Today is the birthday (1887) of William Henry Pratt, better known by his stage name Boris Karloff. He was primarily known for his roles in horror films, but this time of year he is remembered as the narrator in the animated television special of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966).
Karloff was born in Camberwell in London, although he usually claimed that he was born in Dulwich, which is nearby in London. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, was a British diplomat. His maternal great aunt was Anna Leonowens, whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I. 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.
Karloff 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 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 around, leaving England for Canada, where he worked as a farm laborer and other itinerant jobs until he chanced upon acting.
He began appearing in theatrical performances in Canada, and during this period he chose the performing name Boris Karloff. There are numerous speculations about the choice, but no one really knows why. The reason for the change is much simpler: he wanted to prevent embarrassment for 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 apparently worried they felt that way. He did not reunite with his family until he returned to Britain to make The Ghoul (1933), extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his brothers jostled for position around him and happily posed for publicity photographs.
Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, British Columbia, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After the devastating tornado in Regina on 30 June 1912, Karloff and other performers helped with clean-up 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. 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. 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 still 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. In the autumn of 1931 Karloff played 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. He then had a small role as a mob boss in Howard Hawks’ gangster film Scarface, which was not released until 1932 because of censorship issues. The big break was on the way.
Karloff’s role as what was billed as Frankenstein’s “monster” in the movie, Frankenstein, immortalized him, and the image he created for the movie is now the iconic one people think of when they think of Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley’s book, Victor Frankenstein’s creation has no name, and is referred to using all kinds of words — “creature”, “fiend”, “spectre”, “the demon”, “wretch”, “devil”, “thing”, “being”, and “ogre” – but never “monster”.
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 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. Karloff still played a 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.
Karloff 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 because of a botched job done by his personal plastic surgeon. This is one of my favorite plays of all time, and I wish Karloff had starred in the movie that was made of it in 1941. The movie is more or less faithful to the play, but it stars Raymond Massey as the gangster Brewster brother because Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway. A great shame.
During the 1940s, 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. 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. He also had his own weekly children’s radio show on WNEW, New York, in 1950. He played children’s music and told stories and riddles. While the program was meant for children, Karloff attracted many adult listeners as well.
Karloff continued to trade on the “mad scientist” and science fiction monster/villain for much of the rest of his dramatic career. He played a foreign scientist who hoped to gain defense secrets from Cookie the Sailor (Skelton) on The Red Skelton Show in 1954. Later he shot episodes for The Red Skelton Show, starring along with horror actor Vincent Price in a parody of Frankenstein, with Red Skelton as “Klem Kadiddle Monster,” and introductions for The Veil (1958) but these was never actually broadcast, and only came to light in the 1990s. Karloff put on 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 in 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 voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft. The film was first broadcast on CBS-TV in 1966.
Karloff spent his final years 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 2 February 1969, at the age of 81.
In the newspaper article pictured above (click to enlarge) Karloff admits his love of Mexican food. He probably meant what passes for Mexican food in the US. At the tail end of his career he made 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. His experience of “Mexican” cuisine was probably, therefore, of the Los Angeles variety. His guacamole recipe given there I’ll label as “interesting.” The addition of sherry appears to be the main departure from the norm (as well as the absence of cilantro). Give it a whirl if you like. Sweet versus dry sherry would make a difference; I’d opt for dry. Here’s a transcription. My advice to add to the instructions is to remove and discard the seeds from the tomato before chopping, and to mash the avocado with a fork leaving it with a little texture rather than making it into a fine puree. Also add the lemon juice before mashing to prevent the avocado from browning.
1 med. tomato, chopped fine
1 small onion, minced
1 tbsp. chopped canned green chiles
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp sherry
Dash cayenne, optional
Peel and mash avocados. Add onion, tomato and chiles, then stir in lemon juice, sherry and seasonings to taste, blending well. Serve as a dip for tortilla pieces or corn chips or as a canape spread. Makes 10 to 12 appetizer servings.