Real Name: William Henry Pratt
Birth: November 23, 1887
Death: February 2, 1969
Boris Karloff is arguably Universal Studio’s most well-known horror actor and icon. He was made famous in 1931 for his role as the Monster in Frankenstein at 44-years-old.
Before Frankenstein, Karloff struggled as an actor and had small roles in numerous silent films. Lon Chaney, the big horror star of the time, was friendly with him and gave him advice on how to succeed in the industry. “Find something no one else can or will do and they’ll begin to take notice of you.” This is something Chaney did throughout his career by playing painful roles, and it’s what Karloff found a few years later when he became the Monster.
Karloff was born in London, England in 1887. He was the youngest member of a large Anglo-Indian family whose family business was civil service. His great aunt was Anna Leonowens, who moved to Siam to teach the king’s wives and children, and inspired the movie The King and I.
It was expected that Karloff would become a diplomat after graduating college, but instead his dream was to become an actor like his older brother, George Marlow Pratt. In May of 1909, he sailed to Canada to pursue his dream and became “Boris Karloff.” It isn’t clear how he thought up this name, but he claimed that “Karloff” was his grandmother’s family name.
After Canada proved to be unsuccessful, Karloff moved to Los Angeles and started taking small roles in many silent films. It seemed that Karloff would never achieve stardom until he did as Chaney advised – he took a grueling role that no one else would.
The role of the Monster in Frankenstein required hours of painful work in the makeup chair. Karloff even had his dental bridge removed to make his face look more sunken. The look was deemed so disturbing that Karloff had to wear over his face while walking to and from set so he wouldn’t scare any of the workers! But it wasn’t just his makeup that was difficult. His costume was bulky and his shoes weighed 13 pounds each. But the role shot him to stardom and opened the door to many more lead roles.
A year later in 1932, Karloff starred as Imhotep in The Mummy and Morgan in The Old Dark House. He moved on to act in many more films such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1963), which were inspired by Edgar Allan Poe stories. His most famous non-horror role is the voice of the narrator and the Grinch in 1966’s animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas! His popularity led him to be called “Karloff the Uncanny” by filmmakers and the public.
Even though Karloff’s most famous role was in Frankenstein, he played the Monster in only two more movies – The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). He continued to act in movies that featured the Monster, but he played other characters. In House of Frankenstein (1944), Karloff played the villian, Dr. Niemann and the Monster was played by Glenn Strange. Karloff’s complete filmography is available here.
Unlike many other actors who end up hating the role that made them famous, Karloff remained appreciative of what the Monster gave him. He even said, “My dear old monster. I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.”
Even though Karloff played monstrous characters on film, he was the exact opposite in real life. He is reported as being a very kind and gentle man who was fond of gardening and cricket. He was also considered mysterious because he kept his personal life to himself. He’s been married six times, and has one daughter named Sara who was born on his birthday in 1938 during the filming of Son of Frankenstein. He reportedly rushed in the hospital in full costume and makeup.
Boris Karloff died at the age of 81 at his home in England.