William Henry Pratt (23 November 1887 – 2 February 1969), better known by his stage name Boris Karloff, was an English actor.
Karloff is widely known for his roles in horror films and especially for his portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939), which resulted in his immense popularity.
His best-known non-horror role is as the Grinch, as well as the narrator, in the animated television special of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966).
He also had a memorable role in the original Scarface (1932).
For his contribution to film and television, Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Karloff was born on 23 November 1887 at 36 Forest Hill Road, Honor Oak, London, England, where a blue plaque can now be seen.
His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His maternal grandparents were James Millard and Eliza Julia Edwards, a sister of Anna Leonowens (whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I).
The two sisters were of Anglo-Indian heritage.
Karloff grew up in Enfield. He was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother’s death was brought up by his elder siblings.
He later attended Enfield Grammar School before moving to Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School, and went on to attend King’s College London where he studied to go into the consular service. He dropped out in 1909 and worked as a farm labourer and did various odd jobs until he happened into acting.
His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, became a distinguished British diplomat. Karloff 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.
In 1909, Pratt travelled to Canada and began appearing in stage shows throughout the country; and some time later changed his professional name to “Boris Karloff”.
Some have theorised that he took the stage name from a mad scientist character in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy called “Boris Karlov”. However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in silent films (Warner Oland played “Boris Karlov” in a film version in 1931).
Another possible influence was thought to be a character in the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy novel H. R. H. The Rider which features a “Prince Boris of Karlova”, but as the novel was not published until 1915, the influence may be backward, that Burroughs saw Karloff in a play and adapted the name for the character.
Karloff always claimed he chose the first name “Boris” because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that “Karloff” was a family name (from Karlov – in Cyrillic, Карлов – a name found in several Slavic countries, including Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria).
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 apparently worried they felt that way.
He did not reunite with his family until he returned to Britain to make The Ghoul (1933), extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his brothers jostled for position around him and happily posed for publicity photographs.
Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, British Columbia and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After the devastating tornado in Regina on 30 June 1912, Karloff and other performers helped with clean-up efforts.
He later took a job as a railway baggage handler and joined the Harry St. Clair Co. that performed in Minot, North Dakota for a year in an opera house above a hardware store.
Due to the years of difficult manual labour that Karloff had had to perform in Canada and the US 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 the First World War.
Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labour such as digging ditches or delivering construction plaster to earn a living.
A number of his early major roles were in film serials, such as The Masked Rider (1919), in Chapter 2 of which he can be glimpsed onscreen for the first time, The Hope Diamond Mystery (1920) and King of the Wild (1930).
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 autumn 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.
Karloff recorded the title role of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for the Shakespeare Recording Society (Caedmon Audio). The recording was originally released in 1962. A download of his performance is available from audible.com.
Karloff is also heard as the narrator of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Mario Rossi. The performance from the LP era is still available as a CD.
Records Karloff made for the children’s market included Three Little Pigs and Other Fairy Stories, Tales of the Frightened (volume 1 and 2), Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and, with Cyril Ritchard and Celeste Holm, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark.
Karloff also edited several horror anthologies, commencing with Tales of Terror (Cleveland and NY: World Publishing Co, 1943)(compiled with the help of Edmond Speare). This wartime-published anthology went through at least five printings to September 1945. It has been reprinted recently (Orange NJ: Idea Men, 2007).
Karloff’s name was also attached to And the Darkness Falls (Cleveland and NY: World Publishing Co, 1946); and The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology (London: Souvenir Press, 1965; simultaneous publication in Canada – Toronto: The Ryerson Press; US pbk reprint NY: Avon Books, 1965 retitled as Boris Karloff’s Favourite Horror Stories; UK pbk reprints London: Corgi, 1969 and London: Everest, 1975, both under the original title), though it less clear whether Karloff himself actually edited these.
Tales of the Frightened (Belmont Books, 1963), though based on the recordings by Karloff of the same title, and featuring his image on the book cover, contained stories written entirely by Michael Avallone; the second volume, Boris Karloff presents More Tales of the Frightened contained stories authored entirely by Robert Lory.
Both Avallone and Lory worked closely with Canadian editor and book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, who also ghost-edited a horror story anthology for horror film star Basil Rathbone.
Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed as Father Christmas every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital.
Despite living and working in the United States for many years, Karloff never became a naturalised American citizen and never legally changed his name to “Boris Karloff.” He signed official documents “William H. Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff.”
Karloff was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and was especially outspoken regarding working conditions on sets that actors were expected to deal with in the mid-1930s, some of which were extremely hazardous. In 1931, Boris Karloff took out insurance against premature aging that might be caused by his fright make-up.
He married five times and had one child, daughter Sara Karloff, by his fourth wife. At the time of his daughter’s birth Karloff was filming Son of Frankenstein, and reportedly rushed from the film set to the hospital while still in full makeup.
Boris Karloff lived out his final years in England at his cottage, ‘Roundabout,’ in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. After a long battle with arthritis and emphysema, he contracted pneumonia and succumbed in King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex on 2 February 1969 at the age of 81.
He was cremated, following a requested modest service, at Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, where he is commemorated by a plaque in the Garden of Remembrance. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s, Covent Garden (the Actors’ Church), London, where there is also a plaque.
Four Mexican films for which Karloff shot his scenes in Los Angeles in 1968 were released over a two-year period after he had died. During the run of Thriller, Karloff lent his name and likeness to a comic book for Gold Key Comics based upon the series. After Thriller was cancelled, the comic was retitled Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery.
An illustrated likeness of Karloff continued to introduce each issue of this publication for nearly a decade after the real Karloff died; the comic lasted until the early 1980s. Starting in 2009, Dark Horse Comics started to reprint Tales of Mystery in a hard bound archive.