William Henry Pratt was born at 36 Forest Hill Road, Honor Oak, London, where a blue plaque can now be seen. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His paternal grandparents were Edward John Pratt, an Anglo-Indian, and Eliza Julia (Edwards) Pratt, a sister of Anna Leonowens (whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam were the basis of the musical The King and I). The two sisters were also of Anglo-Indian heritage.
William grew up in Enfield. He was the youngest of nine children and following his mother’s death was brought up by his elder siblings, Pratt was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp (which was noticeable all through his career). He later attended Enfield Grammar School before moving to Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School, and went on to attend King’s College London in anticipation that he would pursue a diplomatic career. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, became a distinguished British diplomat, however he dropped out in 1909 and worked as a farm labourer and did various odd jobs until he happened into acting.
In 1909, Pratt emigrated to Canada and joined a touring company based out of Ontario. Some time later he changed his professional name to “Boris Karloff”. Karloff always claimed he chose the first name “Boris” because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that “Karloff” was a family name. However, his daughter Sara Karloff publicly denied any knowledge of Slavic forebears, “Karloff” or otherwise. One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family. Whether or not his brothers (all dignified members of the British foreign service) actually considered young William the “black sheep of the family” for having become an actor, Karloff himself apparently worried they did feel that way. He did not reunite with his family until 1933, when he went back to Britain to make “The Ghoul”, extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his elder brothers jostled for position around their “baby” brother and happily posed for publicity photographs with him. Due to the years of difficult manual labour that Karloff had had to perform in Canada and the U.S. to make ends meet whilst he was trying to establish his acting career, he was left with back problems from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not fight in World War I.
He toured back and forth across the USA for over ten years in a variety of low-budget theater shows and eventually ended up in Hollywood with very little money to his name. Needing cash to support himself, Karloff secured occasional acting work in the fledgling silent film industry in such pictures as “The Deadlier Sex” (1920), “Omar The Tentmaker” (1922), “Dynamite Dan” (1924) and Tarzan and “The Golden Lion” (1927), in addition to a handful of serials (the majority of which sadly haven’t survived). Karloff supplemented his meager film income by working as a truck driver in Los Angeles and also , which allowed him enough time off to continue to pursue acting roles.
In these early roles he was often cast as an exotic Arabian or Indian villain. A key film which brought Karloff recognition was “The Criminal Code” (1931), a prison drama in which he reprised a dramatic part he had played on stage. Another significant role in the fall of 1931 saw Karloff play a key supporting part as an unethical newspaper reporter in “Five Star Final”, a film about tabloid journalism which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
His big break came in 1931 when he was cast as ‘The Monster’ in the Universal production of “Frankenstein” (1931), directed by James Whale, one of the studio’s few remaining auteur directors. The aura of mystery surrounding Karloff was highlighted in the opening credits, as he was listed as simply “?”. The bulky costume with four inch platform boots made it an arduous role but the costume and torturously administered makeup produced the classic image. The costume was a job in itself for Karloff with the shoes weighing 13 pounds (6 kg) each, and Karloff having to sleep in between two books to avoid ruining his monster makeup. Universal Studios was quick to acquire ownership of the copyright to the makeup format for the Frankenstein monster that Jack P. Pierce had designed. Boris was lucky to get the part, as it had supposedly been offered to Bela Lugosi, who declined it.
The film was a commercial and critical success for Universal, and Karloff was instantly established as a hot property in Hollywood. He quickly appeared in several other sinister roles, including “Scarface” (1932) (filmed before Frankenstein (1931)), the black-humored “The Old Dark House” (1932), as the namesake Oriental villain of the Sax Rohmer novels in “The Mask of Fu Manchu” (1932), as undead ‘Im-Ho-Tep’ in “The Mummy” (1932) and the misguided ‘Prof. Morlant’ in “The Ghoul” (1933). He thoroughly enjoyed his role as a religious fanatic in John Ford’s “The Lost Patrol” (1934), although contemporary critics described it as a textbook example of overacting.
However, horror remained Karloff’s primary genre, and he gave a string of lauded performances in 1930’s Universal horror films, including several with Lugosi, his main rival as heir to Lon Chaney’s status as the top horror film star. Karloff reprised the role of ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ in two other films, “The Bride Of Frankenstein” (1935) and “The Son Of Frankenstein” (1939), with the latter also featuring Lugosi. Karloff would revisit the Frankenstein mytho’s in several later films as well, starring with the role of the villainous ‘Dr. Niemann’ in “House Of Frankenstein” (1944), in which the monster was played by Glenn Strange.
While the long, creative partnership between Karloff and Lugosi never led to a close friendship, it produced some of the actors’ most revered and enduring productions, beginning with “The Black Cat” (1934). Follow-ups included “Gift Of Gab” (1934), “The Raven” (1935), “The Invisible Ray” (1936), “Black Friday” (1940), “You’ll Find Out” (also 1940), and “The Body Snatcher” (1945). During this period, he also starred with Basil Rathbone in “Tower Of London” (1939) as the murderous henchman of ‘Richard III’. Karloff, on loan to Fox, appeared in “Charlie Chan At The Opera” (1936), before beginning his own short-lived “Mr. Wong” detective series. He was a wrongly condemned doctor in “Devil’s Island” (1939), another misguided scientist in “The Ape” (1940), a crazed scientist surrounded by monsters, vampires and werewolves in “House Of Frankenstein” (1944) and a Greek general fighting vampirism in the superb atmospheric Val Lewton thriller “Isle Of The Dead” (1945). During this period, Karloff was also a frequent guest on radio programmes, whether it was starring in Arch Oboler’s Chicago-based “Lights Out” productions (most notably the episode “Cat Wife”) or spoofing his horror image with Fred Allen or Jack Benny.
An enthusiastic performer, he returned to the Broadway stage in the original production of “Arsenic And Old Lace” in 1941, in which he played a homicidal gangster enraged to be frequently mistaken for Karloff. Although Frank Capra cast Raymond Massey in the 1944 film, which was shot in 1941, while Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway, Karloff reprised the role on television with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the “Hallmark Hall Of Fame”. Somewhat less successful was his work in J. B. Priestley’s play “The Linden Tree”. He also appeared as ‘Captain Hook’ in the play “Peter Pan” with Jean Arthur. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his work opposite Julie Harris in “The Lark”, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh about Joan of Arc, which was also reprised on “Hallmark Hall Of Fame”.
While Karloff continued appearing in a plethora of films, many of them were not up to the standards of his previous efforts, including appearances in two of the hokey Bud Abbott and Lou Costello monster movies. During the 1950s he was a regular guest on many high-profile TV shows including “The Milton Berle Show” (1948), “Tales of Tomorrow” (1951), “The Veil” (1958), “The Donald O’Connor Show” (1954), “The Red Skelton Show” (1951) and “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” (1956), to name but a few, and he appeared in a mixed bag of films including “Sabaka” (1954) and “Voodoo Island” (1957).
His career experienced something of a revival in the 1960’s thanks to hosting the TV anthology series “Thriller” (1960) and indie director Roger Corman, with Karloff contributing wonderful performances in “The Raven” (1963), “The Terror” (1963), the ultra-eerie “Black Sabbath” (1963) and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Monster Of Terror” (1965). Karloff’s last great role was as an aging horror movie star confronting a modern-day sniper in the Peter Bogdanovich film “Targets” (1968). His TV career was capped off by achieving Christmas immortality as the narrator of Chuck Jones’s perennial animated favorite, “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” (1966). Three low-budget Mexican-produced horror films starring an ailing Karloff were released in the two years after his death; For his final films, Karloff had only one half of one lung and required oxygen between takes.
In retrospect, he never took himself too seriously as an actor and had a tendency to downplay his acting accomplishments. Renowned as a refined, kind and warm-hearted gentleman who gave generously, especially to children’s charities. Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed up as Father Christmas every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital. He married six times and had one child, daughter Sara Karloff, by his fifth wife. At the time of his daughter’s birth Karloff was filming “Son Of Frankenstein” and reportedly rushed from the movie set to the hospital while still in full makeup.
Karloff passed away on February 2, 1969 from emphysema. He was cremated at Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, England, where he is commemorated by a plaque in Plot 2 of the Garden of Remembrance.