti della paura ) (Bava) (as Gorca); Bikini Beach (Asher) (as art dealer)
Die, Monster, Die! ( Monster of Terror ; The House at the End of the World ) (Haller) (as Nahum Whitley)
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (Weis) (as Hiram Stokeley); The Daydreamer (Bass) (as voice)
Blind Man's Bluff ( Cauldron of Blood ; The Shrinking Corpse ) (Edward Mann) (as Charles Badulescu); The Venetian Affair (Jerry Thorpe) (as Dr. Pierre Vaugiroud); Mondo balordo (Montero) (as narrator); Mad Monster Party (Bass) (as Karloff puppet); The Sorcerers (Reeves) (as Professor Monserrat)
Targets (Bogdanovich) (as Baron Orlok)
The Crimson Cult ( Curse of the Crimson Affair ) (Sewell) (as Professor Marshe); Isle of the Snake People (Ibañez and Hill) (as Dr. Carl Van Boulder)
The Incredible Invasion ( Sinister Invasion ) (Ibañez and Hill) (as scientist); The Fear Chamber (Ibañez and Hill) (as scientist)
House of Evil (Ibañez and Hill) (as menace)
"My Life as a Monster," in Films and Filming (London), November 1957.
"Memories of a Monster," in Saturday Evening Post (New York), 3 November 1962.
Clarens, Carlos, An Illustrated History of the Horror Film , New York, 1968.
Butler, Ivan, Horror in the Cinema , rev. ed., New York, 1970.
Aylesworth, Thomas, Monsters from the Movies , Philadelphia, 1972.
Underwood, Peter, Karloff: The Life of Boris Karloff , New York, 1972.
Gifford, Denis, Karloff: The Man, The Monster, The Movies , New York, 1973.
Glut, Donald, The Frankenstein Legend: A Tribute to Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1973.
Bojarski, Richard, and Kenneth Beale, The Films of Boris Karloff , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974.
Everson, William, Classics of the Horror Film , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1974.
Frank, Alan, Horror Movies , London, 1974.
Jensen, Paul, Boris Karloff and His Films , New York, 1974.
Lindsay, Cynthia, Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff , New York, 1978.
Mank, Gregory William, Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1990.
Nollen, Scott Allen, Boris Karloff: A Critical Account of His Screen, Stage, Radio, Television, and Recording Work , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1991.
Buehrer, Beverley Bare, Boris Karloff: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1993.
McCarty, John, Movie Psychos and Madmen , New York, 1993.
McCarty, John, The Fearmakers , New York, 1994.
Gordon, A., "Boris Karloff," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), no. 1, 1969.
Roman, Robert C., "Boris Karloff," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1969.
Gerard, Lillian, "Boris Karloff: The Man behind the Myth," in Film Comment (New York), Spring 1970.
Ecran (Paris), May 1978.
Starburst , no. 57, 1983.
American Classic Screen (Shawnee Mission, Kansas), March-April 1983.
Prédal, René, "L'Usine aux maléfices," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1985.
Leifert, Don, "The Horrors of Columbia: Karloff and Cohn," in Filmfax (Evanston), April-May 1991.
Henderson, Jan Alan, "Tales of Mystery and Imagination," in Filmfax (Evanston), October-November 1991.
Seymour, Blackie, " Son of Frankenstein, part IV : Karloff's Birthday Party," in Classic Images (Muscatine), April 1993.
Vivona, Stephen T., "The Films of Val Lewton & Boris Karloff," in Filmfax (Evanston), April-May 1994.
Edwards, C., "Between the Bolts: A 'Found' Interview with Boris Karloff," in Monsterscene (Lombard), March 1995.
Senn, B., "The Monster, Bride, and Son," in Monsterscene (Lombard), March 1995.
Leifert, Don, "Marian Marsh," in Filmfax (Evanston), January-February 1996.
Katchmer, G., "Remembering the Great Silents," in Classic Images (Muscatine), April 1996.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 8 June 1996.
Holt, W.G., "'The Karloff-Lugosi Collection'," in Filmfax (Evanston), June/July 1997.
Stein, E., "The Fright Stuff," in Village Voice (New York), 14 October 1997.
* * *
In one sense, Boris Karloff could be judged a failure. A lifetime of roles intended to create horror and loathing only succeeded in making him one of the most loved of actors. Audiences who shuddered pleasurably at his ghouls saw straight through them, to the gentle, dignified man beneath. Karloff ended up a white-haired, grandfatherly figure telling spooky tales to delight the children, any suggestion of menace belied by the kindliness in his eyes. That same sympathy animated the monsters he created—grave, vulnerable beings, victims of the "normal" world around them.
Unlike Lorre or Lugosi, serious actors who chafed at the narrow range into which Hollywood forced them, Karloff never strongly objected to being typecast in horror movies. In part, his reaction was practical: the relief of a 45-year-old actor, with ten years of ram-shackle stock companies and ten more of movie bit-parts behind him, suddenly finding fame and security in his 65th film, the 1931 James Whale version of Frankenstein . But he was also doing what he could do best. To the end of his days, he called the Frankenstein Monster the best friend any actor could have had.
Tall, gaunt, lantern-jawed, Karloff moved with a somnolent slowness that aptly evoked the inexorable, slow-motion menace of a bad dream. Deep-set eyes, overhanging brows, and a voice that seemed to echo from cobwebby vaults enhanced the intensity of his presence. Karloff never needed to gesticulate or rave; the quietly understated malevolence of his acting gained the more by contrast with the B movie hamming that often surrounded him.
Karloff began acting in silent films, most notably The Bells , where he played an evil mesmerist opposite hero Lionel Barrymore. But it was Frankenstein that made him a star—though a couple of good roles just before, in Hawks's The Criminal Code and LeRoy's Five Star Final (as the ineffably named phony clergyman, T. Vernon Isopod), helped bring him to James Whale's attention when the original star of Frankenstein , Bela Lugosi, opted out of the role of the monster because he did not want to disguise his features under pounds of makeup and his distinctive voice with inarticulate grunts. Thus, Karloff got his most famous role by default. Nevertheless, the inarticulate pathos of Karloff's portrayal of the monster, innocent and bewildered, staggering beneath the burden of emotions it can neither express nor control, lent the film dignity and depth, creating a lasting classic. Universal billed him in the credits only as "Karloff"; for future films, his first name was reinstated, but for filmgoers everywhere, young and old, generation after generation, no other name but "Karloff" was ever needed.
Karloff played the monster in two sequels for Universal (and once on television, in an episode of the hit television series Route 66 ). Without his presence, further sequels collapsed into routine programmers. (Ironically, Bela Lugosi finally did overcome his antipathy for the role of the monster and played it himself—long after Karloff had discarded it to go on to bigger things—in Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman , the fourth entry in the studio's long-running series.) Both Frankenstein sequels in which Karloff reprised his role, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein , were made during the 1930s, the period of Universal's great horror cycle, and Karloff's best decade. As The Mummy , a virtual remake of Universal's smash hit Dracula , set in Egypt, he slowed his movements yet further into an ancient, hieratic solemnity, eyes burning fiercely in a face of weathered sandstone. Death-in-life roles suited his cadaverous deliberation: in Edgar G. Ulmer's broodingly atmospheric The Black Cat , pacing gravely through galleries of women's corpses preserved behind glass; a resurrected convict in Curtiz's The Walking Dead ; and, chuckling darkly, the clubfooted executioner Mord, henchman to Rathbone's Richard III in Tower of London .
Within the narrow range of his work, Karloff varied each role through subtle individual touches. Often, he undercut them with ironic humor: lumbering and grunting as the drunkenly lecherous butler of The Old Dark House ; silkily urbane in The Mask of Fu Manchu (a rendition later reworked for virtue in the Mr. Wong series); ultimately over the top as a religious fanatic driven to mania by the sunbaked desert as a member of The Lost Patrol . Val Lewton provided Karloff with three quality assignments in the 1940s: The Body Snatcher , Isle of the Dead , and the elegantly Hogarthian Bedlam . Lewton's belief that horror can best be elicited through understatement and suggestion matched Karloff's talents perfectly, and he responded with some of his most stylishly controlled playing, especially in The Body Snatcher , as murderous cabman and protege of Burke and Hare, John Gray, arguably his greatest performance outside the original Frankenstein. The role is easily one of the subtlest, and scariest, dual-personality villains in the history of screen horror.
He was also adept at comedy, originating the role of the murderous Karloff lookalike Jonathan Brewster in the classic stage comedy Arsenic and Old Lace , where he sent up his own image as the ultimate bogeyman; Raymond Massey took the role in the Frank Capra film version because Karloff was still playing it on tour at the time.
Karloff again enjoyed sending up his image in Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe spoof, The Raven , and The Comedy of Terrors , where he appeared with fellow screen bad guys Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price. One of Karloff's best roles came almost at the last, more or less playing himself in Bogdanovich's directorial debut, Targets . As an avowed "antique, an anachronism" in an age of impersonal slaughter, Karloff manifested a touching dignity, and the film provided an affectionate farewell tribute—although, crippled by arthritis to the point of virtual immobility, he tread the boards through five more shockers the same year, one in England, the others in Mexico. Like one of the undead characters he often played, he arose from the grave four years after his death in his last released film, Blind Man's Bluff , a feature he shot in Spain in 1967.
—Philip Kemp, updated by John McCarty