William Henry Pratt was born at 36 Forest Hill Road, Honor Oak, London, where a blue plaque can now be seen. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His paternal grandparents were Edward John Pratt, an Anglo-Indian, and Eliza Julia (Edwards) Pratt, 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 also 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 theorized 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 movie 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. 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 himself apparently worried they did feel that way. He did not reunite with his family until 1933, when he went back to Britain to make The Ghoul, extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his elder brothers jostled for position around their "baby" brother and happily posed for publicity photographs with him.
Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, British Columbia and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After the devastating Regina,Saskatchewan, cyclone of 30 June 1912, Karloff and other performers helped with cleanup 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 U.S. 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 World War I.
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 fall 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.
His role as the Frankenstein monster in Frankenstein (1931) made Karloff a star. The bulky costume with four inch platform boots made it an arduous role but the costume and torturously administered makeup produced the classic image. The costume was a job in itself for Karloff with the shoes weighing 11 pounds (5 kg) each. Universal Studios was quick to acquire ownership of the copyright to the makeup format for the Frankenstein monster that Jack P. Pierce had designed. Boris was lucky to get the part, as it had been offered to Bela Lugosi, who declined it, the role not being a speaking part. A year later, Karloff played another iconic character, Imhotep in The Mummy. The Old Dark House (with Charles Laughton) and the starring role in The Mask of Fu Manchu quickly followed. These films all confirmed Karloff's new-found stardom.
The 5'11" (1.80 m) brown-eyed Karloff played a wide variety of roles in other genres besides horror. He was memorably gunned down in a bowling alley in the 1932 film Scarface. He played a religious World War I soldier in the 1934 John Ford epic The Lost Patrol.
However, horror remained Karloff's primary genre, and he gave a string of lauded performances in 1930s Universal horror films, including several with Lugosi, his main rival as heir toLon Chaney's status as the top horror film star. Karloff reprised the role of Frankenstein's monster in two other films, The Bride Of Frankenstein in 1935 and The Son Of Frankenstein in 1939, with the latter also featuring Lugosi. Karloff would revisit the Frankenstein mythos in several later films as well, starring with the role of the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), in which the monster was played by Glenn Strange.
Karloff returned to the role of the "mad scientist" in 1958's Frankenstein 1970, as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original inventor. The finale reveals that the crippled Baron has given his own face (i.e. Karloff's) to the monster. The actor appeared at a celebrity baseball game as the 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. Norman Z. McLeod filmed a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Karloff in the monster make-up, but it was deleted. Karloff donned the headpiece and neck bolts for the final time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, but the episode featured Karloff playing himself, who, within the story, was playing "the monster".
While the long, 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). Follow-ups included Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Black Friday (1940), You'll Find Out (also 1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945). During this period, he also starred with Basil Rathbone in Tower of London (1939) as the murderous henchman of Richard III.
From 1945 to 1946, Karloff appeared in three films for RKO produced by Val Lewton: Isle Of The Dead, The Body Snatcher, and Bedlam. In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his three-picture deal with RKO, his reasons for leaving Universal Pictures and working with producer Lewton. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. The latest installment 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 continues, "Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul."
During this period, Karloff was also a frequent guest on radio programmes, whether it was starring in Arch Oboler's Chicago-based Lights Out productions (most notably the episode "Cat Wife") or spoofing his horror image with Fred Allen or Jack Benny.
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. Although Frank Capra cast Raymond Massey in the 1944 film, which was shot in 1941, while Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway, Karloff reprised the role on television with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Somewhat less successful was his work in J. B. Priestley's play The Linden Tree. He also appeared as Captain Hook in the play Peter Pan with Jean Arthur. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his work opposite Julie Harrisin The Lark, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh about Joan of Arc, which was also reprised on Hallmark Hall of Fame.
In later years, Karloff hosted and acted in a number of television series, most notably Thriller, Out Of This World, and The Veil, but the last of these was never actually broadcast, and only came to light in the 1990s. In the 1960s, Karloff appeared in several films for American International Pictures, including The Comedy of Terrors, The Raven, and The Terror, the latter two directed by Roger Corman, and Die, Monster, Die! He also featured in Michael Reeves's second feature film, The Sorcerers, in 1966.
During the 1950s, Karloff appeared on British TV 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.
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 horror actor Vincent Price in a parody of Frankenstein, with Red Skelton as "Klem Kadiddle Monster". 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 performed in drag as the titular character. That same year he also played an Indian Maharajah on the instalment of the adventure series The Wild Wild West titled "The Night of the Golden Cobra". 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".
In the mid-1960s, Karloff gained a late-career surge of American popularity 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 American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft. The film was first transmitted on CBS-TV in 1966. Karloff later received a Grammy Award in the spoken word category after the story was released as a record. Because Ravenscroft was uncredited for his contribution to How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (who never met Karloff in the course of their work on the show), his performance of the song was often mistakenly attributed to Karloff.
In 1968, Karloff starred in Targets, a film directed by Peter Bogdanovich about a young man who embarks on a killing spree. The film starred Karloff as a retired horror film actor, Byron Orlok, a thinly disguised version of Karloff himself; Orlok was facing an end of life crisis, which he resolved through a confrontation with the gunman. It was his last film shot in the United States.
In 1968 he played occult expert Prof. Marsh in a British film called The Crimson Cult (Curse of the Crimson Altar), which was the last film to be released during Karloff's lifetime.
Karloff ended his career by appearing in four low-budget Mexican horror films: The Snake People, The Incredible Invasion, The Fear Chamber, and House of Evil. This was a package deal with Mexican producer Luis Vergara. Karloff's scenes were directed by Jack Hill and shot back to back in Los Angeles in the spring of 1968. The films were then completed in Mexico. All four were released posthumously, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not released until 1971, two years after Karloff's death.
Cauldron of Blood, shot in Spain in 1967 and starring Karloff and Viveca Lindfors, was also released after Karloff's death.
For his final films, Karloff had only one half of one lung and required oxygen between takes.
Karloff recorded the title role of Shakespeare's Cymbeline for the Shakespeare Recording Society (Caedmon Audio). The recording was originally published in 1962. It is very rare today, although a download of it 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.
Although he is best known for playing many sinister characters on screen, Karloff was known in real life as a very kind gentleman who gave generously, especially to children's charities. Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed up 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 he 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 six times and had one child, daughter Sara Karloff, by his fifth wife. At the time of his daughter's birth Karloff was filming Son of Frankenstein, and reportedly rushed from the movie 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, succumbing to it in King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex on 2 February 1969. He was cremated, following a requested low-key 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.
However, even death could not put an immediate halt to Karloff's media career. Four Mexican films for which Karloff shot his scenes in Los Angeles were released over a two-year period after he had died. They were dismissed, by critics and fans alike, as undistinguished efforts. Also, 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.