The following is a reprint from the summer 2013 issue of the alumni magazine of Merchant Taylors’ School, and is used by permission of the author.
Boris Karloff: a brief biography
By Stephen Jacobs
The day before Frankenstein opened in November 1931 Boris Karloff was one of a myriad of character actors in Hollywood. The night after the opening he was a star, and would remain one for the rest of his life.
Yet being a star hadn’t been the be all and end all for Karloff. For his main ambition had always been the same – to be a professional actor. Financial security was nice, of course, but he had endured over two decades as an actor without it. But this was the life he had chosen – to the consternation of his family.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on the 23rd November 1887 in Camberwell, South London. The youngest of the nine children of Edward and Eliza Pratt Billy, as he was known, was expected to follow his father and the majority of his siblings into Government Service.
Billy’s father, Edward Pratt, had had a volatile career in India, working in various roles within the Customs department, collecting tax on salt and opium. In 1879, having been forced to retire, Edward brought his family to England. He remained an embittered man and in December 1889, when Billy was just two years old, Edward and Eliza legally separated.
Of Billy’s 7 brothers 4 followed in the father’s footsteps, as he later recalled: “Two were in the Indian Civil Service [Edward and Frederick], two were in the Chancellor’s Service in China [John and Richard] and I was supposed to go to the Chancellor’s Service in China with them… I didn’t want to.” Billy had other plans. “I was a lazy little devil at school because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, go on the stage,” he said. “I was not going to pass any examinations if I could possibly help it. I wanted to be an actor.”
He would not be the first actor in the family. His favourite brother, George, had also trodden the boards, billed under the stage name of George Marlowe. “Despite the fact that George was an extraordinarily handsome man, he never went very far on the stage,” Karloff later explained, “which was the reason he gave it up for a city job. But I tried to emulate him.”
Billy’s love of acting had begun at an early age. After his mother and siblings moved to Enfield they attended St. Mary Magdalene’s church on Windmill Hill. Here Billy joined a drama group and at Christmas 1896, at the age of nine, made his acting debut appearing in one of the plays—a version of Cinderella. “Instead of playing the handsome prince, I donned black tights and a skullcap and rallied the forces of evil as the Demon King,” he recalled. That role proved to be the catalyst. “From then on,” he proclaimed, “I resolved to be an actor.” Despite brotherly attempts to dissuade him from an acting career Billy’s mind was set. Even his schooling at such notable institutions as Enfield Grammar, Merchant Taylors’ and Uppingham could not divert him from seeking a life on the stage.
In 1909, aged 21, he used a £150 legacy to leave the country. He emigrated to Canada and made his way to Vancouver, working along the way. When he arrived in the city he had only five dollars in his pocket. Within days he was down to 15 cents. “There wasn’t a hope of stage work,” he explained. “There was little doing in the theatre at that time and, in any case, managers were not interested in gangling youths with no experience. The dire necessity of eating was soon apparent.” He took what work he could. “Men were wanted to dig a race track and a fair ground,” he said, “and the pay was one and threepence an hour.”
He later found work as a real estate broker. He also found himself a wife. On 23 February 1910 Billy married a fellow English émigré, Jessie Grace Harding. His new bearing in life, however, had little effect on his ultimate ambitions and his search for an acting job continued. He eventually was offered a place with the theatrical troupe the Jeanne Russell Players and left his wife in the city while he made his way to join the company. “I had finally become an actor, but I mumbled, bumbled, missed cues, rammed into furniture and sent the director’s blood pressure soaring,” he admitted. “When the curtain went up, I was getting 30 dollars a week. When it descended, I was down to 15 dollars.” Thus began almost a decade of the theatrical work with various companies as Billy – now calling himself Boris Karloff (he later erroneously claimed the surname came from ancestors on his mother’s side) – learned his trade. Years later he arrived in Los Angeles and began to look for work. “I made the rounds of the only possible outlet, the film studios,” he said. “I appeared before the camera for the first time in a crowd scene being directed by Frank Borzage at Universal City.”
For over a decade Karloff made a living, initially as an extra and then as a character actor. Sometimes the work was so scarce he would have to return to manual labouring to earn a crust. Two more wives came and went (he had divorced Grace in 1913) and in 1930 he married librarian Dorothy Stine. The couple would have one child – a daughter named Sara Jane – who was born on 23 November 1938 (her father’s 51st birthday).
One day in June 1931 Karloff entered the commissary at Universal Studio where he was making the picture Graft. That day would change his life forever. “I was having lunch,” Karloff explained, “and James Whale sent either the first assistant or maybe it was his secretary over to me, and asked me to join him for a cup of coffee after lunch, which I did. He asked me if I would make a test for him tomorrow. ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘For a damned awful monster!’ he said. Of course, I was delighted, because it meant another job if I was able to land it. Actually, that’s all it meant to me. At the same time I felt rather hurt, because at the time I had on a very good straight make-up and my best suit – and he wanted to test me for a monster!”
After the success of Frankenstein the studios, naturally, wanted to feature Karloff in further horror offerings, and in that decade alone he starred in such genre classics as The Mummy, The Ghoul, The Black Cat, The Raven, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein.
Although he would remain, primarily, a movie actor Karloff would return to the stage from time to time, with varying degrees of success. The plays Arsenic and Old Lace, On Borrowed Time, Peter Pan, and The Lark were successful. The Linden Tree and The Shop at Sly Corner were not (both closed after only 7 performances).
In 1933 Boris Karloff became one of the nine founding members of the Screen Actors Guild, established to look after the rights of movie actors. He was always an advocate for actors’ rights and had, himself, suffered at the hands of the studios. After shooting the famous lake scene in Frankenstein, for example, when the Monster inadvertently drowns the little girl, the cast and crew returned to the studio. “We went back to the studio in the evening to have some supper and then… back onto the backlot and worked all night until five in the morning… I had it [the make-up] on for over 25 hours. It was a long pull.” In addition, Karloff was required to report to the studio at 4 a.m. in order for Jack Pierce to apply the makeup (which took over four hours) to be ready for the 9 a.m. start. At that time neither the application nor the removal process (an hour and a half) was considered to be part of Karloff’s working day.
Although the movies would prove to be the mainstay of his career, Karloff would regularly appear on television and radio. His guest appearances would often play on his horror persona. For example, on 18 April 1953, he was the guest on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s radio show. “In spite of the fiendish parts that I play in pictures,” Karloff told Martin, “I’m really a kind and mild-mannered man. In fact, I’m as soft-hearted and gentle a man as you could ever meet. Don’t I appear that way? Dean—why don’t you answer?” “I can’t,” Martin replied. “You’re choking me!” Still, TV and radio also presented him with some of his best dramatic roles. It remains a pity that more of his shows are unavailable for us to enjoy.
Karloff was rarely out of work. Such a busy schedule, however, had a detrimental effect on his home life and in May 1946 Karloff and Dorothy divorced. He married his fifth and final wife, Evelyn Helmore, the following day.
Karloff continued to work until the end of his life, even when dogged by ill health. He had been plagued by back problems and later wore a brace on his left leg. His years of smoking also took its toll and during the making of his final films an oxygen tank accompanied him on set.
When he died, on 2 February 1969 aged 81, the newspapers, naturally, concentrated on his horror roles – most significantly that of the Monster in Frankenstein. It’s doubtful that Karloff would have been concerned. “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.”