If you’ve visited Universal Monsters Universe before, you may have read our continuing series of articles called “Meet the Monsters” featuring legendary actors Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. The actors and actresses featured in this series will showcase those who have made the Universal Monsters franchise possible. In this edition of the series, we will learn about Boris Karloff, who has become one of the most famous faces in monster movies.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887 in Camberwell, London, England to Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His maternal grandmother, Eliza Julia Edwards, was sister to Anna Leonowens who inspired The King And I. He was the youngest of nine children and was raised by his older siblings when his mother passed away. He attended King’s College London but left school in 1909 to move to Canada where he took on labor jobs while working on a career in acting. He was bowlegged, stuttered (which he was able to overcome) and had a lisp but it did not stop him.
When he moved to Canada, he adopted the name Boris Karloff. There were various theories as to why he chose this name but one reason was so that if he failed as an actor, he wouldn’t embarrass his family, for his brothers were all employed in some position of British foreign service. However, when he returned to England for production of his 1933 film The Ghoul, his brothers were so overjoyed to see him they started jostling with each other for a photograph next to him. When the photograph was taken, they asked Karloff for a copy of the picture for themselves. While working labor jobs, Karloff developed lingering back problems which kept him from serving in World War I.
Karloff continued to work and take on small roles to make ends meet throughout his career until 1931, when he took on the role of the monster in Frankenstein and his life would change forever. For the role, Boris Karloff would wear four-inch platform boots that weighed 11 pounds each. The makeup was done so well, Universal acquired the rights to the makeup design for Frankenstein’s monster. The movie was a hit and Karloff would play Frankenstein’s monster two more times in The Bride of Frankenstein and The Son of Frankenstein and would go on to play Imhotep in The Mummy. He would go on to star in numerous Universal films, many alongside Bela Lugosi.
By 1946, Karloff had left Universal and signed to RKO for three of their films. In an interview with Los Angeles times reporter Louis Berg, Karloff stated he left Universal because he felt it was time for the Frankenstein franchise to come to an end, especially after House of Frankenstein became a hodgepodge of monsters thrown into the movie. From the 1940s and onward, Karloff would go on to appear in various radio and television programs in between spots in various horror and horror-style movies. In 1949, he starred in Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. He was getting many roles but they were not the blockbuster roles he had with Frankenstein and The Mummy. In 1966, he voiced and narrated the Christmas special, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was not Frankenstein but it thrusted him back into the spotlight albeit for a little while for he would pass away from pneumonia three years later on February 2, 1969 at the age of 81.
Boris Karloff was married five times and had one child, a daughter Sara with his fourth wife, Dorothy Stine. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for TV and movies. Starting in 1940, Karloff would dress as Santa Claus and hand out presents to ill and disabled children in a Baltimore hospital. He never became a U.S. citizen and still signed documents using his legal birth name, William Henry Pratt. Boris Karloff was more than just a man covered in makeup, he was a talented actor with a giving heart.