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Boris Karloff
Boris Karloff.jpg
Karloff c. 1940s
William Henry Pratt

(1887-11-23)23 November 1887
Dulwich, Surrey, England
Died 2 February 1969(1969-02-02) (aged 81)
Midhurst, Sussex, England
Resting place Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, England
Alma mater King's College London
Occupation Actor
Years active 1909–1969
Grace Harding
(m. 1910; div. 1913)
Olive de Wilton
(m. 1916; div. 1919)
Montana Laurena Williams
(m. 1920; div. 1922)
Helene Vivian Soule
(m. 1924; div. 1928)
Dorothy Stine
(m. 1930; div. 1946)
Evelyn Hope Helmore
(m. 1946)
Children Sara Karloff
Relatives Anna Leonowens (great-aunt)
Frankenstein (1931 teaser poster - Style B)
Theatrical teaser poster

William Henry Pratt (23 November 1887 – 2 February 1969), known professionally as Boris Karloff (/ˈkɑːrlɒf/), was an English actor. His portrayal of Frankenstein's monster in the horror film Frankenstein (1931) (his 82nd film) established him as a horror icon, and he reprised the role for the sequels Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). He also appeared as Imhotep in The Mummy (1932), and voiced the Grinch in, as well as narrating, the animated television special of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), which won him a Grammy Award.

Aside from his numerous film roles (174 films), Karloff acted in many live stage plays and appeared on dozens of radio and television programs as well. For his contribution to film and television, Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 8 February 1960.

Early life

William Henry Pratt alias BORIS KARLOFF 1887-1969 Actor was born here
English Heritage Blue plaque at 36 Forest Hill Road, London, marking Karloff's birthplace

William Henry Pratt was born on 23 November 1887, at 36 Forest Hill Road, Dulwich, Surrey (now in London), England. His parents were Edward John Pratt (1826/7–1897), of the Indian Civil Service, where he worked for the salt revenue service, and Eliza Sara (born 1848), née Millard. Both his parents died when Karloff was young, and he was primarily raised by a half-sister and his elder siblings. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, was a British diplomat. Karloff's father Edward John Pratt was Anglo-Indian, with a British father and Indian mother, meaning that Karloff was at least a quarter Indian, while Karloff's mother also had some Indian ancestry, thus Karloff had a relatively dark complexion that differed from his peers at the time. His mother's maternal aunt was Anna Leonowens, whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I. Pratt was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He learned how to manage his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable throughout his career in the film industry.

Pratt spent his childhood years in Enfield, in the County of Middlesex. He was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother's death was brought up by his elder siblings. After first attending Enfield Grammar School, he received a private education at Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors' School. Following this he attended King's College London, where he took studies aimed at a career with the British Government's Consular Service. However, in 1909, he left university without graduating and drifted, departing England for Canada, where he worked as a farm labourer, truck driver and did various odd jobs until happening upon stage acting, which led to a later film career. He also worked for BC Hydro Electric in Canada.

Canadian and U.S. stage work

Boris Karloff 1913
Karloff in 1913

Pratt began appearing in theatrical performances in Canada in 1911 and during this period he chose Boris Karloff as his stage name. Karloff always claimed he chose the first name "Boris" simply because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that "Karloff" was a family name. Karloff's daughter, Sara, publicly denied any knowledge of Slavic forebears, "Karloff" or otherwise.

It has been speculated by film historians that he took the stage name from a mad scientist character named "Boris Karlov" in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy by Harold MacGrath. However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in 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 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.

One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to the Pratt 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 upon their reunion with him. After the photo was taken, Karloff's brothers immediately started asking about getting a copy of their own. The story of the photo became one of Karloff's favorites.

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, who was in the midst of an engagement at the Regina Theatre, and other performers helped with clean-up efforts. He later took a job as a railway baggage handler and joined the Harry St. Clair Company that performed in Minot, North Dakota, for a year in an opera house above a hardware store.

While he was trying to establish his acting career, Karloff had to perform years of manual labour in Canada and the U.S. in order to make ends meet. Among this work, he spent one year laying track, digging ditches, shoveling coal, clearing land, and working with surveying parties for the B.C. Electric Railway Company, at the rate of $2.50 per hour. From this grueling work with the BCER and other employers, Karloff was left with back problems for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not serve in World War I.

During this period, Karloff worked in various theatrical stock companies across the U.S. to hone his acting skills. Some acting companies mentioned were the Harry St. Clair Players and the Billie Bennett Touring Company. By early 1918 he was working with the Maud Amber Players in Vallejo, California, but because of the Spanish flu outbreak in the San Francisco area and the fear of infection, the troupe was disbanded. He was able to find work with the Haggerty Repertory for a while (according to the 1973 obituary of Joseph Paul Haggerty, he and Boris Karloff remained lifelong friends).

Early Hollywood career

Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu
Karloff as Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).
Colin Clive and Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein's monster (Boris Karloff)
Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Top photo: Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Center photo: Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester, Karloff and Ernest Thesiger in Bride of Frankenstein
Bottom photo: Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he appeared in small roles in dozens of silent films, but the work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labour such as digging ditches or delivering construction plaster to make ends meet. (According to Karloff, his first film was a Frank Borzage picture at Universal for which he received $5 as an extra; the title of this film has never been traced.)

His first confirmed on-screen role was in a film serial, The Lightning Raider (1919) with Pearl White. He was in another serial that same year, The Masked Rider (1919), the earliest of his film appearances that has survived.

Karloff could also be seen in His Majesty, the American (1919) with Douglas Fairbanks, The Prince and Betty (1919), The Deadlier Sex (1920) with Blanche Sweet, and The Courage of Marge O'Doone (1920). He played an Indian in The Last of the Mohicans (1920) with Wallace Beery and he would often be cast as an Arab or Indian in his early films.

Karloff's first major role came in a film serial, The Hope Diamond Mystery (1920). He was Indian in Without Benefit of Clergy (1921) and an Arab in Cheated Hearts (1921) and villainous in The Cave Girl (1921). He was a maharajah in The Man from Downing Street (1922), a Nabob in The Infidel (1922) and had roles in The Altar Stairs (1922), Omar the Tentmaker (1922) (as an Imam), The Woman Conquers (1922), The Gentleman from America (1923), The Prisoner (1923) and the serial Riders of the Plains (1923).

Karloff did a Western, The Hellion (1923), and a drama, Dynamite Dan (1924). He could be seen in Parisian Nights (1925), Forbidden Cargo (1925), The Prairie Wife (1925) and the serial Perils of the Wild (1925).

Karloff went back to bit part status in Never the Twain Shall Meet (1925), directed by Maurice Tourneur, but he had a good support part in Lady Robinhood (1925) starring Evelyn Brent in the titular role.

Karloff went on to be in The Greater Glory (1926), Her Honor, the Governor (1926), The Bells (1926) (as a mesmerist), The Nickel-Hopper (1926) with Mabel Normand, The Golden Web (1926), The Eagle of the Sea (1926), Flames (1926), Old Ironsides (1926) with Wallace Beery and Esther Ralston, Flaming Fury (1926), Valencia (1926), The Man in the Saddle (1926) with Hoot Gibson, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927) (as an African), Let It Rain (1927), The Meddlin' Stranger (1927), The Princess from Hoboken (1927), The Phantom Buster (1927) with Buddy Roosevelt, and Soft Cushions (1927).

Karloff had roles in Two Arabian Knights (1927), The Love Mart (1927) with Noah Beery Sr., The Vanishing Rider (1928) (a serial), Burning the Wind (1928), Vultures of the Sea (1928), and The Little Wild Girl (1928).

He was in The Devil's Chaplain (1929), The Fatal Warning (1929) for Richard Thorpe, The Phantom of the North (1929), Two Sisters (1929), Anne Against the World (1929), Behind That Curtain (1929) with Warner Baxter, and The King of the Kongo (1929), a serial directed by Thorpe.

While one day sitting at the bus stop in the pouring rain, Lon Chaney Sr., 'The Man of a Thousand Faces', spotted Karloff and offered him a ride. Chaney told him "to find something different that will set you apart and is different from anything someone else has done or is willing to do and do it better".

Karloff had an uncredited bit part in The Unholy Night (1930) directed by Lionel Barrymore, and bigger parts in The Bad One (1930),The Sea Bat (1930) starring Charles Bickford and directed by Lionel Barrymore and Wesley Ruggles, and The Utah Kid (1930) directed by Thorpe.

A film which brought Karloff recognition was The Criminal Code (1931), a prison drama directed by Howard Hawks in which he reprised a dramatic part he had played on stage. In the same period, Karloff had a supporting role as a mob boss in Hawks' gangster film Scarface starring Paul Muni and George Raft, but the film was not released until 1932 because of difficult censorship issues.

He did another serial for Thorpe, King of the Wild (1931), then had support parts in Cracked Nuts (1931) with Wheeler and Woolsey, Young Donovan's Kid (1931) with Jackie Cooper, Smart Money (1931) with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney in their only film together, The Public Defender (1931) with Richard Dix, I Like Your Nerve (1931) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Loretta Young, and Graft (1931) with Regis Toomey and future agent Sue Carol.

Another significant role in the autumn of 1931 saw Karloff play a key supporting part as an unethical newspaper reporter in Five Star Final with Edward G. Robinson, a film about tabloid journalism which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

He could also be seen in The Yellow Ticket (1931) with Elissa Landi, Lionel Barrymore and Laurence Olivier during Olivier's memorable first round in Hollywood, The Mad Genius (1931) with John Barrymore, The Guilty Generation (1931) with Robert Young and Tonight or Never (1931) with Gloria Swanson.

Transition to stardom

Karloff acted in eighty-one films before being discovered by James Whale and cast in Frankenstein (1931). Karloff's role as Frankenstein's monster was physically demanding – it necessitated a bulky costume with four-inch platform boots – but the costume and extensive makeup produced an iconic image. The costume was a job in itself for Karloff with the shoes weighing 11 pounds (5.0 kg) each and further aggravated his back problems. Universal Studios quickly copyrighted the makeup design for the Frankenstein monster that Jack P. Pierce had created.

It took a while for Karloff's stardom to be established with the public – he had small roles in Behind the Mask (1932), Business and Pleasure (1932) and The Miracle Man (1932).

As receipts for Frankenstein and Scarface flooded in, Universal gave Karloff third billing in Night World (1932), with Lew Ayres, Mae Clarke and George Raft.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House
Gloria Stuart and Karloff in The Old Dark House (1932)
Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House 1932
Karloff and Gloria Stuart in The Old Dark House (1932); Stuart would portray the elderly version of Kate Winslet's role in Titanic (1997) 65 years later
Elsa Lanchester and Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Karloff was reunited with Whale at Universal for The Old Dark House (1932), a horror film based on the novel Benighted by J. B. Priestley, in which he finally enjoyed top billing above Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart; he was billed simply as "KARLOFF", a custom that Universal continued for several years. He was loaned to MGM to play the titular role in The Mask of Fu Manchu (also 1932), for which he had top billing.

The Mummy (Boris Karloff)
Karloff in The Mummy (1932)

Back at Universal, he was cast as Imhotep who is revived in The Mummy (1932), an original story inspired by the unsealing of Tutankhamun's tomb—though essentially narratively a remake of Dracula set in Egypt—conceived to continue the success of the Dracula and Frankenstein adaptations. The Mummy was as successful at the box-office as his other two films and Karloff was now established as a star of horror films. Like Frankenstein, The Mummy would spawn a line of sequels, although Karloff would not reprise the iconic 1932 role.

Karloff returned to England to star in The Ghoul (1933), then made a non-horror film for John Ford, The Lost Patrol (1934), for which his performance was highly acclaimed.

Karloff was third billed in the Twentieth Century Pictures historical film The House of Rothschild (1934) with George Arliss, which was highly popular.

Horror, however, had now become Karloff's primary genre, and he gave a string of lauded performances in Universal's horror films, including several with Bela Lugosi, his main rival as heir to Lon Chaney's status as the leading horror film star. While the long-standing, 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) and continuing with Gift of Gab (1934), in which both had cameos. Karloff reprised the role of Frankenstein's monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) for James Whale. Then he and Lugosi were reunited for The Raven (1935). Billed only by his last name during this period, Karloff had top billing above Lugosi in all their films together despite Lugosi having the larger role in The Raven.

For Columbia, Karloff made The Black Room (1935) then he returned to Universal for The Invisible Ray (1936) with Lugosi, more a science fiction film. Karloff was then cast in a Warner Bros. horror film, The Walking Dead (1936).

Because the Motion Picture Production Code (known as the Hays Code) began to be seriously enforced in 1934, horror films declined in the second half of the 1930s. Karloff worked in other genres, making two films in Britain, Juggernaut (1936) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936) which was released in the U.S. as The Man Who Lived Again.

He returned to Hollywood to play a supporting role in Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), then starred in a crime drama, Night Key (1937). At Warners, he did two films with John Farrow, playing a Chinese warlord in West of Shanghai (1937) and a murder suspect in The Invisible Menace (1938).

Karloff went to Monogram to play the title role of a Chinese detective in Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), which led to a series. Karloff's portrayal of the character is an example of Hollywood's use of yellowface and its portrayal of East Asians in the earlier half of the 20th century. He had another heroic role in Devil's Island (1939).

Universal found reissuing Dracula and Frankenstein led to success at the box-office and began to produce horror films again starting with Son of Frankenstein (1939). Karloff reprised his role, with Lugosi also starring as Ygor and top-billed Basil Rathbone as Dr. Frankenstein. This was Karloff's first Universal film since the original Frankenstein in which Karloff was not top billed as "KARLOFF", a custom that the studio had used for eight films in a row while Karloff was at the height of his career. Basil Rathbone held top billing for Son of Frankenstein, and since Rathbone, Karloff and Lugosi were all billed above the title, billing Basil, Boris and Bela was hard to resist. Karloff was never billed by simply his last name again. Regarding Son of Frankenstein, the film's director Rowland V. Lee said his crew let Lugosi "work on the characterization; the interpretation he gave us was imaginative and totally unexpected ... when we finished shooting, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he stole the show. Karloff's monster was weak by comparison."

After The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) and Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) he signed a three-picture deal with Columbia, starting with The Man They Could Not Hang (1939). Karloff returned to Universal to make Tower of London (1939) with Rathbone, playing the murderous henchman of King Richard III.

British Intelligence (1940) still 1
Karloff with Margaret Lindsay in British Intelligence (1940)

Karloff made a fourth Mr Wong film at Monogram The Fatal Hour (1940). At Warners he was in British Intelligence (1940), then he went to Universal to do Black Friday (1940) with Lugosi.

Karloff's second and third films for Columbia were The Man with Nine Lives (1940) and Before I Hang (1940). In between he did a fifth and final Mr Wong film, Doomed to Die (1940).

Karloff appeared at a celebrity baseball game as Frankenstein's monster in 1940, hitting a gag home run and making catcher Buster Keaton fall into an acrobatic dead faint as the monster stomped into home plate.

Karloff finished a six picture commitment with Monogram with The Ape (1940). He and Lugosi appeared with Peter Lorre in a comedy at RKO, You'll Find Out (1941), then he went to Columbia for The Devil Commands (1941) and The Boogie Man Will Get You (1941).

Professional expansion and further success

Doomed to Die (1940) 1
L–R: Marjorie Reynolds, Boris Karloff (seated), Raymond Hatton and Grant Withers in Doomed to Die (1940)

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. Frank Capra cast Raymond Massey in the 1944 film, which was shot in 1941, while Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway. The play's producers allowed the film to be made conditionally: it was not to be released until the production closed. (Karloff reprised his role on television in the anthology series The Best of Broadway (1955), and with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. He also starred in a radio adaptation produced by Screen Guild Theatre in 1946.)

In 1944, he underwent a spinal operation to relieve a chronic arthritic condition.

Karloff returned to film roles in The Climax (1944), an unsuccessful attempt to repeat the success of Phantom of the Opera (1943). More liked was House of Frankenstein (1944), marking Karloff's "retirement" from playing the Monster, where instead, he comes full circle to play the villainous Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist fixated on life-experiments much like Henry Frankenstein, and pass the torch to actor Glenn Strange, who would play the Monster in subsequent films.

Karloff made three films for producer Val Lewton at RKO: The Body Snatcher (1945), his last teaming with Lugosi, Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946).

In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his arrangement with RKO, working with Lewton and his reasons for leaving Universal. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course; the entries in the series after Son of Frankenstein were B-pictures. Berg wrote that the last installment in which Karloff appeared—House of Frankenstein—was what he called a " 'monster clambake,' with everything thrown in—Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback and a 'man-beast' that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so." Berg explained that the actor had "great love and respect for" Lewton, who was "the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul."

Horror films experienced a decline in popularity after the war, and Karloff found himself working in other genres.

For the Danny Kaye comedy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Karloff appeared in a brief but starring role as Dr. Hugo Hollingshead, a psychiatrist. Director Norman Z. McLeod shot a sequence with Karloff in the Frankenstein monster make-up, but it was deleted from the finished film.

Karloff appeared in a film noir, Lured (1947), and as an Indian in Unconquered (1947). He had support roles in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), Tap Roots (1948), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949).

Boris Karloff radio show WNEW 1950
Karloff had his own weekly children's radio show "Boris Karloff's Treasure Chest" on WNEW, New York, in 1950. He played children's music and told stories and riddles. Although the programme was meant for children, Karloff attracted many adult listeners as well.

During this period, Karloff was a frequent guest on radio programmes, whether it was starring in Arch Oboler's Chicago-based Lights Out productions (including the episode "Cat Wife") or spoofing his horror image with Fred Allen or Jack Benny. In 1949, he was the host and star of Starring Boris Karloff, a radio and television anthology series for the ABC broadcasting network.

He appeared as the villainous Captain Hook in Peter Pan in a 1950 stage musical adaptation which also featured Jean Arthur.

Karloff returned to horror films with The Strange Door (1951) and The Black Castle (1952).

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 he reprised years later on TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Boris Karloff Captain Hook Peter Pan
Boris Karloff as Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1950)
Red Skelton Boris Karloff Red Skelton Show 1954
Karloff played a foreign scientist who hoped to gain defence secrets from Cookie the Sailor (Skelton) on The Red Skelton Show in 1954.
"Colonel March of Scotland Yard"
Karloff played detective Colonel March on Colonel March of Scotland Yard in 1955.

During the 1950s, he appeared on British television in the series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, in which he portrayed John Dickson Carr's fictional detective Colonel March, who was known for solving apparently impossible crimes. Christopher Lee appeared alongside Karloff in the episode "At Night, All Cats are Grey" broadcast in 1955. A little later, Karloff co-starred with Lee in the film Corridors of Blood (1958).

Karloff appeared in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1952) and visited Italy for The Island Monster (1954) and then returned to Hollywood to appear in Sabaka (1954).

Karloff, along with H. V. Kaltenborn, was a regular panelist on the NBC game show, Who Said That? which aired between 1948 and 1955. Later, as a guest on NBC's The Gisele MacKenzie Show, Karloff sang "Those Were the Good Old Days" from Damn Yankees while Gisele MacKenzie performed the solo, "Give Me the Simple Life". On The Red Skelton Show, Karloff guest starred along with actor Vincent Price in a parody of Frankenstein, with Red Skelton as "Klem Kadiddle Monster". He served as host and one of the stars of the anthology series The Veil (1958), a 12-episode Hal Roach TV series which was never broadcast at all due to financial problems at the producing studio; the complete series was later rediscovered in the 1990s and eventually released on DVD.

Karloff made some horror films in the late 1950s: Voodoo Island (1957), The Haunted Strangler (1958), Frankenstein 1970 (1958) (this time as the Baron), and Corridors of Blood (1958). Karloff donned the Frankenstein Monster make-up for the last time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, which also featured Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.

During this period, he hosted and acted in a number of television series, including Thriller and Britain's Out of This World.

Final roles and work

Karloff went to Italy to appear in Black Sabbath (1963) directed by Mario Bava. He made The Raven (1963) for Roger Corman and American International Pictures (AIP). When The Raven had successfully wrapped shooting with time left in Karloff's contract, Corman conscribed a new story with the same sets to feature Karloff in The Terror (1963), with Jack Nicholson in the leading role and Karloff playing a baron who murdered his wife. He made a cameo in AIP's Bikini Beach (1964) and had a bigger role in that studio's The Comedy of Terrors (1964), directed by Jacques Tourneur, and travelled to England to make Die, Monster, Die! (1965) co-starring Nick Adams. British actress Suzan Farmer, who played his daughter in the film, later recalled Karloff was aloof during production "and wasn't the charming personality people perceived him to be", probably because he was in such intense pain in the 1960s.

In 1966, Karloff also appeared with Robert Vaughn and Stefanie Powers in the spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., in the episode "The Mother Muffin Affair", Karloff performing in drag as the titular character. That same year, he also played an Indian Maharajah on the installment of the adventure series The Wild Wild West titled "The Night of the Golden Cobra". Karloff's last film for AIP was The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

In 1967, he played an eccentric Spanish professor who believes himself to be Don Quixote in a whimsical episode of I Spy titled "Mainly on the Plains", which he filmed in Spain. Cauldron of Blood, shot in Spain around the same time, and co-starring Viveca Lindfors, was only released in 1970 after Karloff's death.

In the mid-1960s, he enjoyed a late-career surge in the United States when he narrated the made-for-television animated film of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and also provided the voice of the Grinch, although the song "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" was sung by the American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft. The film was first broadcast on CBS-TV in 1966. Karloff later received a Grammy Award for "Best Recording For Children" after the recording was commercially released. Because Ravenscroft (who never met Karloff in the course of their work on the show) was uncredited for his contribution to How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, his performance of the song was at times misattributed to Karloff.

He appeared in Mad Monster Party? (1967) and went to England to star in the second feature film of the British director Michael Reeves, The Sorcerers (1967).

Karloff starred in Targets (1968), the first feature film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, featuring two separate plotlines that converge into one. Karloff starred as the retired horror film actor, Byron Orlok, a thinly disguised version of himself; Orlok (named both for Karloff himself and Count Orlok,) was facing an end of life crisis, which he resolves through a confrontation with the crazed gunman at the drive-in cinema.

Around the same time, he played the occult expert Professor Marsh in a British production titled The Crimson Cult (Curse of the Crimson Altar, also 1968), which was the last Karloff film to be released during his lifetime.

He ended his career by appearing in four low-budget Mexican horror films: Isle of the Snake People, The Incredible Invasion, Fear Chamber and House of Evil. This was a package deal with Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara. Karloff's scenes for all four films were directed by Jack Hill and shot back-to-back within one month in Los Angeles in the spring of 1968. The films were later completed in Mexico and theatrically released in the early 1970s. Karloff was originally slated to travel to Mexico to shoot the films, but he had emphysema and crippling arthritis. Only half of one lung was still functioning and he required oxygen between takes, so Hill arranged for Karloff to film his scenes in California.

Due to the unexpected sudden death of the producer Vergara, all four Mexican films were embroiled for a while in legal actions and were only released posthumously in 1971, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not released until 1972, more than two years after Karloff's death.

Spoken word recordings and horror anthologies

He recorded the title role of Shakespeare's Cymbeline for the Shakespeare Recording Society (Caedmon Audio 1962). He also recorded the narration for Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Mario Rossi.

Records he 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 was credited for editing 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 is 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 by Michael Avallone; the second volume, More Tales of the Frightened, contained stories authored 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.

Personal life

Karloff married six times. His wives included stage actress Grace Harding (married from 1910 to 1913), actress Olive de Wilton (from 1916 to 1919), musician Montana Laurena Williams (from 1920 to 1922) and actress Helen Vivian Soule (from 1924 to 1928).

His fifth marriage to Dorothy Stine lasted from 1930 until 1946. This marriage resulted in Karloff's only child, daughter Sara Karloff, being born on November 23, 1938 (which coincidentally was also Karloff's 51st birthday).

His sixth and final marriage, to Evelyn Hope Helmore, was in April 1946, immediately after his fifth divorce. They were still happily married 23 years later at the time of his death.

Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed as Father Christmas every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital.

He never legally changed his name to "Boris Karloff." He signed official documents "William H. Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff."

He was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and he was especially outspoken due to the long hours he spent in makeup while playing Frankenstein's Monster and the Mummy. He was an early member of the Hollywood Cricket Club.


Upon returning to England to live in 1959, his address was 43 Cadogan Square, London. In 1966, he bought 25 Campden House (in 29 Sheffield Terrace), Kensington W8, and Roundabout Cottage in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. A longtime heavy smoker, he had emphysema which left him with only half of one lung still functioning. He contracted bronchitis in late 1968 and was hospitalised at University College Hospital. He died of pneumonia at the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, in Sussex, on 2 February 1969, at the age of 81.

His body 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.


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 more than a decade after his death (he wasn't involved however in writing or drawing the stories); the comic book lasted until the early 1980s (a Gold Key comic book series based upon The Twilight Zone that ran concurrently with Karloff's did the same thing with host Rod Serling's likeness after his death). In 2009, Dark Horse Comics began publishing reprints of Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery in a hardcover edition.

For his contribution to film and television, Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1737 Vine Street for motion pictures, and 6664 Hollywood Boulevard for television. Karloff was featured by the U.S. Postal Service as Frankenstein's Monster and the Mummy in its series "Classic Monster Movie Stamps" issued in September 1997. In 1998, an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled in his hometown in London. The British film magazine Empire in 2016 ranked Karloff's portrayal as Frankenstein's monster the sixth-greatest horror movie character of all time.


Radio appearances (1932-1968)

Program Episode Date Notes
California Melodies Karloff appeared with the Hallelujah Quartet Jan. 3, 1932
Hollywood on the Air (Hollywood on Parade) Karloff appeared with Katharine Hepburn Nov. 25, 1932
Hollywood on the Air (Hollywood on Parade) Karloff appeared with Victor McLaglen Oct. 7, 1933
California Melodies Karloff appeared as a guest Oct. 24, 1933
Hollywood on the Air Karloff appeared as a guest Jan. 27, 1934
Forty-Five Minutes in Hollywood Karloff appeared as a guest twice Feb. 15 & Aug. 2, 1934
The Show Episode "Death Takes a Holiday" Aug. 27, 1934
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour (with Rudy Vallee) Episode "Death Takes a Holiday" Oct. 11, 1934
Shell Chateau (hosted by Al Jolson) Episode "The Green Goddess" with George Jessel Aug. 31, 1935
Hollywood Boulevardier interviewed by Ben Alexander Dec. 30, 1935
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour (with Rudy Vallee) Episode "The Bells" Feb. 6, 1936
In Town Tonight Karloff appeared as a guest Feb. 22, 1936
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour (with Rudy Vallee) Karloff appeared as a guest Sept. 3, 1936
Camel Caravan Episode "Death Takes a Holiday" with Benny Goodman Dec. 8, 1936
Concert Orchestra Karloff appeared with Dolores Del Rio Sept. 2, 1936
The Royal Gelatin Hour (aka Vallee's Varieties) Karloff reads "Resurrection"; co-starred Tom Mix Nov. 11, 1937
The Chase and Sanborn Hour (aka The Charlie McCarthy Show) Recites "The Evil Eye" ("The Tell-Tale Heart") January 30, 1938
The Baker's Broadcast Karloff and Bela Lugosi sang a duet on this show called "We're Horrible, Horrible Men"; co-starring Ozzie and Harriet Mar. 13, 1938
Lights Out Episode: "The Dream" 23 March 1938
Lights Out Episode: "Valse Triste" 30 March 1938
Lights Out "Cat Wife" by Arch Oboler 6 April 1938
Lights Out Episode: "Three Matches" 13 April 1938
Lights Out Episode: "Night on the Mountain" 20 April 1938
The Royal Gelatin Hour (hosted by Rudy Vallee) Skit "Danse Macabre" May 5, 1938
Hollywood (hosted by George McCall) appeared as a guest Oct. 27, 1938
The Eddie Cantor Show Variety show Jan. 16, 1939
The Royal Gelatin Hour (with Rudy Vallee) Skit "Resurrection" April 6, 1939
Kay Kayser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge appeared with Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre promoting their film You'll Find Out Sept. 25, 1940
Everyman's Theater Episode "Cat Wife" by Arch Oboler Oct. 18, 1940
Stars on Parade Episode "The Big Man" 1941
Information Please Radio Quiz show Jan. 24, 1941
ASCAP on Parade appeared as a guest Feb. 8, 1941
Best Plays Arsenic and Old Lace (play) 1941
Kate Smith Variety appeared as a guest March 7, 1941
Hollywood News Girl Karloff interviewed Mar. 22, 1941
Inner Sanctum Karloff acted in 21 episodes of this radio show Mar. 16, 1941 – July 13, 1952 (See subsection on Karloff's "Inner Sanctum" radio appearances below.)
We the People appeared as a guest Apr. 1, 1941
The Voice of Broadway Karloff interviewed Apr. 19, 1941
WHN Bundles for Britain appeared as a guest June 14, 1941
United Press is on the Air appeared as a guest July 11, 1941
The Gloria Whitney Show appeared as a guest Aug. 13, 1941
The USO Program appeared with Paul Lukas Nov. 23, 1941
Time to Smile hosted by Eddie Cantor Dec. 7, 1941
Keep 'em Rolling Episode "In the Fog" Feb. 8, 1942
Information Please Karloff appeared on this quiz show with John Carradine Feb. 20, 1942
Information Please TV Quiz Show May 17, 1943
Blue Ribbon Town hosted by Groucho Marx July 24, 1943
The Theatre Guild on the Air Arsenic and Old Lace (play) 1943
Creeps By Night 30-minute suspense anthology; Karloff starred in ten episodes Feb. 15-May 9, 1944 (See subsection on Karloff's "Creeps by Night" radio appearances below.)
Blue Ribbon Town hosted by Groucho Marx June 3, 1944
Duffy's Tavern appeared as a guest Jan. 12, 1945
Suspense Episode "Drury's Bones" Jan. 25, 1945
Those Websters appeared as a guest Oct. 19, 1945
Hildegarde's Radio Room appeared as a guest Oct. 23, 1945
The Charlie McCarthy Show appeared as a guest Nov. 3, 1945
Report to the Nation Episode "Back for Christmas" Nov. 3, 1945
Information Please TV Quiz Show Nov. 5, 1945
Theatre Guild on the Air Two plays: "The Emperor Jones" and "Where the Cross in Made" Nov. 11, 1945
The Fred Allen Show appeared as a guest Nov. 18, 1945
The Screen Guild Theater Arsenic and Old Lace (play) 25 November 1946
Textron Theatre Episode "Angel Street" Dec. 8, 1945
Exploring the Unknown Episode "The Baffled Genie" Dec. 23, 1945
Information Please TV Quiz Show Dec. 24, 1945
The Kate Smith Show appeared as a guest Jan. 4, 1946
Repeat Performance Karloff appeared with Roy Rogers and Allan Jones Feb. 3, 1946
The Jack Haley Show (aka The Village Store) appeared as a guest Feb. 14, 1946
The Bandwagon Show appeared as a guest March 24, 1946
The Ginny Simms Show appeared as a guest April 5, 1946
Show Stoppers appeared as a guest May 26, 1946
That's Life appeared as a guest; hosted by Jay Flippen Nov. 8, 1946
The Lady Esther Screen Guild Players Karloff acted in Arsenic and Old Lace Nov. 25, 1946
The Jack Benny Show appeared as a guest Jan. 19, 1947
Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge appeared as a guest March 12, 1947
Duffy's Tavern appeared as a guest May 21, 1947
Lights Out "Death Robbery" 16 July 1947
Lights Out "The Ring" 30 July 1947 (See subsection on Karloff's "Lights Out!" radio episodes below.)
Philco Radio Time hosted by Bing Crosby Oct. 29, 1947
The Burl Ives Show appeared as a guest Halloween 1947
The Jimmy Durante Show appeared as a guest Dec. 10, 1947
Suspense Episode "Wet Saturday" Dec. 19, 1947
The Kraft Music Hall hosted by Al Jolson Christmas Day, 1947
Information Please TV Quiz Show Jan. 16, 1948
Guest Star Skit "The Babysitter" Sept. 12, 1948
The NBC University Theatre of the Air starred in H.G. Wells' "The History of Mr. Polly" Oct. 17, 1948
The Sealtest Variety Theatre appeared as a guest Oct. 28, 1948
Great Scenes From Great Plays starred in the play "On Borrowed Time" Oct. 29, 1948
Truth or Consequences Oct. 30, 1948
The Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse Arsenic and Old Lace (play) Late 1940s
Theatre USA appeared as a guest Feb. 3, 1949
The Spike Jones Spotlight Review appeared as a guest Apr. 9, 1949
Twenty Questions hosted by Bill Slater Apr. 16, 1949
Theatre Guild on the Air Episode "The Perfect Aibi" May 29, 1949
The Sealtest Variety Theatre appeared as a guest June 23, 1949
Starring Boris Karloff 13-episode weekly anthology show hosted by Karloff Sept. 21–Dec. 14, 1949 (See subsection on Karloff's "Starring Boris Karloff" radio episodes below.)
The Bill Stern Colgate Sports Newsreel appeared as a guest Jan. 13, 1950
Invitation to Music appeared as a guest June 18, 1950
The Barbara Welles Show appeared as a guest Aug. 18, 1950
Boris Karloff's Treasure Chest hosted 14 weekly children's radio programs Sept. 17, 1950 – Dec. 17, 1950
Theatre Guild on the Air starred in play "David Copperfield" Dec. 24, 1950
Duffy's Tavern appeared as a guest Oct. 5, 1951
It's News To Me appeared as a guest Dec. 24, 1951
Philip Morris Playhouse Episode "Journey to Nowhere" Feb. 10, 1952
Musical Comedy Theatre appeared in play "Yolanda and the Thief" Feb. 20, 1952
Theatre Guild on the Air appeared in play "Oliver Twist" with Basil Rathbone Feb. 24, 1952
The Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Show appeared as a guest April 18, 1952
Theatre Guild on the Air (aka The U.S. Steel Hour) appeared in play "The Sea Wolf" with Burgess Meredith 27 April 1952
The Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway appeared in play "Outward Bound" June 1, 1952
Best Plays appeared in play "Arsenic and Old Lace" with Donald Cook July 6, 1952
Musical Comedy Theater appeared in play "Yolanda and the Thief" (rerun) Nov. 26, 1952
Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway appeared in play "Man vs. Town" Dec. 10, 1952
The U.S. Steel Hour appeared in play "Great Expectations" with Estelle Winwood Apr. 5, 1953
Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway appeared in play "Dead Past" Apr. 15, 1953
Heritage appeared in play "Plague" Apr. 23, 1953
Philip Morris Playhouse on Broadway appeared in a play June 17, 1953
The Play of His Choice (British radio show) appeared in play "The Hanging Judge" Dec. 2, 1953
The Spoken Word appeared as a guest Mar. 29, 1956
Alaska Broadcast Karloff was interviewed while in Alaska Mar. 19, 1957
Easy as ABC Karloff appeared on this radio show with Peter Lorre and Alfred Hitchcock Apr. 27, 1958
Flair Karloff appeared several times as a guest between 1960 and 1961
The Barry Gray Show appeared as a guest with Peter Lorre Jan. 26, 1963
For Young People (British BBC) The play "Peter Pan" was broadcast (most likely a rebroadcast from 1950) July 27, 1963
Interval: Boris Karloff Looks Back (British BBC) Karloff appeared as a guest on this British radio show July 20, 1965
Reader's Digest Radio Show recorded various spots 1956 through 1960s

Appearances on Lights Out!

Karloff acted in 7 episodes of the Lights Out! NBC anthology radio series from 1938 to 1947:

  • "The Dream" (March 23, 1938)
  • "Valse Triste" (March 30, 1938)
  • "Cat Wife" by Arch Oboler (April 6, 1938)
  • "Three Matches" (April 13, 1938)
  • "Night on the Mountain" (April 20, 1938)
  • "Death Robbery" (July 16, 1947)
  • "The Ring" (July 30, 1947)

Appearances on Inner Sanctum

Karloff acted in 22 episodes of the Inner Sanctum ABC anthology radio series from 1941 to 1952:

  • "The Man of Steel" (Mar. 16, 1941)
  • "The Man Who Hated Death" (Mar. 23, 1941)
  • "Death in the Zoo" (Apr. 6, 1941)
  • "Fog" (Apr. 20, 1941)
  • "Imperfect Crime" (May 11, 1941)
  • "Fall of the House of Usher" (June 1, 1941)
  • "Green-Eyed Bat" (June 22, 1941)
  • "The Man who Painted Death" (June 29, 1941)
  • "Death is a Murderer" (July 13, 1941)
  • "The Tell-Tale Heart" (Aug. 3, 1941)
  • "Terror on Bailey street" (Oct. 26, 1941)
  • "Fall of the House of Usher" (Apr. 5, 1942) may be a rerun
  • "Blackstone" (Apr. 19, 1942)
  • "Study for Murder" (May 3, 1942)
  • "The Cone" (May 24, 1942)
  • "Death Wears my Face" (May 31, 1942)
  • "Strange Bequest" (June 7, 1942)
  • "The Grey Wolf" (June 21, 1942)
  • "Corridor of Doom" (Oct. 23, 1945)
  • "The Wailing Wall" (Nov. 6, 1945)
  • "Birdsong for a Murderer" (June 22, 1952)
  • "Death for sale" (July 13, 1952)

Appearances on Creeps By Night

Karloff acted in ten episodes on this 1944 radio anthology series

  • "The Voice of Death" (Feb. 15, 1944)
  • "The Man With the Devil's Hands" (Feb. 22, 1944)
  • Unknown title (Mar. 7, 1944)
  • "Dark Destiny" (Mar. 14, 1944)
  • Unknown title (Mar. 21, 1944)
  • "The String of Pearls" (Mar. 28, 1944)
  • Unknown title (April 18, 1944)
  • Unknown title (April 25, 1944)
  • "The Final Reckoning" (May 2, 1944)
  • "The Hunt" (May 9, 1944)

Appearances on Starring Boris Karloff

Karloff acted in 13 episodes of the "Starring Boris Karloff" anthology TV/ radio series in 1949: this show was broadcast as both a TV show and a radio show simultaneously

  • "Five Golden Guineas" (Sept. 21, 1949)
  • "The Mask" (Sept. 28, 1949)
  • "Mungahara" (Oct. 5, 1949)
  • "Mad Illusion" (Oct. 12, 1949)
  • "Perchance To Dream" (Oct. 19, 1949)
  • "The Devil Takes a Bride" (Oct. 26, 1949)
  • "The Moving Finger" (Nov. 2, 1949)
  • "The Twisted Path" (Nov. 9, 1949)
  • "False Face" (Nov. 16, 1949)
  • "Cranky Bill" (Nov. 23, 1949)
  • "Three O'Clock" (Nov. 30, 1949)
  • "The Shop at Sly Corner" (Dec. 7, 1949)
  • "The Night Reveals" (Dec. 14, 1949)

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Boris Karloff para niños

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Boris Karloff Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.