Boris Karloff

This page is devoted to Boris Karloff, star of such tv & movies as the science-fiction/horror/fantasy Frankenstein (1931) and the tv series Thriller, and subject of books. There's even a book titled This Is A Thriller including complete episode guide for "Boris Karloff's Thriller" tv series

Born William Henry Pratt in London, Karloff was nothing like the monsters he often played. When he made his first Frankenstein movie, his costar was so frightened of him that he held a hand beyond the camera frame and wiggled a finger, telling her to look at it rather than into his monster-madeup face. When you see the movie, you may notice that she is looking past, rather than at him, now you know why. To make the face even more haunted and sunken-looking, Karloff decided not to wear his dentures during filming. He later did the same with The Mummy.

When Universal Studios starting spoofing all it's old monster movies with Abbott & Costello, Karloff did not mind doing comedy, but would not accept a role in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, saying the monster "has been too good to me." Glenn Strange took the title role in that one, with Lugosi & Lon Chaney as Dracula & the Wolf Man.
He did guest star in two others: Abbott & Costello Meet The Killer Boris Karloff and A & C Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the only time in his career that Karloff played gothic horror's most famous split personality).

Karloff was born into a family of world-traveling diplomats and teachers. His brother, Sir John Pratt, was head of the British Consellor service, and his Great Aunt was a teacher sent to tutor the King of Siam's children (a play and movie about her were written, Yul Bryner played the King in both versions). The studio didn't like the name Pratt, so he took his mother's maiden name of Karloff

When Dr. Seuss was casting the animated How The Grinch Stole Christmas, he refused to even consider Karloff for the role, thinking the former Frankenstein would frighten children. Karloff, who read stories to his own grandchildren, not only got the role but replaced the narrator as well. * When he won a Grammy for "Grinch" (his only major award), he modestly suggested that his agent use it for a doorstop. The agent left it right where Karloff set it on the floor and left strict instructions for the cleaning crew not to touch or move the unique doorstop for many years...

please help the children How The Grinch Stole Christmas debuted in 1966 on CBS. Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) as noted above, was against it being made at all, once saying: "Hollywood is not suited for me, and I'm not suited for it." But producer-director Chuck Jones was able to persuade him to adapt his 1957 book. A treacherous sleigh ride down the mountain was added, the black-and-white Grinch became green, and 3 songs were added including "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by Thurl Ravenscroft (voice of Tony the Tiger). No expense was spared to make a first-rate children's classic. Too much, thought Variety (a show-biz newspaper), "The Grinch - It Not Only Stole Christmas But Picked CBS' Pocket For $315,000" (a lot of money in 1996).

A live-action version starring Jim Carrey is now on video - he says he played the role as a hurt outsider rather than just angry. Some think he should have gotten an Oscar for the Twilight Zonish movie The Truman Show, or at least have been nominated. But Carrey, like Karloff before, is not upset about the lack of awards on his mantel; "No statue is going to make me bitter, ever."

I know of at least two other Dr. Seuss stories that were adapted into movies: The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) starring Hans Conried as a piano teacher who kidnaps hundreds of children to play the world's longest piano keyboard.
The Twonky (also starring Conried in 1953), about a man whose life is taken over by his spirit-possessed TV. It was directed by Arch Oboler of Lights Out fame. There was even an earlier 1957 cartoon-version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas narrated by Walter Matthau.


Boris Karloff was the youngest of eight children of a civil servant in the British foreign service. He was sent to London University and intended for a diplomatic career, but ran away to Canada in 1909. He could find work only as a farmhand, then discovered acting. For the next decade, he played supporting roles in U.S. & Canadian touring companies, and had a bit part as an extra in "The Dumb Girl of Portici" (1916). In 1919, he went to Hollywood and appeared in 40 silent movies (mostly forgetable or small roles) including:
His Majesty The American (1919)
Last Of The Mohicans (1920)
The Cave Girl (1921)
The Prisoner (1923)
The Golden Web (1926)
Tarzan & The Golden Lion (1927)
Phantom of the North (1929)
Karloff as Frankenstein Until the mid-1920s,
he made more money as a truck driver than in movie work.
His big break came in 1931,
when Bela Lugosi refused to play Frankenstein's monster, complaining that the heavy makeup would make him unrecognizable to his fans.
Director James Whale was walking through the Universal Studios lunch room and spotted Karloff, telling him that his face "has possibilities."
Even under all of Jack Pierce's monster makeup,
Karloff was able to make an emotional connection with the audience, and would make several Frankenstein movies.

His non-monster movies in this period included:
The Criminal Code (1931) based on a previous stage role
The Lost Patrol (1934) as a religious fanatic
Mr. Wong - Detective (1938), the first of 5 movies as a gentle Chinese detective in San Francisco: The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939)
Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939)
The Fatal Hour (1940)
Doomed To Die (1940)
But it was as villains and monsters that he was best known. His 140 movies included:
Frankenstein tinted green The Sea Bat (1930)
Frankenstein (1931)
Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
The Mummy (1932)
The Ghoul (1933)
The Black Cat (1934), his first with Bela Lugosi
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, again as the monster, with Elsa Manchester)
The Black Room (1935), as twins
The Raven (1935)
The Walking Dead (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Opera (1937, as prime suspect in murder)
The Invisible Menace (1938)
Son of Frankenstein (1939) as monster, revived by mad doctor's son
Tower of London (1939) as the Executioner
Black Friday (1940) conducting a brain transplant, Lugosi as donor
The Ape (1940) as a mad doctor
You'll Find Out (1940 comedy), Kay Kyser & his goofy band spend the night in a house haunted by Karloff, Lugosi & Peter Lorre
The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942), with Lorre. Traveling salesmen go into Karloff's house but they don't come out
House of Frankenstein (1944)
The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead (both 1945)
Bedlam (1946) as head of the infamous real 18th century asylum, he has an investigating reporter committed to get rid of her
Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) as villain
Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947), do I have to tell you which one Karloff plays?
Abbott & Costello Meet The Killer (1949), Karloff's name was added to the title in re-release
The Black Castle (1952), supporting role in boring movie
Voodoo Island (1957) as a detective
Frankenstein 1970 (1958, set 12 years in the future), this time as the Doctor
Corridors of Blood (1958), aka The Doctor From 7 Dials (1962 US), with Christopher Lee in a minor role. Lee was well-known by 1962 so the U.S. credits gave him a starring role
The Raven (1963) Karloff as victim of Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed Lugosi
afraid of dark? The Terror (1963) Karloff as a castle owner, same set as The Raven
Black Sabbath (1963) host Karloff tells 3 atmospheric stories and appears in the final one, about a vampire
The Comedy of Terrors (1963) with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone
Die Monster Die! (1965, by H. P. Lovecraft), with Patrick Macnee
The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) yes, even Karloff did a Beach Movie and no, you can't see the girl (ghost) under the invisible bikini
The Daydreamer (1965, by Hans Christian Andersen), as voice of one of the puppets
The Venetian Affair (1967), one of Robert Vaughn's Man From UNCLE-type movies, with Karloff in a good supporting role
The Sorcerers (1967) confusing mess about a couple doing mind-control experiments
Mad Monster Party (1967) another children's puppet movie, loosly based on the novelty song "The Monster Mash," Karloff as voice of Baron Frankenstein
Targets (1968), Peter Bogdanovich's directing debut, about a former horror film star & Drive-In theater owner (Karloff) who becomes the target of a sniper
The Crimson Altar (1968) aka The Crimson Cult, about black magic & witches
The Snake People (1968/1970), drug exploitation film mixing LSD and voodoo
The Incredible Invasion (1968), aka Sinister Invasion (1971), semi-remake of "Plan 9 From Outer Space"
Cauldron of Blood (1967), re-released as "Blind Man's Bluff" (1971), Karloff as a blind sculpter who uses skeletons supplied by wife's murder victims. Filmed in Spain with all-Spanish supporting cast
In addition to movies, Karloff continued doing plays after "The Criminal Code," noted already:
Arsenic & Old Lace (1941) on Broadway as Jonathan Brewster. When Frank Capra made it as a movie in 1944 starring Cary Grant, the villainous escaped-murdered is described by police as looking "like Boris Karloff." Unfortunately, Karloff was unavailable for the movie version, but Peter Lorre was on hand as the villain's cringing assistant.
Peter Pan (1950) as merciless Captain Hook. Three years later, Disney made it as an animated movie with Hans Conried as the voice of Hook
By the way, the movie Mask of Fu Manchu might have started a movie series except for two things: Karloff didn't care for the role and Myrna Loy (as his villainous daughter) threatened to quit movies if she ever had to play another "exotic" (non-white) role. She was then cast opposite William Powell in "The Thin Man" and became an overnight star, launching a "Thin Man" movie series (which was funny because the title referred to the villain in the first movie, though audiences assumed it referred to Powell). Karloff, of course, continued his own career of horror/monster movies.

Over the years, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Glenn Strange would alternate in various similar roles in the many vampire, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, Mummy, and haunted house movies. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing filled the role in most British horror/monster films later on.

By the 1990s, there were no recognized masters of the gothic horror genre. Raul Julia starred in Roger Corman's Frankenstein (1990) with John Hurt as a time-traveling scientist who encounters him during his monster-making experiment. Raul would also make both Addams Family movies. But for the most part, horror movies by the 1990s were either driven by computerized special effects, or were slasher movies with gallons of blood and body parts instead of a plot. Halloween Parts 4, 5 and 6 did not even have Jamie Lee Curtis in them (Donald Pleasence was still there as the psychiatrist, up until 1995, though he didn't live to see Halloween H20 in 1998, starring Curtis and her "Psycho" mother).

Here's a list of videos from his "Thriller" tv series:

Thriller: The Incredible Doktor Markesan (1962)
Thriller: The Premature Burial (1961)
Thriller: Masquerade (1961)
Thriller: The Grim Reaper (1961)
Thriller: The Terror in Teakwood (1961)
Thriller: The Prediction (1960)

Boris Karloff guest starred in various programs and anthologies on TV, and even was a panalist on the gameshow "Down You Go" (1954-55), a gameshow somewhat like Weakest Link, except that panalists could return for other rounds after missing a question and hearing the dreaded "Down you go," putting them out of the game for the rest of that round. And the somewhat more appropriate Tales From Tomorrow and Lights Out, and even the Halloween broadcast of rock & roll show "Shindig" in the mid-1960s. Karloff, Peter Lorre, and John Carradine appeared in some episodes of "Suspense," the 1949-64 TV-version to a 20-year network radio series.

9-22-49 to 12-15-49, Karloff hosted "Mystery Playhouse Starring Boris Karloff," with tales of horror on ABC. Karloff's name was added to the tv series title on October 27, after the series had been on the air for about a year. As with "Lights Out," this series got its creepy music from organ music (played live by George Henniger), rather than an expensive orchestra. Up against the Ed Wynn Show on CBS and the Morey Amsterdam Show on the Dumont Network, ABC pushed it back a half-hour, with the name change, but ratings didn't improve.
The first broadcast, "5 Golden Guineas," was about an English hangman who is paid five gold coins for each hanging, even though he unduly enjoys the snap of each victim's neck and dangling arms. He hadn't told his newlywed wife his occupation and when she finds out, already pregnant, she leaves him. Twenty years later, the hangman executes a young man while keeping secret some evidence that may prove him innocent. Then he is confronted by the wife who left him 20 years ago, who tells him he just hung his own, innocent son. In a rage, he strangles her, is convicted of murder, and results in another hangman getting the 5 gold coins for executing him. The series only lasted out the year 1949 and was not renewed.

However, a decade later NBC revived the idea of a horror anthology hosted by Karloff, calling it Thriller. Karloff not only hosted, he starred in some of the hour-long episodes, including a remake of "5 Golden Guineas." Thriller ran at 9pm Tuesdays, following Alfred Hitchcock Presents for its first year. Starting September 1961, it was moved to 10pm Mondays, up against Ben Casey (a popular doctor show starring Vince Edwards that ran until 1966), which did it in after a 2-year run. It was replaced in September 1962 by the half-hour David Brinkley's Journal, after which NBC simply went off the air at 10:30pm. In 1963, the hour-long "Sing Along With Mitch" took the timeslot, and the following year Alfred Hitchcock expanded to a full hour at 10pm Mondays (they, too, only lasted 1 year each in the timeslot). But the 2-year run of Thriller gave a boost to Karloff's film career. He hadn't made a movie since 1958 but starting in 1962, made one to four movies a year until his death in 1969.

* Speaking of awards, the late Imogene Coca, the token female comic genius in TV's "Your Show of Shows," was visited at home by Mark Evanier of Comic Buyer's Guide in 1994. He writes in his column Point of View that he noticed that her only award, an Emmy, was broken in two. "Oh, it came that way." Why hadn't she demanded a replacement in 40 years? "Oh, I didn't want to bother them. I figured I might win another one someday." She didn't win any awards for her role in the black comedy National Lampoon's Vacation and frankly, didn't care for the role. "I died in it and it was supposed to be funny. I don't think that's funny."

Factoid: It took 7 hours to apply Karloff's make-up for "The Bride of Frankenstein", and his make-up and costume weighed 62 lbs. Karloff had a brick placed under each foot so the monster's walking would look labored.
Previous tv broadcasts on the Sci-Fi Channel

A biography of Boris Karloff is on our Wild Wild West website.

And Karloff was in some Edgar Allen Poe movies

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There's also a Tough Guys of Action collection of 20 films that captures the essence of action: espionage, sabatoge, embezzlement, corruption, revenge, murder, & torture! Innocent primary suspects are falsely accused and presumed dead. International crooks commit crimes under innocent auspices and face foreign authorities. Click here for Action Collection starring Bogart, De Niro, Cagney, Palance, Savalas, Yul Brynner, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Lee Marvin (The Klansman) and many more.

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