William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff (though he never legally changed his name), is one of America’s most important and prolific horror icons. He would appear in over 200 films throughout his career and helped create Hollywood’s most memorable monster in the film Frankenstein. Though he was born and raised in England and educated at London University, where his family wanted him to become a diplomat, Karloff spent most of his adult life in North America. He emigrated first to Canada to join a touring acting company and eventually moved to Hollywood to try his fortunes in Hollywood.
Though Karloff began appearing in silent films in 1919 and had bit parts or side roles in almost 80 films throughout the ‘20s and early ‘30s, he didn’t really get his start until Universal’s monster classic, Frankenstein (1931). Though he was billed as “?” in the film and considered so unimportant by Universal that he didn’t even warrant an invitation to the premier, he quickly became one of horror’s fastest rising stars. He returned four years later to star (with top billing) in director James Whale’s masterpiece, the sequel The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and donned the make up for a final time in Son of Frankenstein (1939) alongside Bela Lugosi. He and Lugosi appeared in many horror films together over the next 20 years.
Karloff starred or at least appeared in some of the most important horror films of the ‘30s, including another outing with director James Whale, The Old Dark House (1932), a cross between horror and whodunnit. He donned the make up of another iconic Universal monster in The Mummy (1932) where he starred as the titular Mummy, Imhotep. He starred as another Egyptologist in The Ghoul (1933) and alongside Lugosi in one of the finest horror films of the ‘30s, The Black Cat (1934), a post-WWI take on Poe with an Eastern European setting and a fortress full of Satanists. He and Lugosi appeared together again in The Raven (1935) and the sci-fi/horror hybrid The Invisible Ray (1936). Karloff also had notable roles in the gangster film Scarface (1932), the dark historical drama Tower of London (1939), which also included an early role for Vincent Price, and another dark drama, Devil’s Island (1939).
Karloff’s East Indian ancestry allowed him to appear in more exotic roles and he was frequently cast as Chinese, Arabian, and American Indian characters (many of them villains). He appeared as the titular Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) and in many other Asian-themed mystery films, such as Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), West of Shanghai (1937), and as detective James Lee Wong in that series, including Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940), and several others.
In the ‘40s he appeared in campier horror films, many of which were the progenitors of what we think of as B-movies. He and Lugosi were back together for the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-influenced Black Friday (1940). In many of these films he played a mad scientist or doctor, including The Ape (1940), The Climax (1944), and House of Frankenstein (1944), a loose, final entry in the Frankenstein series. He agreed to appear in some of the Abbott and Costello horror spoofs, namely Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) (he's not really the killer) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953).
His career was given a revival and a renewed sense of seriousness when he was paired with horror producer Val Lewton for a number of films in the mid-late ‘40s, such as the classic The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). In the ‘50s his horror output quieted a little, but he still remained active. He co-starred in the Robert Louis Stevenson based historical horror film The Strange Door (1951), in the gothic horror movie The Black Castle (1952), and in the silly Voodoo Island (1957). He also starred in the excellent Robert Day serial killer film The Haunted Strangler (1958) and in Day’s Corridor’s of Blood (1958) alongside Christopher Lee. He returned to Frankenstein one final time with Frankenstein: 1970 (1958), where he starred as the tortured, deformed Baron Victor von Frankenstein.
Despite chronic back pain that he suffered through most of his adult life, he didn’t slow down in the ‘60s and made a series of beloved horror films, though some of his final roles were altered to allow him to act from a wheelchair. He worked with director Roger Corman on horror-comedies The Raven (1963) with costars Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, The Terror (1963), and The Comedy of Terrors (1963) again with Price and Lorre. He worked with Italian horror maestro Mario Bava on Bava’s acclaimed anthology film Black Sabbath (1963), the silly sci-fi horror romp Die, Monster, Die! (1965), starred in Michael Reeves’ (Witchfinder General) The Sorcerers, and had a bit part in the campy beach party horror comedy The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). He also gave his voice to Rankin and Bass’s Mad Monster Party? (1967), where he played the mad scientist Baron Boris von Frankenstein, and narrated the beloved How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), forever associating himself with Christmas, as well as Halloween.
In 1968 he appeared in three films, Fear Chamber, House of Evil, and Curse of the Crimson Altar. Where Fear Chamber and House of Evil are his first two Mexican horror films with schlock director Jack Hill, Tigon outing Curse of the Crimson Altar is Karloff’s final successful horror film. He costarred with Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough in a tale of satanic panic and black magic at an old English country estate. He concluded his career with a few more entertaining Mexican Jack Hill duds, Island of the Snake People and Alien Terror, both of which were finished and released posthumously. His final serious drama was Peter Bogdanovich’s Target (1968), where he played an aged horror film star who is forced to confront a murderous sniper.
Karloff was not limited to horror or to film. He appeared in a number of television shows and films throughout the ‘50s, such as The Veil, Suspicion, Lux Video Theatre, Colonel March of Scotland Yard (which he starred in), Climax!, The Elgin Hour, The Best of Broadway (for Arsenic and Old Lace), Suspense, Lights Out, and many more. In the ‘60s he slowed down a little, but still appeared in the like of The Red Skelton Hour, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Thriller. He was also active in the theater and on Broadway, where he essentially played himself in Arsenic and Old Lace. Though he was not cast in the film version, he reprised his role for The Best of Broadway and in a made-for-TV version of the play in 1962. He was active in radio throughout his life and also did a number of audio recordings, including some Shakespeare and the narration for Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
Fortunately most of his work is available on DVD in various editions and box sets, though there is no definitive place to start. You can visit the official Boris Karloff site, which I believe is maintained by his daughter Sara, who frequently gives interviews and travels to conventions on his behalf. One final thing to say about Karloff is that he has been remembered by many as an incredibly kind man, polite and caring, someone who donated often to children’s charities and even dressed up as Santa Claus throughout the ‘40s to visit children in a Baltimore hospital on Christmas and give out toys, in addition to the several spoken word albums of children’s stories he recorded throughout his life. He also worked hard on the behalf of other performers and was one of the founding (and most outspoken) members of the Screen Actors Guild. He died in February of 1969 from emphysema and pneumonia, but he has not been forgotten over the last 40+ years. His iconic roles in Frankenstein, The Mummy, and many others have insured that he will always be a major founding influence of American horror. He has received two stars on the Hollywood walk of fame and two memorial stamps from the United States Postal Service. If you want to learn more about this incredible man, there is an authorized biography, Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster, by Stephen Jacobs, which won a Rondo Award last year.
I leave you with a nice interview with Karloff on This is Your Life.