Boris Karloff, whose name is synonymous with the horror genre, was no monster to those who knew him. Remembered as a soft spoken and polite bookish fellow who relished his afternoon tea and the writings of Joseph Conrad, he was fond of children, animals and gardening and an avid cricket fan.
“The monster not only gave me recognition as an actor it created for me a certain niche, which has given me a career” Boris Karloff once said of Frankenstein's creature, a role which he immortalized in 1931.
Born William Henry Pratt the youngest of nine children in 1887 November 23, it was his father's intention that all of his sons, eight total, would follow him into the Counselor service. But at the age of nine young Billy Pratt, as he was called by his friends, decided to become an actor after winning the part of the demon king in a production of Cinderella in 1896. He later attended Enfield Grammar School, Uppingham School, Merchant Taylors' School, and King's College London where he prepared for a career in the consular service. Then at the age of 19, against his family's wishes, the young and determined Billy Pratt dropped out of school to follow his dream.
In May of 1909 the future actor left England for Montréal Canada. His There he scraped out a living at starvation wages. To make ends meet he turned to selling horses, real estate and working as a laborer. It was during this period that Billy Pratt became Boris Karloff. “After all, one can’t be an actor and be called Pratt!” Karloff once explained. Karloff spent 10 years in repertory companies, went to Hollywood, appearing in forty five silent films for Universal Studios, among them The Last of the Mohicans, Forbidden Cargo and an installment in the popular Tarzan series but the success he sought, to be a full time actor, eluded him.
The man of a thousand faces, fellow actor, Lon Chaney once told Karloff, “Find something no one else can or will do, and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality!”
Karloff took Chaney’s advice and when James Whale offered him the role of Frankenstein’s creature in Frankenstein (1931) Karloff jumped at the chance. It was believed by the studio that Colin Clive’s character, Henry Frankenstein would be the focus of the film, in fact Karloff’s role was considered such a minor part that he was not invited to the premiere. But the movie going audience fell for the lurching monster and Karloff’s performance was praised by movie goers and critics alike. After decades of struggling, Karloff’s career took off. Later screen credits would list him as “Karloff” or as “Karloff the uncanny.”
Karloff’s career spanned more than four decades including 140 films of which 45 were silent. During his long career Karloff would worked on stage, screen, radio and television. He hosted the television series Thriller from 1960 to 1962 and received a Grammy Award for his narration of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Karloff was instrumental in starting the Screen Actor Guild and would serve on its board for more than twenty years insisting that the studios follow the SAG rules. Karloff never relinquished his British citizenship or legally changed his name he would sign his contacts as “William H. Pratt a.k.a Boris Karloff.” Karloff died in 1969 in England at the age of 81.
Right - Glenn Strange as the monster and Boris Karloff as Dr. Gustav Niemann in House of Frankenstein. (1944)Universal Pictures.
Below - Glenn Strange is best remembered for his role as Sam Noonan, the bartender on CBS's Gunsmoke television series