The following is a reprint from “We Belong Dead” magazine, No. 10, and is used by permission of the author
Boris Karloff – Actor
By Stephen Jacobs
It had never been Boris Karloff’s intention to be a horror star. That was just a fortuitous accident. Any success he had had was the result, he often said, of merely being in the right place at the right time. It was a modest claim, certainly, but a gross underestimate of his own talent.
Karloff had been born William Henry Pratt in South London in 1887 the son of Edward and Eliza Pratt. Edward had been born in Bombay and had worked in the Government’s service in India. He had maintained an erratic career in the service until he was forced to retire in 1878. He returned to England with his family but remained an embittered man.
Karloff was the last child of a failing marriage – one that had already provided him with 7 brothers and a sister. Two years after his birth, however, his parents legally separated and his father departed forever after refusing to support his family.
Although the majority of Karloff’s siblings had, like their father, worked in the service of the Government, Karloff – to his brothers’ dismay – rejected such a life. Instead, he wanted to tread the boards professionally. His theatrical career had begun when, at the age of 9, he had starred as the Demon King in a local Christmas production of Cinderella. “From then on,” Karloff later proclaimed, “I resolved to be an actor.” The role proved a portent of things to come.
Karloff would become the second actor in the family and would follow in the footsteps of his favourite brother George, a onetime actor who had eventually left the profession to work as a salesman. Sadly, George died of pneumonia in 1904, aged only thirty-six.
Yet, despite George’s sorry ending, Karloff’s mind was made up. His remaining brothers were forced to act as Karloff later explained: “My brother’s experience was held up to me by the elders of my family as the horrible example of what happens when you try to get on the stage. Forming a tribunal they pronounced: 1. That I could not possibly succeed because I did not have George’s looks or his talents. 2. That it would be complete folly for me to try it. 3. Finally they would not countenance it! They urged me to see that the dignity and stability of a consular career was vastly to be preferred to the insecurity and uncertainty of the stage. They were right.”
Possessing a stammer and a lisp (as well as bow legs) Karloff may not have seemed like the ideal material for an actor, but the youth was determined – so determined, in fact, that he would leave the country to pursue his dream elsewhere. In May 1909 he departed for Canada where he was initially engaged in a variety of manual jobs, including farming and ditch digging. He eventually made his way to Vancouver and another assortment of jobs, including a stint as a real estate salesman. He even got married for the first of his five times. Yet even the sanctity of his marriage vows proved weaker than his desire to act, and he eventually found work, now using the stage name Boris Karloff (a surname, he later erroneously claimed, that had come from his mother’s ancestors).
Leaving his wife in Vancouver (the couple divorced in 1913) Karloff learned his trade travelling from town to town across Western Canada and the U.S.A. with the Jeanne Russell Players. “How we worked!” Karloff said. “We rehearsed all day and every day, and we played in the evenings in any sort of barn or shack wherever we happened to be.” When the troupe disbanded in 1912 Karloff spent the next half a dozen years with other companies, eventually arriving in Hollywood where he found work as a movie extra.
Over the next 9 years Karloff appeared in a variety of silent pictures playing characters that included Asians, Arabs, natives and a slew of villainous French-Canadians. “I know it’s fashionable to complain about being typed,” he once said, “but that’s nonsense. All actors are typed. If you’re a young man you play juveniles, and as you get older, if you’re lucky, you turn into a character man. And if you become known for a certain type of role, a certain type of part, a certain line of country, I think you are a very lucky actor.” When the film work was scarce he would fall back on his usual standby – manual labour. Then, one day, fate took a hand.
“One day I called [my agent] and he was out,” Karloff recalled. “I was told he’d be back in an hour. So I decided to hang about. I couldn’t go into the Masquers Club [note: an actors’ club] because I hadn’t paid my club dues. I would have liked a cup of coffee, but didn’t have the cash. So I walked into the Actors’ Equity, to see if there were any letters. Of course there weren’t any letters, but as I turned away from the desk, the girl said, “By the way, are you working?” I said no. She told me that a play called The Criminal Code, which had run in New York, was being rehearsed, and they needed players for the small parts.” Karloff rushed to the Belasco Theatre and landed the role of Ned Galloway, a prison trustee. It was a small part – he only appeared in four scenes in the play – but they were key scenes. The high spot was when Galloway kills a stool-pigeon.
“As I walked across the stage I was staring at the stool-pigeon. The audience couldn’t see my face fully. Then I turned and had my back to them as well. There was a moment of deathly silence, then the stool-pigeon turned. Before he could do a thing I had plunged a knife into him. He flopped to the floor. The audience still couldn’t see my face. But they were imagining the most terrifying expressions on it – far more spine-chilling expressions than I could possibly have achieved. I had simply provided the frame; they had filled in the picture.”
When Howard Hawks later made the movie version Karloff retained the role of Galloway. When it came to shooting the slaying of the stool-pigeon Karloff persuaded the director to shoot it exactly how it had played on stage – no close ups. “I knew that a single shot showing my face would have spoilt the effect,” Karloff said. “Imagination alone provided those thrills. Imagination is the quality most needed in screen thrillers.”
After the picture was released in January 1931 the work suddenly started to pour in. Karloff’s claim that his success was due to being on the right corner on the right time was never proven more clearly than when he was filming Graft at Universal. Seated in the studio’s commissary one day the actor was spotted by the director James Whale. Whale was scheduled to direct Frankenstein and had been on the lookout for an actor to don the monster makeup following the departure of Bela Lugosi (and the alleged declination of the part by John Carradine). Whale asked Karloff to test for the role and the rest, as they say, is history.
Karloff’s portrayal garnered a legion of fans – many of them children. “Over the years thousands of children wrote, expressing compassion for the great, weird creature who was so abused by its sadistic keeper that it could only respond to violence with violence. Those children saw beyond the make-up and really understood.” The actor thought the Monster’s popularity was due to the compassion people felt for him. “He was helpless, alone, confused and terrified – how could one not feel sympathy for such a creature? My dear old Monster, I owe everything to him. He’s my best friend.”
Of course, Karloff’s success immediately meant he was branded a horror star. Although the label stuck it did not concern him unduly. “Well, I must admit the whole of my career has, shall I say, a familiar ring about it,” he said in 1968. “They don’t change the pattern very much. But I don’t hanker for changes…”
Frankenstein had turned Karloff into an international star. He would remain one for the rest of his life. The star never faded. It would sometimes dim, as the tastes of the studios and the public veered away from his unintentional staple genre of horror, but it was never extinguished.
His output was prolific. He featured in over 150 films, he starred on stage in plays such as Arsenic and Old Lace, On Borrowed Time, Peter Pan, and The Lark as well as appearing in scores of television and radio appearances. His ability to adapt and his willingness to explore new avenues for his talents meant he was almost consistently employed. While many of his movie colleagues had considered television a ‘lesser art’ Karloff had readily embraced the medium. It was never a question of the nature of the medium – it was the work that mattered.
His success did not have a detrimental effect upon his ego. Rather than believing himself the star of the picture and lording it over his colleagues, he always considered himself merely a jobbing actor, and a very lucky one at that. He continually proved to be unselfish in his craft. There was no hogging of the limelight, no unnecessary demands, no insistence on more screen time. Instead the actor proved himself, time and again, to be a caring colleague only concerned about the work in hand. Here are a few examples:
- Anne Gwynne, who played Karloff’s daughter in Black Friday (1940), recalled working with the star. “What an actor; what a man!” she said. “I had a key scene with Boris, the one where I’m urging him to take Stanley Ridges back home from New York. Well, we shot the entire scene with the camera on Boris. Arthur Lubin was the director, and for some reason I’ve always felt that he didn’t like me. He said, ‘Wrap!’ but Boris came to my rescue and said, ‘Don’t do this to her. Give Anne a close‑up.’ Which is exactly what Lubin had to do, and it’s in the picture! Now that is a really terrific guy. Most actors wouldn’t think of it, or do it if they did think of it, but Boris Karloff I’ll always admire. He was not only a fine actor who could play just about anything, but a really terrific human being.”
- When Glenn Strange took the role of Karloff’s beloved Frankenstein Monster for the picture House of Frankenstein (1944) Karloff, who played the vengeful Dr. Niemann in the film, was on hand to lend support. “Nobody ever helped anybody as much as Boris Karloff helped me,” Strange later said. “I’ll never forget that. I asked him for advice because I wanted to do this thing as near as he did. He was very kind about it. He would stay on set and coach me.”
- Perhaps the best example of Karloff’s concern for his colleagues came in 1933, when he became one of founding members of the Screen Actors Guild. It was a difficult time. Had the studios got wind of it they could all have been out of work, for good. Actor Eugene Walsh recalled, “I was present at one of the first meetings… at Boris’s Toluca Lake home… Boris personally had everything to lose, but his determination to help other actors was the driving force behind his decision.”
- Almost 20 years later, while appearing on Broadway as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, Karloff was still committed to the cause. Nehemiah Persoff, who played the pirate ‘Cecco’ in the play, later recounted, “During our run of Peter Pan AFTRA [the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] was not yet in existence and a meeting was called for – I think it was 11.30 or 12.00 midnight – at the Malin studios,” he said. “I decided to attend and was surprised to find the hall empty except for Boris Karloff who was patiently sitting there.” Karloff was both annoyed and disappointed at the meagre turnout. It was a far cry from the dedication he had witnessed during the formation and early days of the Screen Actors Guild.
Although Persoff decided to leave after half an hour, Karloff felt it was an important matter and chose to stay on. The following day he expressed his disappointment. “He said he could understand established, successful actors not showing up,” Persoff explained, “but he could not understand the fear or lack of courage that young actors had about standing up for their rights.”
- In 1957 Karloff agreed to appear in a short amateur run of Arsenic and Old Lace for the Anchorage Community College Theatre Workshop in Alaska. Each of the three nights was a great success. After the final performance Karloff told the audience that it had been the most rewarding moment of his career. He made no monetary gain from his appearances. He donated his entire fee to the school, and even personally covered his agent’s percentage.
- The following year, while preparing for a live television adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Karloff again revealed his dedication to his art, as well as his complete lack of self-importance. One day following rehearsals, after all the actors had left, the show’s writer, Stewart Stern, the show’s director Ron Winston, the art director and the cameraman sat around a conference table in the rehearsal room discussing the show. “Two hours after we thought the rehearsal had ended, I happened to turn, and noticed Boris in the corner, sitting very quietly reading the newspaper. I went over to him and said, ‘Mr. Karloff, are you waiting for someone?’ He said, ‘No, no, no, no.’ I said, ‘Well, why are you still here?’ He said, ‘Because I haven’t been officially dismissed.’”
- Herbert L. Strock, who directed Karloff on the unreleased series The Veil (1958) also found Karloff to be conscientious about his craft. “I think, of all the actors I’ve worked with over the years (including some of the better known actors), he was the most professional,” Strock said. “The most willing. And a very capable actor—he could play from a bobby to a gentleman to… anything! There was nothing this guy couldn’t do, and I loved working with him. Even though the budgets were extremely limited I enjoyed these shows very much.”
Karloff would even remain and help after his working day was done. “He would stay after I told him he was finished—I tried to finish with him earlier in the afternoon so he could get some sleep, but he would stay,” Strock said. “I’d say, “Don’t worry about it; when I’m doing the other man’s close-ups, I’ll play your part off-camera and he can react to me.” But Karloff felt it was much more charming if he stayed and he did the part, and the actor could get the proper reaction from his eyes. I mean, they don’t come like this anymore.”
Despite being recognised and renowned world-wide, Karloff never had an inflated sense of self-worth. He was, after all, ‘just’ an actor. “I have often thought how absurd and lopsided it is that men like my brothers should spend their lives in the service of their country, and be comparatively unknown,” he said, “whereas I, because of a series of lucky accidents, have been granted fame and some fortune. Anything I have achieved in life in no way compares to anything they or the hundreds of men like them have done.”
Even when his health began to fail he refused to retire. Karloff had always said he would like to go out ‘in harness’ – still a jobbing actor – and this is exactly what happened. In October 1968 he recorded The Jonathan Winters Show in Los Angeles and on the return journey disembarked at New York’s Kennedy Airport in order to catch a trans-Atlantic flight home. There he caught a severe chill and, after landing back in England, was immediately rushed to King Edward VII Hospital, in Midhurst, Sussex. He died there on Sunday, 2 February 1969. He was 81 years old.
Of all the glowing terms, flowery sentiments and epithets that have been extolled over the star in the years since his death perhaps the most appropriate is the simple phrase: Boris Karloff – Actor.