Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff Headshot

Actor

Birth Date: November 21, 1887

Death Date: February 2, 1969

Birth Place: Camberwell, London, England, UK

Arguably Hollywood's most celebrated and enduring screen horror icon, Boris Karloff embodied legendary movie monsters and madmen in such films as "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1931), "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), "Isle of the Dead" (1945) and "The Body Snatcher" (1945) over the course of a four-decade career. He began as an obscure background player, essaying exotic types in silent films and serials until 1931, when his sympathetic turn as the Monster in "Frankenstein" made him an international star. For the next two decades, Karloff was the undisputed king of movie horror, while cultivating a lively presence in more dramatic and even comic fare on television and stage. He remained exceptionally popular into his seventh decade, especially among young viewers, who were entranced by his avuncular narration for "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!" (CBS, 1966). A beloved figure both on and off-screen, Karloff's performances - both chilling and charming - remained the gold standard by which all subsequent horror actors were measured.

Born William Henry Pratt on Nov. 23, 1887 in the London district of East Dulwich, England, Boris Karloff was the youngest of nine children by Edward John Pratt, Jr., Commissioner of Custom Salt and Opium for the Indian Salt Revenue Service, and a distant relative of Anna Leonowens, whose stories about life in the royal court of Thailand served as the basis for the musical "The King and I." He attended Kings College in London in anticipation of following his brothers into the diplomatic field, but Karloff dropped out in 1909 to travel across Canada, where he worked as an itinerant laborer, which caused him to develop back problems that persisted throughout his life. He eventually fell in with an Ontario-based touring company of actors with whom he would crisscross the United States for the next decade. At this point in his life, Karloff adopted his stage name, which he frequently cited as a combination of a family surname and a first name chosen for its exotic sound. However, scholars have cited the possibility that Karloff assumed the moniker to avoid embarrassing his siblings with his chosen profession, all of whom had become members of the British Foreign Service.

He eventually arrived in Hollywood, broke and desperate for work. He soon found bit player gigs in countless silent films and serials, many of which utilized his dark complexion - the result of Anglo-Indian blood in his family tree - and saturnine, heavy-lidded features to play mystics, high priests, American Indian warriors and foreign heels of every stripe. He made his first foray into supernatural-themed films with "The Bells" (1925) as a mesmerist whose alleged mental powers helped to root out a murderer. But Karloff was soon back to bit parts, and supplemented his income by working as a truck driver. He earned notice for his turn as a vengeful ex-con on the trail of a fellow former prisoner in Howard Hawks' gritty "The Criminal Code" (1931). The film was one of 15 pictures he made that year, but all were overshadowed by "Frankenstein," director James Whale's take on the classic Mary Shelley novel of science gone wrong. Buried under layers of Jack Pierce's iconic, flat-topped makeup and a brace that forced him to walk in a stiff, corpse-like gait, Karloff nevertheless projected pathos, terror and vengeful fury without a full line of dialogue - or billing in the film's opening credits, which listed him as "?" A considerable success for Universal Studios, "Frankenstein" instantly minted the 44-year-old Karloff as a horror star on par with Bela Lugosi of "Dracula" fame (1931), who would become his frequent onscreen nemesis in subsequent years.

By 1932, Karloff was Universal's monster-in-resident, tackling a host of infamous figures in what would become a roster of classic horror films. He was a terrifying, inhuman butler in Whale's offbeat "The Old Dark House" (1932), then essayed Sax Rohmer's fiendish villain in "The Mask of Fun Manchu" (1932) before donning even more intensive makeup to play an undead Egyptian priest in Karl Freund's "The Mummy" (1932). His rogues' gallery soon came to encompass a religious fanatic in John Ford's "The Lost Patrol" (1932), a perverse Satanist in Edgar G. Ulmer's macabre "The Black Cat" (1934), a scientist transformed into a killing machine by his own invention in "The Invisible Ray" (1936) and a sadistic, club-footed executioner in "The Tower of London" (1939). Karloff also played Chinese detective Mr. Wong in three features during this period, as well as a heroic doctor wrongly imprisoned on "Devil's Island" (1939), among countless other films during this period.

But he was best known as the Monster, whom he would refer to as "the best friend [he] ever had," and whom he would twice reprise on film in the 1930s. His lonely, lovelorn creature was spurned by a feral Mate (Elsa Lanchester) in Whale's dizzyingly surreal "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), then as a dull sidekick to Bela Lugosi's ripe performance as the crippled shepherd, Ygor, in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). But the series soon descended into B-movie territory, and Karloff would turn over the Monster to other actors for sequels, including Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Glenn Strange, none of whom could equal the humanity of his classic performance.

Cut loose from the role that made him a star, Karloff began the 1940s in a string of low-budget potboilers like "The Ape" (1940), a grotty chiller about a scientist who impersonated an escaped circus ape in order to obtain human spinal fluid for his clandestine experiments. He found greater rewards on the Broadway stage, where he appeared in the original production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1941) as a killer whose recent plastic surgery transformed him into a lookalike for Boris Karloff. The actor was also a staple on radio dramas and comedies, for which he gamely spoofed his King of Horror image. Off-screen, he helped to form the Screen Actors Guild, and often spoke out about grueling conditions on sets like the ones he experienced in the early stages of his career. He was also a dedicated contributor to charities, especially those involving children, and frequently dressed as Santa Claus to deliver presents to hospitalized kids during the holidays.

In 1945, he left Universal to sign a three-picture deal with producer Val Lewton at RKO. Their resulting collaboration produced three of Karloff's best horror films since the early '30s: "Isle of the Dead" (1945), with Karloff as a Greek general on a plague-ridden island; "The Body Snatcher" (1945), which reunited Karloff and Lugosi in a story of 19th century grave robbing; and "Bedlam" (1946), with Karloff as the cruel head of a 18th century asylum. All three were critically acclaimed, if not financially successful, and restored Karloff's faith in a genre with which he would remain forever entwined.

The 1950s saw Karloff lend more of his time to television and stage, though he would also remain a consistent presence in horror films throughout the decade. His feature output during this period was consistently lightweight fare; there was a reunion with Abbott and Costello for "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953) and agreeable programmers like "The Haunted Strangler" (1958) and "Corridors of Blood" (1958), which co-starred Christopher Lee, a horror star on the rise. In "Frankenstein 1970" (1958), an absurd updated take on the Monster and its maker, he played Baron von Frankenstein, who used atomic energy to animate his creature, which was revealed to have its creator's face in the final frames - an awkward if well-intentional nod to Karloff's star-making role. On television, he enjoyed a greater range of roles, including turns as King Arthur, Don Quixote and Joseph Conrad's Kurtz from "Heart of Darkness," as well as countless turns on anthology dramas and suspense/supernatural programs. The stage was also a frequent destination, where Karloff earned a Tony nomination for "The Lark" (1952) as the bishop who orchestrated the execution of Joan of Arc. He also made an ideal Captain Hook in a 1950 musical production of "Peter Pan" with songs by Leonard Bernstein.

Though age and illness slowed Karloff physically in the 1960s, he remained remarkably busy throughout the decade. He enjoyed renewed popularity as the host of "Thriller" (NBC, 1960-1962), one of the best horror anthology series ever produced for television. And he became a horror icon in residence for the low-budget studio American International Pictures (AIP), which also counted Vincent Price and Peter Lorre among its resident boogeymen. Karloff teamed with both actors for "The Raven" (1963), a comic tale of warring sorcerers for director Roger Corman, who re-used the film's sets for "The Terror" (1963), a low-budget ghost story with Karloff and a pre-fame Jack Nicholson. AIP would cast Karloff in a string of features during the '60s, including the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation "Die, Monster, Die!" (1965), "The Curse of the Crimson Altar" (1968) with Lee and Barbara Steele, and even a pair of its beach party movies. These appearances made Karloff a popular figure among young moviegoers, many of whom had not been born when he appeared in "Frankenstein." He subsequently boosted his youth appeal tenfold by narrating "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!" an animated adaptation of the children's book by Dr. Seuss about a surly creature (voiced by Karloff) who schemed to disrupt a community's Christmas celebration. Karloff also narrated the story for a 1966 soundtrack LP that earned him a Grammy nomination. The special eventually became a holiday television perennial that introduced new viewers to Karloff with each passing year.

Karloff's healthy declined dramatically in the 1960s; emphysema and other physical ailments robbed him of the ability to stand for long periods of time or breathe without an oxygen tank. Yet he continued to act, summoning his strength for the duration of a take before collapsing into an off-camera wheelchair. Most of his work during his final years was forgettable, including a string of incomprehensible horror films made in Mexico. But in 1968, he gave one of his final performances in "Targets," a low-budget thriller by Peter Bogdanovich which juxtaposed the final days of an aging screen horror icon (Karloff) with the dawn of a new kind of terror: a seemingly all-American young man (Tim O'Kelley) on an inexplicable shooting spree. "Targets" provided Karloff with a dignified coda for one of Hollywood's most legendary careers.

Karloff's final years were spent at his cottage in the village of Bramshott, England. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1969, and succumbed to the illness on Feb. 2, 1969. However, Karloff remained a star, even in death. His four Mexican films eventually saw release in the early 1970s, and episodes of an unreleased anthology series called "The Veil" (1958) were assembled into feature films that surfaced on late night television. An illustrated likeness of Karloff also continued to serve as the elegant but sinister host of a comic book series, initially titled "Thriller" but later changed to "Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery," which ran for two decades after his death. In 1997, his depictions of the Monster and the Mummy were commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp series celebrating classic movie creatures.

By Paul Gaita

Credits

The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made

Actor
Show
2015

Extrait : Retour de flamme

Actor
Show
2014

15 Minute Movies

Actor
Dr. Thomas Bolton
Show
2010

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Voice
Grinch/Narrator
Show
2006

Envoyé spécial

Actor
Show
1990

Cámara del Terror

Actor
Movie
1972

Sinister Invasion

Actor
Prof. John Mayer
Movie
1971

Alien Terror

Actor
Prof. John Mayer
Movie
1971

Cauldron of Blood

Actor
Franz Badulescu
Movie
1970

The Name of the Game

Guest Star
Series
1968

Dance of Death

Actor
Matthias Morteval
Movie
1968

The Crimson Cult

Actor
Professor John Marsh
Movie
1968

The Fear Chamber

Actor
Dr. Karl Mantell
Movie
1968

The Snake People

Actor
Movie
1968

Invasión siniestra

Actor
Movie
1968

Targets

Actor
Byron Orlok
Movie
1968

The White Birch

Actor
Mikhail Orlov
Movie
1968

The Venetian Affair

Actor
Dr. Pierre Vaugiroud
Movie
1967

The Sorcerers

Actor
Prof. Marcus Monserrat
Movie
1967

Mad Monster Party?Stream

Voice
Baron Boris von Frankenstein
Movie
1967
70%

How the Grinch Stole ChristmasStream

Voice
Grinch/Narrator
Special
1966
100%

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.Stream

Guest Star
Series
1966
10%

The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini

Actor
The Corpse
Movie
1966

The Daydreamer

Voice
The Rat
Movie
1966

The Wild, Wild WestStream

Guest Star
Series
1965

I SpyStream

Guest Star
Series
1965

Die, Monster, Die!

Actor
Nahum Witley
Movie
1965

Thriller Double Feature

Actor
Movie
1964

The Comedy of Terrors

Actor
Amos Hinchley
Movie
1964

Mondo Balordo

Narrator
Movie
1964

The TerrorStream

Actor
Baron Victor Frederick Von Leppe
Movie
1963
36%

Black SabbathStream

Actor
Himself/Gorca
Movie
1963
88%

The RavenStream

Actor
Dr. Scarabus
Movie
1963
83%

Arsenic and Old Lace

Actor
Jonathan Brewster
Show
1962

Arsenic & Old Lace

Actor
Jonathan Brewster
Movie
1962

The Return of Andrew Bentley

Actor
Show
1961

Theatre '62

Actor
Judge Lord Thomas Horfield
Show
1961

Route 66Stream

Guest Star
Himself
Series
1960

ThrillerStream

Host
Series
1960

Sunday Showcase

Actor
Show
1959

Playhouse 90: Heart of Darkness

Actor
Mr. Kurtz
Show
1958

The Juggler of Our Lady

Narrator
Movie
1958

Destination Nightmare

Actor
Movie
1958

Frankenstein 1970

Actor
Baron Victor von Frankenstein
Movie
1958

The Veil

Actor
Movie
1958

The Veil

Host
Movie
1958

The Haunted Strangler

Actor
James Rankin
Movie
1958

Corridors of BloodStream

Actor
Dr. Thomas Bolton
Movie
1958

Voodoo Island

Actor
Phillip Knight
Movie
1957

Telephone Time

Actor
Dr. Pierre
Show
1956

The Alcoa Hour

Actor
Doc Dixon
Show
1955

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

Actor
Colonel Perceval March
Show
1955

A Connecticut Yankee

Actor
King Arthur
Show
1955

Arsenic and Old Lace

Actor
Jonathan Brewster
Show
1955

Sabaka

Actor
Gen. Pollegar
Movie
1955

Climax!Stream

Actor
Series
1954

The Elgin Hour

Actor
Show
1954

The United States Steel Hour

Actor
George Redford
Show
1953

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Actor
Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Hyde
Movie
1953

Colonel March Investigates

Actor
Colonel March
Movie
1953

Island Monster

Actor
Don Gaetano
Movie
1953

The Best of This Is Your Life

Guest
Show
1952

Curtain Call Theater

Actor
Show
1952

I've Got a SecretStream

Guest
Game Show
1952

That Reminds Me

Self
Show
1952

The Black Castle

Actor
Dr. Meissen
Movie
1952

The Red Skelton ShowStream

Guest Star
Series
1951

Tales of TomorrowStream

Actor
Series
1951

The Strange Door

Actor
Voltan
Movie
1951

What's My Line?Stream

Guest
Game Show
1950

SuspenseStream

Actor
Series
1949

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff

Actor
Swami Talpur
Movie
1949

The Emperor's Nightingale

Narrator
Movie
1949

Studio OneStream

Actor
Series
1948

Tap Roots

Actor
Tishomingo
Movie
1948

The Secret Life of Walter MittyStream

Actor
Dr. Hollingshead
Movie
1947
75%

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome

Actor
Gruesome
Movie
1947

UnconqueredStream

Actor
Guyasuta
Movie
1947
86%

Lured

Actor
Charles van Druten
Movie
1947

Bedlam

Actor
Master George Sims
Movie
1946

The Body SnatcherStream

Actor
Cabman John Gray
Movie
1945
86%

House of Frankenstein

Actor
Dr. Gustav Niemann
Movie
1945

Isle of the DeadStream

Actor
General Nikolas Pherides
Movie
1945
90%

The Climax

Actor
Dr. Friedrich Hohner
Movie
1944

The Boogie Man Will Get You

Actor
Prof. Nathaniel Billings
Movie
1942

When the Devil Commands

Actor
Dr. Julian Blair
Movie
1941

The Man With Nine Lives

Actor
Dr. Leon Kravaal
Movie
1940

Before I Hang

Actor
Dr. John Garth
Movie
1940

Doomed to Die

Actor
James Lee Wong
Movie
1940

The Fatal Hour

Actor
James Lee Wong
Movie
1940

British Intelligence

Actor
Valdar
Movie
1940

Black Friday

Actor
Dr. Ernest Sovac
Movie
1940

You'll Find Out

Actor
Judge Spencer Mainwaring
Movie
1940

The Ape

Actor
Dr. Bernard Adrian
Movie
1940

Devil's Island

Actor
Dr. Charles Gaudet
Movie
1940

The Man They Could Not Hang

Actor
Dr. Henryk Savaard
Movie
1939

The Mystery of Mr. Wong

Actor
James Lee Wong
Movie
1939

Son of Frankenstein

Actor
The Monster
Movie
1939

Mr. Wong in Chinatown

Actor
Mr. James Lee Wong
Movie
1939

Tower of London

Actor
Mord
Movie
1939

Mr. Wong, Detective

Actor
Mr. James Lee Wong
Movie
1938

The Invisible Menace

Actor
Jevries
Movie
1938

Night Key

Actor
David Mallory
Movie
1937

Juggernaut

Actor
Doctor Sartorius
Movie
1937

West of Shanghai

Actor
Wu Yen Fang
Movie
1937

The Man Who Lived Again

Actor
Dr. Laurience
Movie
1936

Charlie Chan at the Opera

Actor
Gravelle
Movie
1936

Invisible Ray

Actor
Dr. Janos Rukh
Movie
1936
67%

The Walking Dead

Actor
John Ellman
Movie
1936

The Black Room

Actor
Baron / Anton
Movie
1935

The Bride of FrankensteinStream

Actor
The Monster (as Karloff)
Movie
1935
98%

The Raven

Actor
Edmond Bateman
Movie
1935

The Black CatStream

Actor
Hjalmar Poelzig
Movie
1934
88%

The Lost Patrol

Actor
Sanders
Movie
1934

The House of Rothschild

Actor
Count Ledrantz
Movie
1934

The Ghoul

Actor
Prof. Henry Morlant
Movie
1933

Behind the Mask

Actor
Jim Henderson
Movie
1932

The Old Dark HouseStream

Actor
Morgan
Movie
1932
97%

Night World

Actor
Happy MacDonald
Movie
1932

The MummyStream

Actor
Imhotep/Ardath Bey
Movie
1932
89%

The Mask of Fu Manchu

Actor
Dr. Fu Manchu
Movie
1932

Business and Pleasure

Actor
Sheik
Movie
1932

The Criminal Code

Actor
Ned Galloway
Movie
1931

Cracked Nuts

Actor
Boris
Movie
1931

The Public Defender

Actor
The Professor
Movie
1931

I Like Your Nerve

Actor
Luigi - Pacheco's Butler
Movie
1931

FrankensteinStream

Actor
The Monster
Movie
1931

Smart Money

Actor
Sport Williams
Movie
1931

The Mad Genius

Actor
Fedor's Father
Movie
1931

The Guilty Generation

Actor
Tony Ricca
Movie
1931

Five Star FinalStream

Actor
T. Vernon Isopod
Movie
1931
91%

Tonight or Never

Actor
Waiter
Movie
1931

The Utah Kid

Actor
Henchman Baxter
Movie
1930

The Sea Bat

Actor
Corsican
Movie
1930

The Fatal Warning

Actor
Mullins
Movie
1929

Behind That Curtain

Actor
Beetham's Manservant
Movie
1929

The Unholy Night

Actor
Abdul
Movie
1929

Two Sisters

Actor
Cecil
Movie
1929

The Vanishing Rider

Actor
The Villain
Movie
1928

Tarzan and the Golden Lion

Actor
Owaza
Movie
1927

Two Arabian Knights

Actor
The Purser
Movie
1927

The Bells

Actor
The Mesmerist
Movie
1926

Old Ironsides

Actor
A Saracen Guard
Movie
1926

The Cave Girl

Actor
Baptiste
Movie
1921

The Courage of Marge O'Doone

Actor
Tavish
Movie
1920

The Last of the Mohicans

Actor
Indian
Movie
1920