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Boris Karloff

He is best known for playing Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939), which resulted in his immense popularity.

Boris Karloff



The Lightning Raider



The Masked Rider

His Majesty, the American

The Prince and Betty



The Deadlier Sex

The Courage of Marge O’Doone

The Last of the Mohicans



The Hope Diamond Mystery

Without Benefit of Clergy

Cheated Hearts

The Cave Girl



The Man from Downing Street

The Infidel

The Altar Stairs

Omar the Tentmaker

The Woman Conquers



The Gentleman from America

The Prisoner



Riders of the Plains

The Hellion

Dynamite Dan



Parisian Nights

Forbidden Cargo

The Prairie Wife

Perils of the Wild

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Lady Robinhood



The Greater Glory

Her Honor, the Governor

The Bells

The Nickel-Hopper

The Golden Web

The Eagle of the Sea


Old Ironsides

Flaming Fury


The Man in the Saddle



Tarzan and the Golden Lion

Let It Rain

The Meddlin’ Stranger

The Princess from Hoboken

The Phantom Buster

Soft Cushions

Two Arabian Knights

The Love Mart



The Vanishing Rider

Burning the Wind

Vultures of the Sea

The Little Wild Girl



The Devil’s Chaplain

The Fatal Warning

The Phantom of the North

Two Sisters

Anne Against the World

Behind That Curtain

The King of the Kongo

The Unholy Night



The Bad One

The Sea Bat

The Utah Kid

The Mother’s Cry



Sous les verrous (“Pardon Us” – French version)

The Criminal Code

King of the Wild

Cracked Nuts

Young Donovan’s Kid

Smart Money

The Public Defender

I Like Your Nerve


Five Star Final

The Yellow Ticket

The Mad Genius

The Guilty Generation


Tonight or Never



Behind the Mask

Alias the Doctor

Business and Pleasure


The Miracle Man

Night World

The Old Dark House

The Mask of Fu Manchu

The Mummy



The Ghoul



The Lost Patrol

The House of Rothschild

The Black Cat

Gift of Gab



Bride of Frankenstein

The Raven

The Black Room



The Invisible Ray

The Walking Dead


The Man Who Changed His Mind

Charlie Chan at the Opera



Night Key

West of Shanghai



The Invisible Menace

Mr. Wong, Detective



Devil’s Island

Son of Frankenstein

The Mystery of Mr. Wong

Mr. Wong in Chinatown

The Man They Could Not Hang

Tower of London



The Fatal Hour

British Intelligence

Black Friday

The Man with Nine Lives

Doomed to Die

Before I Hang

The Ape

You’ll Find Out



The Devil Commands



The Boogie Man Will Get You



The Climax

House of Frankenstein



The Body Snatcher

Isle of the Dead






The Secret Life of Walter Mitty



Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome



Tap Roots

The Emperor’s Nightingale



Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff



The Strange Door



Colonel March Investigates

The Black Castle



Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde



The Island Monster

The Hindu



Voodoo Island



The Juggler of Our Lady

The Creation of the World

The Haunted Strangler

Frankenstein 1970

Corridors of Blood



Black Sabbath

The Terror

The Raven



Bikini Beach

Mondo Balordo

The Comedy of Terrors



Die, Monster, Die! (UK: Monster of Terror)



The Daydreamer

The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini



The Venetian Affair

Mad Monster Party?

The Sorcerers




Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka The Crimson Cult)

Fear Chamber (aka Torture Zone)

House of Evil (aka Dance of Death)



Cauldron of Blood (El Coleccionista de cadáveres); aka Blind Man’s Bluff (filmed in 1967)



The Incredible Invasion (aka Alien Terror, aka The Sinister Invasion)

Isle of the Snake People (aka Cult of the Dead)


Boris Karloff was never nominated for an Academy Award.

Horror means something revolting. Anybody can show you a pailful of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach – but merely to make your hair stand on end. ~ Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887 in London, England. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. He was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered 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. He received his early education at Enfield Grammar School, and later at the private schools of Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School. After 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 laborer and did various odd itinerant jobs until happening upon acting.

He began appearing in theatrical performances in Canada, and during this period he chose the screen name “Boris Karloff“. One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family.

Whilst he was trying to establish his acting career, Karloff had to perform years of manual labor in Canada and the U.S. in order to make ends meet. He was left with back problems from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not enlist in World War I.

During the WWI-Era, 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 Karloff, in his first film he appeared as an extra in a crowd scene for a Frank Borzage picture at Universal for which he received $5; the title of this film has never been traced.

Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labor 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 autumn 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. Before shooting his first horror films, Karloff had a small role as a mob boss in Howard Hawks’ gangster film Scarface, which was not released until 1932 because of censorship issues.

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein

Karloff’s role as Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein propelled him to stardom. The bulky costume with four-inch platform boots made it an arduous role but the costume and extensive makeup produced the classic image. The costume was a job in itself for Karloff with the shoes weighing 11 pounds (5.0 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. Karloff was soon cast as Imhotep who is revived in The Mummy, a mute butler in The Old Dark House (with Charles Laughton) and the starring role in The Mask of Fu Manchu, which were all released in 1932. These films confirmed Karloff’s new-found stardom. The 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m) brown-eyed Karloff still played roles in other genres besides horror, such as a religious First World War soldier in the John Ford epic The Lost Patrol (1934).

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), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936). Karloff reprised the role of Frankenstein’s monster in two further films, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the latter also featuring Lugosi, with Basil Rathbone replacing Colin Clive as the scientist playing god. Rathbone appeared with Karloff again in Tower of London (1939) as the murderous henchman of King Richard III. Karloff revisited the Frankenstein mythos in several later films as well, taking the starring role of the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), in which the monster was played by Glenn Strange. He reprised the role of the “mad scientist” in 1958’s Frankenstein 1970 as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original creator. The finale reveals that the crippled Baron has given his own face (i. e., Karloff’s) to the monster.

Between 1938 and 1940, Karloff appeared in five films for Monogram Pictures. Directed by William Nigh, Karloff portrayed character James Lee Wong, a Chinese detective. More commonly referred to as Mr. Wong, Karloff’s portrayal of the character is an example of Hollywood’s use of yellow-face and its portrayal of East Asians in the earlier half of the 20th century.

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. Meanwhile, Karloff appeared in British Intelligence (1940) with Margaret Lindsay for Warners.

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. He reprised the 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. In 1944, he underwent a spinal operation to relieve his chronic arthritic condition.

Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher

Meanwhile, his connection with Bela Lugosi continued with Black Friday (1940), You’ll Find Out (also 1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945), the first of three films in a contract with RKO produced by Val Lewton. Isle of the Dead (also 1945) and Bedlam (1946) completed the trio.

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. Berg wrote that the last installment in 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.” 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.

During this period, Karloff was also a frequent guest on radio programs, 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 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 Harris in The Lark, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh, about Joan of Arc, which was reprised on Hallmark Hall of Fame.

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.

Karloff donned the 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.

In the mid-1960s, he 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 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 story was released as a record. Because Ravenscroft (who never met Karloff in the course of their work on the show).

In 1968, Karloff starred in Targets, a film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, featuring two separate stories that converge into one. In one, a disturbed young man kills his family, then embarks on a killing spree. In the other, a famous horror-film actor contemplates then confirms his retirement, agreeing to one last appearance at a drive-in cinema. Karloff starred as the retired horror film actor, Byron Orlok, a thinly disguised version of himself; Orlok was facing an end of life crisis, which he resolved through a confrontation with the gunman at the drive-in cinema.

In 1968, he played occult expert Professor Marsh in a British production titled The Crimson Cult (Curse of the Crimson Altar), 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: 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 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 co-starring Viveca Lindfors, was also released after Karloff’s death.

While shooting his final films, Karloff suffered from emphysema. Only half of one lung was still functioning and he required oxygen between takes.

He married five times and had one child, daughter Sara Karloff, by his fourth wife.

He spent his retirement in England at his country cottage named Roundabout in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. He contracted bronchitis in 1968 and was hospitalized at University College Hospital. He died of pneumonia at the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, in Sussex, on February 2, 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.

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