"When I was nine I played the demon king in Cinderella
and it launched me on a long and happy life of being a monster."
"I'm not so sure I want to be down in the cellar with him. Look at that puss. He looks like Boris Karloff."
— Officer Klein
in Arsenic and Old Lace
, regarding Jonathan Brewster, who was originally played by Karloff himself
Born William Henry Pratt, Boris Karloff
(1887-1969) was a much-beloved
English-born character actor who worked in a variety of genres
and whose career spanned fifty years (albeit all too often in films that were criminal wastes
of his talents). He is most remembered, however, for his work in horror
films (perhaps most particularly the Universal Horror
cycles of the 1930s and 1940s), where his distinctively sinister lisping voice
and gaunt, heavy-browed appearance were a definite advantage.
Among his more famous roles: the Monster in the 1931 version of Frankenstein
and Bride of Frankenstein
, the resurrected Egyptian villain Imhotep in The Mummy (1932)
, and supplying the narration for the classic Chuck Jones
adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
. In 1939, he appeared in the original run of the play Arsenic and Old Lace
as a man whose plastic surgeon had watched too many horror movies
; he was unable to appear in the film version because, ironically, his play contract had not yet run out.
His career in films waned somewhat in The Fifties
, as he was reduced, more or less, to playing caricatures of himself in films such as Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
(1953) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini
(1966). He found more fulfilling work on television in this period; he starred in the series Colonel March Of Scotland Yard
, hosted (and sometimes acted in) the horror anthologies Thriller
and The Veil
, and guest starred on series such as The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
(in drag!), The Wild Wild West
and Route 66
Nearing the end of his career and life, he achieved a personal Crowning Moment of Awesome
in the Peter Bogdanovich
, playing... Byron Orlock, a veteran horror-movie actor nearing the end of his career and life. An earlier Real Life
Crowning Moment Of Awesome occurred in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1912, when as an unknown actor in a travelling theatre troupe he led fundraising efforts to help the victims of a devastating tornado - and ended up raising more money for the victims than the federal government.
Some notable films Boris Karloff appeared in include:
- Two Arabian Knights (1927) — small role as a ship's purser
- Frankenstein, as the Monster (1931) — The first time Karloff played the part.
- Scarface, as Gaffney (1932)
- The Old Dark House, as Morgan, the butler (1932)
- The Mask of Fu Manchu- as Dr. Fu Manchu (1932)
- The Mummy, as the Mummy, Imhotep, AKA Ardeth Bey (1932)
- The Ghoul, as Professor Morlant (1933)
- John Ford's The Lost Patrol, as Sanders (1934)
- The House of Rothschild, as Count Ledrantz (1934)
- The Black Cat, as Hjalmar Poelzig (opposite Bela Lugosi) (1934)
- Bride of Frankenstein, as the Monster (1935) — The second time Karloff played the part.
- The Raven, as Edmond Bateman (1935) — Note this is the first Karloff film of this name.
- The Black Room, as Baron Gregor de Berghman, AKA Anton de Berghman (1935)
- The Invisible Ray, as Dr. Janos Rukh (1936)
- The Walking Dead, as John Ellman (1936)
- Juggernaut, as Dr. Victor Sartorius (1936)
- The Man Who Changed His Mind, as Dr. Laurience (1936)
- Charlie Chan at the Opera, as the mad opera singer, Gravelle (1936) — No, he did not sing; he was dubbed.
- West of Shanghai, as General Wu Yen Fang (1937)
- The Invisible Menace, as Mr. Jevries, AKA Dolman (1938)
- Mr. Wong, Detective, as Mr. James Lee Wong (1938) — Like Charlie Chan, and Peter Lorre's Mr. Moto, an Oriental detective played by an Occidental actor. Karloff would play the part three more times.
- Devil's Island, as Dr. Charles Gaudet (1939)
- Son of Frankenstein, as the Monster (1939) — The third and last time Karloff played the part.
- The Mystery of Mr. Wong, as Mr. James Lee Wong (1939)
- Mr. Wong in Chinatown, as Mr. James Lee Wong (1939)
- The Man They Could Not Hang, as Dr. Henryk Savaard (1939)
- Tower of London, as Mord, Richard of Gloucester's torturer (1939)
- Doomed to Die, as Mr. James Lee Wong (1940)
- The Fatal Hour, as John Jasper (1940)
- British Intelligence, as Valdar (1940)
- Black Friday, as Dr. Ernest Sovac (1940)
- The Man with Nine Lives, as Dr. Leon Kravaal (1940)
- Doomed to Die, as James Lee Wong (1940)
- Before I Hang, as Dr. John Garth (1940)
- The Ape, as Dr. Bernard Adrian (1940)
- You'll Find Out, as Judge Spencer Mainwaring (1940) — A Kay Kyser musical, in which Karloff appears with Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre
- The Devil Commands, as Dr. Julian Blair (1941)
- The Boogie Man Will Get You, as Prof. Nathaniel Billings (1942)
- The Climax, as Dr. Friedrich Hohner (1944)
- House of Frankenstein, as Dr. Gustav Niemann (1944) — In this outing, Karloff is the mad scientist, while Glenn Strange plays the Monster.
- The Body Snatcher, as Cabman John Gray (1945). The first of three movies he made with Val Lewton.
- Isle of the Dead, as Gen. Nikolas Pherides (1945)
- Bedlam, as George Sims, master of the Bedlam insane asylum (1946)
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, as Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (1947)
- Unconquered, as Guyasuta, chief of the Seneca Indians (1947) — No, really. It's a Gary Cooper Western.
- Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, as Gruesome (1947)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, as Swami Talpur (1949) — Dire as it is, it's better than the next outing with the comedy duo.
- Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
- Frankenstein 1970, as Baron Victor von Frankenstein (1958)
- The Raven, as Dr. Scarabus (1963) — The second of Karloff's films with this title, this is an American-International comedy-horror romp, in which Karloff plays an over-the-top villain opposite Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Jack Nicholson. Notably spawned the following:
- The Terror, as Baron Victor Frederick von Leppe (1963) — Famous for being filmed in four days with five different directors (though this has been disputed) on the set of The Raven when that film finished ahead of schedule. Jack Nicholson co-stars.
- The Comedy of Terrors, as Amos Hinchley (1963) — Another American-International comedy-horror outing with Price and Lorre, this time adding Basil Rathbone to the mix.
- Bikini Beach, as the Art Collector (1963) — Bet you never dreamed that Karloff co-starred with Frankie and Annette, did you?
- Black Sabbath (1963) — Karloff was the host of this anthology as well as the lead in one of the segments.
- Die, Monster, Die!, as Nahum Witley (1965)
- The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini, as Hiram Stokely, a corpse (1966) — This time Tommy Kirk (of Catalina Caper infamy) is the beach boy.
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, as the Grinch — and read by Boris Karloff, too! (1966) (TV)
- Mad Monster Party, as Dr. Boris von Frankenstein (1967) — A Rankin/Bass Productions Stop Motion puppetry cartoon.
- Targets, as Byron Orlock (1968)
- The Incredible Invasion, as Professor John Mayer (1971)