To wrap up my Halloween themed articles, I want to start by talking briefly about my interest with Halloween themed entertainment. Growing up, horror and thriller movies were common in our house. And even when I would spend time at my grandma and grandpa’s house, I have distinct memories of sitting on the couch in the living room watching The Shining with my grandpa for the very first time. There were definitely a handful of movies that I watched at a younger age than I probably should have. But on the flip side, it also sparked an undying interest in the genre. I've loved scary movies, scary stories, eerie books, and other things of that nature. So diving into the lives of those that have in some ways shaped the genre to be what we today associate it with has been a treat for me. There were plenty of others that I would have loved to research, but time simply didn't permit it. This means that I had to leave out one of my absolute favorites. But, that's something to look forward to in the future.
On that note, without further ado, allow me to share with you the story of a man named William Henry Pratt, or more commonly known as, Boris Karloff.
On November 23, 1887 a young boy named William Henry Pratt was born in London, England. While being born and raised in England, both of his parents had some Indian ancestry. For example, his mother’s maternal aunt was a woman named Anna Leonowens. This was the Anna that was the basis of movies, plays, stories, and musicals named “The King and I,” “Anna and the King,” and other similar names.
Pratt was the youngest of nine children who actually took part in raising him after his mother’s death. As a young boy, he struggled with a lisp and a stutter. While he was eventually able to overcome his stutter, his lisp was something he carried on with him throughout his life.
As a young adult. Pratt went on to attend King's College London. The initial goal when he started his studies there was to go work toward a career with the British Government's Consular Service. By 1909, however, his plans took a dramatic turn. No pun intended.
Pratt decided to intentionally fail his consular service exam as his ticket out of this career path. This left him free to head toward Canada. Once there, he did various hard labor jobs while working on the side to work toward a career in acting.
When Pratt's acting career began to take off, he made a deliberate choice to choose a stage name. He was fully aware that his choice to fail out of school and flee the country was something that his family would likely not be thrilled about. He was very aware of how his very public career choice could impact his family and he wanted to free them from any potential embarrassment. So from the very start of his acting career, Pratt would be better known as Boris Karloff
In more recent years, there have been a number of people that have tried to look into why he may have chosen the name Boris Karloff. There was mad scientist "Boris Karlov" in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy, and "Prince Boris of Karlova" from the novel H. R. H. The Rider. In both of these instances, however, the novels came out after Karloff began using the stage name. So it was actually more likely that their characters were based off of of the actor. In the end, Karloff himself went on to explain that the first name "Boris" was chosen because he liked the sound of it. "Karloff" for the surname was chosen because he claimed it to be a family name.
Karloff went on to continue working as a laborer for many years as he picked up the occasional acting job. The jobs as a laborer served to pay the bills while he went on chasing his dream. This doesn't come without consequences, however. Work such as digging ditches proved to be incredibly taxing on Karloff. He suffered from serious back problems and due to this, he was unable to enlist into the service in World War I.
During the time of the war, he worked in a variety of theatrical stock companies. As he improved his acting skills, he went on to work with different acting troupes. However, unfortunately the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 in the San Francisco area led to the troupe having to disband.
Finally, upon arriving in Hollywood, Karloff began starring in numerous silent films. He would find himself in small roles that didn't pay much, but that didn't deter him. He had already been used to doing hard labor on the side. He did what he had to do to make ends meet and encourage his acting career to blossom.
With Karloff's Indian ancestry, he had a bit of a darker complexion. This helped him land roles in a handful of films cast as an Arab or an Indian, much in the same way that Bela Lugosi had been as well. While his roles had been small, that did not mean that they weren't plentiful. Any chance he could get, he would get himself out there for any role he could scoop up.
Karloff and Lugosi's lives paralleled one another in a handful of ways. Another of which being that Karloff starred in a stage production called The Criminal Code and follow its success, he starred in it once again on the silver screen. Just as Lugosi's success with Dracula brought him a certain level of recognition, Karloff experienced the same thing with the film that was released in 1931.
After starring in eighty films, director James Whale took notice of Karloff and cast him in the movie Frankenstein in the role of Frankenstein's monster. This movie was released also in 1931. Acting as the role of the monster was incredibly physically demanding of Karloff. What the viewer's may not realize is that the costume was incredibly bulky and the boots were four inch platform boots. Each boot individually weighed 11 pounds (5 kilograms). Shuffling around with heavy boots in a dense costume and excessive makeup, all while working hard to act the part just right was difficult on him. It was like every day was leg day for him. Just kidding. But again, don't forget that for many years, he had already been working physically demanding jobs while working as a laborer. This was very challenging for him, but the hard work paid off as the film is now a classic and one he is well known for.
Following his role as Frankenstein's monster, Karloff starred in The Mummy the following year. He was cast as Imhotep, the mummy that is brought back to life. Between the success of the two back to back movies, his name had begun to become synonymous with the horror genre.
In 1933, Karloff returned back to England for the first time since his departure for North America. As explained earlier, he was concerned about how his family would react to the news of his acting career. He had not seen or spoken to them since he had left and was nervous to reconnect. Much to his surprise, however, his family was thrilled by the direction life had taken him. They had been so excited to see him and take photos with him. They even proudly posed around their brother when he took publicity photos. They even asked the photographer for copies of the photo to keep for themselves. That experience was so comforting to Karloff and was a story he was very proud of.
In this time, there were a number of actors that all were becoming the faces of horror. There were individuals like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, but it seemed that Karloff was the front runner in the horror genre. Regardless of who was the front runner and who wasn't, the men all worked the genre, at times together in the same films. Karloff and Lugosi in particular were cast side by side in a number of films in the early 1930s.
This was all about to change, however. By 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hayes Code, was starting to infringe on their success in the world of horror. While I hope to research this further and give a proper explanation for the this code and this time period in the film industry, my understanding is that this acted to enforce censorship in the entertainment world. In other words, this left the men who established themselves as horror actors to find roles in other genres and work to adapt their skills accordingly.
For Karloff, I feel that he may have adapted easier than others. He used his darker complexion in his favor. Whoever and whatever ethnicity they needed him to be, he took the job. In some ways, it was as though he was a chameleon.
By the end of the 1930s, Universal put out Dracula and Frankenstein out again, bringing the horror genre back from the dead. Lugosi and Karloff were back in business in their corner of the market. Not only that, but they even starred together in Son of Frankenstein as Karloff played the monster and Lugosi played Igor.
Starting in the year 1940, Karloff began making regular trips to Baltimore hospital. He would dress up as Father Christmas and bring gifts to physically disabled children. He went on to do this every year for Christmas.
In the 1940s, Karloff headed back to Broadway to star in Arsenic and Old Lace. At the same time that Karloff was performing it on stage, the production was also being turned into a film. The producers of the play made an agreement with the film producers that they would be able to turn the production into a film, but it could not be released until after the Broadway production wrapped. And so while the film was shot in 1941, it was not released for three years.
By 1944, the physically demanding work that Karloff had been doing for many years up until this point finally caught up with him. He was suffering chronic arthritis and finally underwent a spinal operation to help give him relief.
Around the mid 1940s, Karloff decided to officially hang up his Frankenstein's monster costume for good. He explained that he felt the Frankenstein franchise had run its course and was ready to move on to other things. Through all of the Frankenstein related films that he starred in, he found that they got ridiculous as they went on. It wasn't the classic they had started with and he was ready to part ways with his infamous character. In his departure, he made sure to leave on good terms and wished those that continued in the Frankenstein franchise well as he went on with new roles.
In the later 1940s, following the end of World War II, the popularity around horror films dropped off. Karloff recognized that it was time to move to other areas. It was also around this time that he was married a sixth and final time. Throughout his six marriages, he only had one child, a daughter named Sara Karloff. Sara's mother was Karloff's fifth wife, Dorthy Stine. Their marriage ended in the mid 1940s, not long before he married his last wife.
Around this same time, Karloff looked to other parts of the entertainment industry. He began appearing as a guest on different radio shows. By 1949, he was hosting his own show named Starring Boris Karloff. This radio show was also turned into a television anthology.
Throughout this time, he shuffled from one medium to another. He would be on the radio one minute and starring on stage the next. He would appear in a horror film here and there where he could, and show up on television the next minute.
Some of his more well known roles from this time include playing Captain Hook in the stage production of Peter Pan, playing a detective on the television series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, a panelist on the game show Who Said That?, and hosting the television series Thriller.
In the mid 1960s, Karloff had a bit of a career spike when he narrated the made-for-television movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He also voiced that character of the Grinch. He did not, however, sing, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." His success for the role even landed him a Grammy Award in the "Best Recording For Children" category.
It was in the 1960s that the horror genre truly began to bubble up in popularity again. While Karloff was growing old and becoming fairly ill, he persisted on. He was very sick with emphysema, but that didn't stop him. He reportedly had only half of one lung still functioning, but he still acted on, taking in oxygen between takes.
Throughout Karloff's life, he was a heavy smoker which caused him to suffer from emphysema. In 1968, he contracted bronchitis and was hospitalized at University College Hospital. At this time, he had only one half of one lung still working. On February 2, 1969, Karloff died of pneumonia at King Edward VII Hospital in Sussex. He was 81 at the time of his death.
William Pratt was a man that had a dream and was determined to see his dream through. While he became known as Boris Karloff, he never legally changed his name. No matter if you think of him as William Pratt or Boris Karloff, I think we can all agree that the man had a dream and a goal as an entertainer. As he got into the business, he did not back away from it an any point. Up until his death, he worked in so many roles. Although, I don't think he saw it as work. A man with such an extensive resume would be one that I think truly loved his career path. He very clearly enjoyed the work he was doing and he was very good at what he did.
Decades later, his name is still tied in with the horror genre. His films and shows are still enjoyed to this day. Dark Horse Comics in 2009 even took a comic book called Boris Karloff's Tales of Mystery and even reprinted it in a hard bound edition. You can also find both of his stars on the Hollywood walk of fame; one for his work in movies and the other for his work in television.