The very first time William Henry Pratt stepped out onto the stage it was as the "Demon King." He was nine years old.
Those in attendance at the Enfield parish production of Cinderella that December evening in 1896 hadn't an inkling that they were participating in dramatic foreshadow of epic proportions; least of all the rigid family of seven brothers and one sister sitting out there amongst the parishioners. Virtually raised by his siblings, William was destined to follow in the family footsteps in some sort of diplomatic endeavor. His interest in theatre could be indulged this single time as it came shrouded in the social convention of the Church, but such conduct would certainly not be sanctioned beyond childish duty.
Billy saw things differently, however. He was practically thrown into King's College by his brothers, but he soon let them know he had no desire to lose his identity as the youngest of the very proper Pratts. His grades suffered, his interest in drama grew, and his family all but booted him out. A flip of the coin decided on Canada over Australia, and thus young Mr. Pratt arrived in Ontario in 1909. Vancouver was next. Failed jobs as a farmhand and a real estate agent brought about a re-assessment of why he left England in the first place. When he ran across the ad of a theatrical agent in Seattle, he went to the man and lied through his teeth about his experience. He also decided on a stage name, a Slavic collision of a surname from his mother's Russian ancestry and a first name that seemed dramatically appropriate.
Boris Karloff's first professional gig was playing a character nearly three times his age, and he was so awful that years later he joked that he was on salary at $30 when the curtain went up and $15 when it came back down. Funny, yes, but also quite true.
For the next seven years he persisted at his craft while touring with various theatre companies, at one point playing 106 different roles in a 53-week run in North Dakota. Though he was gaining important experience in the field he loved most, he was also fortunate enough to realize that he was not leading man material. From the onset, he understood that he was to play character roles and heavies, and his sense of place and contentment with that knowledge allowed him to remain patient and purposeful in his work. He wasn't spinning his wheels waiting to graduate to dashing leads for which he would be all wrong for. He was, though, unknowingly laying the foundation for a time to come in which the heavy was the lead.
Few realize how long and how hard Karloff had to work before seeing such a time. He made his first film appearance as an extra in a Douglas Fairbanks film in 1918, while touring with a theatre company in Los Angeles. His strange look lent itself to the medium and he continued to balance both theatre and film jobs regularly, if mostly unspectacularly, until his minor role as the looming convict Galloway in the New Yorkstage production of The Criminal Code (1930) led to his reprising the part for Howard Hawks' film version. The scene in which he murders a stool pigeon is c Karloff, providing menacing gait and a brutish brow as he corners his victim, then slowly closes a wooden door in our faces, effectively obscuring the ugly violence we are forced to play out in our own minds. Film roles were coming at a clip now, playing opposite both Lionel and John Barrymore, Laurel and Hardy, E.G. Robinson, and even trying to sell dope to 10-year old Jackie Cooper (in 1931's Young Donovan's Kid).
One fateful day in 1931, director James Whale saw contract player Boris Karloff having lunch in the studio commissary and was fascinated with the shape of the actor's head. Lugosi and original director Robert Florey had already been "awarded" Murder In The Rue Morgue as a consolation prize for being respectively too proud and too bossy for the project, so Whale's choice of a working actor whom the public did not know as a star solidified the course of Karloff's remaining 37 years in the business. Frankenstein had it's Monster.
It was Boris Karloff's 70th film. (Or 81st, depending on where you check.) After enduring the hours and hours of secretive and grueling make-up sessions by Jack Pierce, only to have his name replaced with an "?" in the opening credits as part of the studio's publicity angle, the actor who stunned audiences with his horrifically sympathetic Monster wasn't even invited to the premiere. Taking Lugosi's oft-quoted dismissal of the role as one in which any extra could grunt, the studio had no idea who audiences would see as the real star of this hugely successful and very controversial horror film. Karloff had touched a nerve.
Horror had itself a new King, yet replete with a British accent and a pronounced lisp there must have been some concern as to how to cast him in talkies. Audiences' first opportunity to hear the newly-crowned horror star speak came in MGM's kinky Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), then Universal grabbed him back and gave him Ardath Bey, a wrinkled parchment of the Egyptian undead, who didn't "like to be touched," in The Mummy (1932).
Karloff never approved of the word "horror," as he saw that word's purpose to "repulse," something he never tried to do. It's more a semantic quibble than an argument of merit, but one can't help appreciate the distinction he was attempting to make. At his best, he gave his monsters, both mortal and immortal, remarkable shades of understanding, be it the agonizing loneliness of his creature in The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) or the ugly little man who unleashed his self-hate on the wretched inside the dark walls of Bedlam (1946).
Boris was a private man fully avoiding the Hollywood social scene, though eager to lend a hand when it would benefit his fellow thespians. To that end, he became a founding member of the Screen Actor's Guild.
He was mortified of going back on the stage, though was finally convinced to do so and met much acclaim in the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace (which ran so long that when the film was hurriedly made the studio had to use Raymond Massey). He has been quoted assaying that a career high point was playing the insistently non-horrific role of "Bishop Cauchon" in The Lark, opposite Julie Harris, a role he repeated for television. He would also play "Captain Hook" in a stage production of Peter Pan. When once asked why he didn't play the "real" cs, the humble actor told the reporter that he simply wasn't talented enough to do Shakespeare.
Wheel-chair ridden and suffering from respiratory illness, Boris Karloff worked in all the available mediums of his profession right up until the very end. He died, age 81, in 1969.
Grandfatherly, his lisping oration of Dr Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) remains an annual television favorite for legions of little boys and girls yet to discover it is the very same voice of the Monster from whom they will one day learn compassion and understanding in the face of ignorant fear and hatred.