Arguably Hollywood's most celebrated and enduring screen horror icon, Boris Karloff embodied legendary movie monsters and madmen in such films as "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1931), "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), "Isle of the Dead" (1945) and "The Body Snatcher" (1945) over the course of a four-decade career. He began as an obscure background player, essaying exotic types in silent films and serials until 1931, when his sympathetic turn as the Monster in "Frankenstein" made him an international star. For the next two decades, Karloff was the undisputed king of movie horror, while cultivating a lively presence in more dramatic and even comic fare on television and stage. He remained exceptionally popular into his seventh decade, especially among young viewers, who were entranced by his avuncular narration for "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!" (CBS, 1966). A beloved figure both on and off-screen, Karloff's performances - both chilling and charming - remained the gold standard by which all subsequent horror actors were measured.
Born William Henry Pratt on Nov. 23, 1887 in the London district of East Dulwich, England, Boris Karloff was the youngest of nine children by Edward John Pratt, Jr., Commissioner of Custom Salt and Opium for the Indian Salt Revenue Service, and a distant relative of Anna Leonowens, whose stories about life in the royal court of Thailand served as the basis for the musical "The King and I." He attended Kings College in London in anticipation of following his brothers into the diplomatic field, but Karloff dropped out in 1909 to travel across Canada, where he worked as an itinerant laborer, which caused him to develop back problems that persisted throughout his life. He eventually fell in with an Ontario-based touring company of actors with whom he would crisscross the United States for the next decade. At this point in his life, Karloff adopted his stage name, which he frequently cited as a combination of a family surname and a first name chosen for its exotic sound. However, scholars have cited the possibility that Karloff assumed the moniker to avoid embarrassing his siblings with his chosen profession, all of whom had become members of the British Foreign Service.
He eventually arrived in Hollywood, broke and desperate for work. He soon found bit player gigs in countless silent films and serials, many of which utilized his dark complexion - the result of Anglo-Indian blood in his family tree - and saturnine, heavy-lidded features to play mystics, high priests, American Indian warriors and foreign heels of every stripe. He made his first foray into supernatural-themed films with "The Bells" (1925) as a mesmerist whose alleged mental powers helped to root out a murderer. But Karloff was soon back to bit parts, and supplemented his income by working as a truck driver. He earned notice for his turn as a vengeful ex-con on the trail of a fellow former prisoner in Howard Hawks' gritty "The Criminal Code" (1931). The film was one of 15 pictures he made that year, but all were overshadowed by "Frankenstein," director James Whale's take on the classic Mary Shelley novel of science gone wrong. Buried under layers of Jack Pierce's iconic, flat-topped makeup and a brace that forced him to walk in a stiff, corpse-like gait, Karloff nevertheless projected pathos, terror and vengeful fury without a full line of dialogue - or billing in the film's opening credits, which listed him as "?" A considerable success for Universal Studios, "Frankenstein" instantly minted the 44-year-old Karloff as a horror star on par with Bela Lugosi of "Dracula" fame (1931), who would become his frequent onscreen nemesis in subsequent years.
By 1932, Karloff was Universal's monster-in-resident, tackling a host of infamous figures in what would become a roster of classic horror films. He was a terrifying, inhuman butler in Whale's offbeat "The Old Dark House" (1932), then essayed Sax Rohmer's fiendish villain in "The Mask of Fun Manchu" (1932) before donning even more intensive makeup to play an undead Egyptian priest in Karl Freund's "The Mummy" (1932). His rogues' gallery soon came to encompass a religious fanatic in John Ford's "The Lost Patrol" (1932), a perverse Satanist in Edgar G. Ulmer's macabre "The Black Cat" (1934), a scientist transformed into a killing machine by his own invention in "The Invisible Ray" (1936) and a sadistic, club-footed executioner in "The Tower of London" (1939). Karloff also played Chinese detective Mr. Wong in three features during this period, as well as a heroic doctor wrongly imprisoned on "Devil's Island" (1939), among countless other films during this period.
But he was best known as the Monster, whom he would refer to as "the best friend [he] ever had," and whom he would twice reprise on film in the 1930s. His lonely, lovelorn creature was spurned by a feral Mate (Elsa Lanchester) in Whale's dizzyingly surreal "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), then as a dull sidekick to Bela Lugosi's ripe performance as the crippled shepherd, Ygor, in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). But the series soon descended into B-movie territory, and Karloff would turn over the Monster to other actors for sequels, including Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Glenn Strange, none of whom could equal the humanity of his classic performance.
Cut loose from the role that made him a star, Karloff began the 1940s in a string of low-budget potboilers like "The Ape" (1940), a grotty chiller about a scientist who impersonated an escaped circus ape in order to obtain human spinal fluid for his clandestine experiments. He found greater rewards on the Broadway stage, where he appeared in the original production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1941) as a killer whose recent plastic surgery transformed him into a lookalike for Boris Karloff. The actor was also a staple on radio dramas and comedies, for which he gamely spoofed his King of Horror image. Off-screen, he helped to form the Screen Actors Guild, and often spoke out about grueling conditions on sets like the ones he experienced in the early stages of his career. He was also a dedicated contributor to charities, especially those involving children, and frequently dressed as Santa Claus to deliver presents to hospitalized kids during the holidays.
In 1945, he left Universal to sign a three-picture deal with producer Val Lewton at RKO. Their resulting collaboration produced three of Karloff's best horror films since the early '30s: "Isle of the Dead" (1945), with Karloff as a Greek general on a plague-ridden island; "The Body Snatcher" (1945), which reunited Karloff and Lugosi in a story of 19th century grave robbing; and "Bedlam" (1946), with Karloff as the cruel head of a 18th century asylum. All three were critically acclaimed, if not financially successful, and restored Karloff's faith in a genre with which he would remain forever entwined.
The 1950s saw Karloff lend more of his time to television and stage, though he would also remain a consistent presence in horror films throughout the decade. His feature output during this period was consistently lightweight fare; there was a reunion with Abbott and Costello for "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953) and agreeable programmers like "The Haunted Strangler" (1958) and "Corridors of Blood" (1958), which co-starred Christopher Lee, a horror star on the rise. In "Frankenstein 1970" (1958), an absurd updated take on the Monster and its maker, he played Baron von Frankenstein, who used atomic energy to animate his creature, which was revealed to have its creator's face in the final frames - an awkward if well-intentional nod to Karloff's star-making role. On television, he enjoyed a greater range of roles, including turns as King Arthur, Don Quixote and Joseph Conrad's Kurtz from "Heart of Darkness," as well as countless turns on anthology dramas and suspense/supernatural programs. The stage was also a frequent destination, where Karloff earned a Tony nomination for "The Lark" (1952) as the bishop who orchestrated the execution of Joan of Arc. He also made an ideal Captain Hook in a 1950 musical production of "Peter Pan" with songs by Leonard Bernstein.
Though age and illness slowed Karloff physically in the 1960s, he remained remarkably busy throughout the decade. He enjoyed renewed popularity as the host of "Thriller" (NBC, 1960-1962), one of the best horror anthology series ever produced for television. And he became a horror icon in residence for the low-budget studio American International Pictures (AIP), which also counted Vincent Price and Peter Lorre among its resident boogeymen. Karloff teamed with both actors for "The Raven" (1963), a comic tale of warring sorcerers for director Roger Corman, who re-used the film's sets for "The Terror" (1963), a low-budget ghost story with Karloff and a pre-fame Jack Nicholson. AIP would cast Karloff in a string of features during the '60s, including the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation "Die, Monster, Die!" (1965), "The Curse of the Crimson Altar" (1968) with Lee and Barbara Steele, and even a pair of its beach party movies. These appearances made Karloff a popular figure among young moviegoers, many of whom had not been born when he appeared in "Frankenstein." He subsequently boosted his youth appeal tenfold by narrating "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!" an animated adaptation of the children's book by Dr. Seuss about a surly creature (voiced by Karloff) who schemed to disrupt a community's Christmas celebration. Karloff also narrated the story for a 1966 soundtrack LP that earned him a Grammy nomination. The special eventually became a holiday television perennial that introduced new viewers to Karloff with each passing year.
Karloff's healthy declined dramatically in the 1960s; emphysema and other physical ailments robbed him of the ability to stand for long periods of time or breathe without an oxygen tank. Yet he continued to act, summoning his strength for the duration of a take before collapsing into an off-camera wheelchair. Most of his work during his final years was forgettable, including a string of incomprehensible horror films made in Mexico. But in 1968, he gave one of his final performances in "Targets," a low-budget thriller by Peter Bogdanovich which juxtaposed the final days of an aging screen horror icon (Karloff) with the dawn of a new kind of terror: a seemingly all-American young man (Tim O'Kelley) on an inexplicable shooting spree. "Targets" provided Karloff with a dignified coda for one of Hollywood's most legendary careers.
Karloff's final years were spent at his cottage in the village of Bramshott, England. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1969, and succumbed to the illness on Feb. 2, 1969. However, Karloff remained a star, even in death. His four Mexican films eventually saw release in the early 1970s, and episodes of an unreleased anthology series called "The Veil" (1958) were assembled into feature films that surfaced on late night television. An illustrated likeness of Karloff also continued to serve as the elegant but sinister host of a comic book series, initially titled "Thriller" but later changed to "Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery," which ran for two decades after his death. In 1997, his depictions of the Monster and the Mummy were commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp series celebrating classic movie creatures.