When Universal Pictures tapped stage veteran James Whale to direct a film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1931, he needed to find the perfect monster. The right actor obviously had to look frightening, but that wouldn’t be enough. There needed to be a touch of humanity underneath the walking patchwork of corpses.
Boris Karloff rose to the challenge by playing the unloved creature with both tenderness and menace. A box office smash, Frankenstein made Karloff a superstar, especially within the horror genre. Here are 13 things you should know about the screen legend.
1. Boris Karloff wasn’t his legal name.
A native of South London, he was born on November 23, 1887, as William Henry Pratt. According to his daughter, Sara, he adopted the stage name Boris Karloff in the late 1910s “because he felt the name Pratt would not be particularly fortunate on a marquee, perhaps due to the term pratfalls.” (The Frankenstein performer never legally changed his name, though.) He claimed some of his ancestors had gone by the surname “Karloff,” but this is unproven.
2. Boris Karloff had small parts in more than 70 films before Frankenstein.
Karloff’s acting career began on the stage and included a 10-year stint in theaters across Canada. When he finally got into the movie industry in 1919, he found himself cast in dozens of small roles in both silent pictures and talkies, with many of the parts remaining uncredited.
The jobs themselves were far from glamorous—Karloff was oftentimes relegated to playing stereotypical Native American and Arabic villains in low-budget Westerns and serials. though he did occasionally share the screen with showbiz heavyweights during this period, including a supporting role in 1931’s Best Picture nominee Five Star Final, alongside Edward G. Robinson.
3. Boris Karloff drove a cement truck to pay the bills in between acting gigs.
Despite appearing in movies on a fairly regular basis, Karloff was still struggling financially throughout the '20s. This forced him to find odd jobs in between roles, including driving a truck for a cement company in Los Angeles. So, on one Sunday, Karloff's friend taught him to drive and the next day he applied for a driving job, which he got. The acting dream was still alive—he would just have to take days off from the trucking job to do it.
4. Boris Karloff was first approached about playing Frankenstein’s Monster in a studio cafeteria.
One day, Karloff was eating lunch at the Universal Studios commissary when Whale invited him over for coffee. “He asked me if I would test for him tomorrow,” Karloff remembered. “‘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 [...] At the same time I felt rather hurt, because at the time I had on very good straight makeup and my best suit, and he wanted to test me for a monster!”
5. Boris Karloff spent hours getting in and out of monster makeup.
For the original Frankenstein, it took artist Jack Pierce three hours every morning to apply Karloff’s makeup and prosthetics—and removing them at the end of the day was another long, grueling process. Things got even worse for Karloff when he was cast as the ancient villain Imhotep in 1932's The Mummy. Getting the actor camera-ready with multiple layers of bandages (plus clay, tape, and makeup) was an eight-hour ordeal.
6. Boris Karloff befriended child actress Marilyn Harris on the set of Frankenstein.
Marilyn Harris was cast as little Maria, the girl Frankenstein’s monster accidentally drowns while they are playing by a lake. At the time of the movie’s production, Harris was 7 years old—and not the least bit frightened by Karloff’s creature makeup. While waiting to be driven up to the lake location, Harris saw that nobody wanted to share a limo with Karloff while he was in his monster regalia. So the child took his hand and said, “I’ll ride with you.” Karloff replied: “Will you, darling?” As Harris later reflected, “There was just something about him. He was very special, a very nice man, very kind.”
7. Boris Karloff was in the original Scarface.
Today’s audiences are probably more familiar with the 1983 Al Pacino remake of this gangster classic. In the original 1932 version, Karloff portrayed mobster Tom Gaffney. (Spoiler alert: He gets murdered at a bowling alley.)
8. Boris Karloff was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Not only was Karloff subjected to all those long hours in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair, but he also seriously injured his back while making Frankenstein. To help fight for equity and safer working conditions, Karloff joined the nascent Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which was established in 1933. He was only the ninth actor to ever receive a membership card to one of Hollywood's most powerful unions.
Today, the SAG-AFTRA (an organization formed by the 2012 merger of the original SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) represents around 160,000 actors and other “media professionals.”
9. Boris Karloff popped up on such TV programs as Route 66 and The Red Skelton Show.
Karloff sang a horror movie duet with Vincent Price on The Red Skelton Show in 1968. And while 1939’s Son of Frankenstein marked Karloff’s last cinematic appearance as the Frankenstein monster, he suited back up to portray the creature for a 1962 episode of the CBS drama Route 66. And if you haven’t seen Boris Karloff’s 1966 Butter-Nut Coffee commercial, you’re in for a treat.
10. Boris Karloff poked fun at his own career in the hit play Arsenic & Old Lace.
Penned by Joseph Kesselring, the whimsical dark comedy Arsenic & Old Lace opened on Broadway in January 1941. The part of Jonathan Brewster, a murderer who undergoes plastic surgery to conceal his identity, was written for Karloff. Karloff was reluctant to do the play at first, due to his lack of Broadway experience, but he came around when producer Russel Crouse recited one of Jonathan’s lines at a meeting.
“You have just murdered a man,” Crouse said, setting the scene. “[And] when questioned about it, you say ‘I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff.’”Karloff loved the idea of ribbing himself on stage and took the part. Arsenic & Old Lace ran for 1444 performances. Unfortunately, Karloff wasn’t able to reprise his role for the 1944 movie adaptation; actor Raymond Massey played Jonathan in that film.
11. Val Lewton’s horror movies were a breath of fresh air for Boris Karloff.
The House of Frankenstein (1944) was arguably the first “monster mash.” Another Universal project, the movie brought Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster together in the same film. Emceeing the whole show is Dr. Gustav Niemann, a mad scientist played by Karloff. While he may have handed the character of the monster off to actor Glenn Strange for this movie, Karloff still found himself cast in—and bored by—these types of creature features.
Thankfully, he was revitalized by Val Lewton, the head of RKO Studios’ horror division, who preferred his scary movies to have an emphasis on atmosphere and suspense over the typical monster mayhem. He cast Karloff as a grave-robbing murderer in The Body Snatcher (1945), as a stranded soldier in Isle of the Dead (1945), and as an evil asylum master in Bedlam (1946). The horror veteran was grateful for the change of pace. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”
12. Boris Karloff was an avid cricket player.
“I was a frightful duffer, but I tried very hard,” Karloff said of his usual on-field performance. He was a longtime member of the Hollywood Cricket Club, an amateur group that also included the likes of Laurence Olivier, Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor, and scriptwriter P.G. Wodehouse.
13. A love of poetry got Boris Karloff cast in Chuck Jones’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Karloff had a lifelong passion for verse and was known to gleefully recite classic poems on movie sets. During the 1950s and 1960s, he read various Rudyard Kipling stories for a series of children’s albums, which caught the ear of Chuck Jones, director of the 30-minute television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). Karloff was hired to be the show’s narrator. It was one of his signature roles, an inspired performance captured just three years before his death.
In a letter to Karloff’s widow, Jones said, “It now seems apparent that How the Grinch Stole Christmas will be a Christmas feature on television for as long as anyone can envisage. In my opinion, the major reason for this is that Mr. Karloff gave such a thoughtful and understanding reading of the script. I think it is entirely appropriate that children for many generations will find joy and a deeper understanding of Christmas through the skill of your husband.”