Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff Biography

Film Actor, Actor (1887–1969)
Boris Karloff was an English-born actor who played the monster in Frankenstein and became synonymous with horror films of the 1930s.


Born in 1887 in London, Boris Karloff took the role of the "Monster" in 1931's Frankenstein after Bela Lugosi refused to take the part. Karloff's performance received huge praise and he became an overnight sensation. His career was mostly spent in popular horror films, where he brought a pathos to the characterization, such as in The Mummy (1932) and The Black Cat (1934). He is also well known for providing the voice of the narrator and the Grinch in the 1966 classic holiday cartoon How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Early Life

Actor Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in London, England, on November 23, 1887. He studied at London University, then went to Canada after eloping with his first of six wives, Grace Harding. After relocating, his passion for becoming a diplomat like his father had waned, and started to become more involved in acting.

Early Roles

Upon his arrival to Canada, Karloff worked as a laborer. He then went to Hollywood and spent 10 years in repertory companies as a character actor, appearing in 45 silent films for Universal Studios. Among the roles films he worked in were The Last of the Mohicans (1920), Forbidden Cargo (1925) and an installment in the popular Tarzan series, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927). Karloff would come across his big break after starring in a string of unnoticed roles.


When Bela Lugosi refused to take a role in which he would have his face hidden by makeup and have no lines, the role of "The Monster" in 1931's Frankenstein went to Karloff. Although this would come to be one of Karloff's most recognizable roles, it wasn't expected to be a popular film, much less a breakout role for the unknown actor. And with Colin Clive earning top billing as Dr. Frankenstein and Mae Clarke receiving second billing, the actual actor behind the face paint of the monster remained a mystery.

Karloff's tender, sympathetic performance received enormous critical praise and he became an overnight sensation. He donned the signature make up, boots and neck bolts to play the monster once again in the popular Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the less successful Son of Frankenstein in 1939.

Horrifying Roles

Apart from a notable performance in the World War I story, The Lost Patrol (1934), Karloff's career was mostly spent in popular horror films. His performances frequently transcended the crudity of the genre, bringing, as in Frankenstein, a depth and pathos to the characterization.

In 1932, Karloff appeared in several dark films, including the gangster drama Scarface, the black comedy The Old Dark House, the sci-fi horror film The Mask of Fu Manchu and he starred as the undead Im-Ho-Tep in The Mummy. The consecutive roles as villains and monsters helped cement his reputation as a horror actor, allowing Karloff to join the ranks of actors like Vincent Price and Lugosi.

Later Roles

By appearing in films such as The Ape (1940) and The House of Frankenstein (1944) in the 1940s, Karloff was able to keep his frightening persona on the silver screen alive. Not long after these appearances in the late '40s and throughout the '50s, Karloff began trying his hand at television. While not often appearing as a regular on TV, he did star on shows such as Tales of Tomorrow (1951-53), Lux Video Theatre (1950-59) and The Veil (1958).

Karloff made his way back to film in the '60s with roles in films like 1963's The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors. With a number of horror films and shows under his belt, Karloff's most memorable role outside of "the monster" was a stark contrast to the roles that he had been associated with in the past. In 1966, he took on the role of the narrator and titular character in the classic holiday TV short How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Personal Life and Death

Despite what some may have presumed about film's famed monster, Karloff led a kind and generous life off camera. He was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933 and often donated to charities—he dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas, beginning in 1940, and gave gifts to handicapped children at a hospital in Baltimore. On February 2, 1969, Karloff died in his home in England from emphysema. He was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for motion pictures and television posthumously.

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