Growing up with Frankenstein as her father was as far from being part of a horror show as could be. That was how Sara Karloff remembered life with Boris Karloff and how he handled originating and perpetuating the scary monster that came to be known as Frankenstein.
According to Sara, her father was “the antithesis of the part he played in the 1931 classic horror movie, Frankenstein. Boris Karloff was the funniest, gentlest, kindest, quietist and most articulate English gentleman that ever lived.”
Born William Henry Pratt in England, Boris Karloff was the youngest of nine children. When asked how he got his stage name, his daughter said, “Karloff came from his mother’s family and Boris came out of thin air.” He studied for the British Council Service, but did not pursue that path. Instead he went to British Columbia where he played bit parts in eighty movies. Sara said that Frankenstein was his eighty-first film, adding, “No one saw the first eighty of them.” She said her father described his part playing extras in obscure roles as “being the third from the left in the fourth row.”
After twenty years in the business, the forty-four year-old Karloff was offered the role of a lifetime by James Whale, the English film director. My father said he was “jolly lucky to have a job,” and quickly accepted the non-speaking role of Frankenstein. “My father’s name was not listed in the movie’s opening credits and he wasn’t even invited to the premier,” she said. “No one expected the monster to be the star.” Collin Clive played the part of Dr. Frankenstein and he was slated to be the star.
Although Boris Karloff was only five feet and eleven inches tall, make-up, camera angles, shadows and two-inch high plaster boots made him appear looming. “It took four hours to apply the make-up and three hours to take it off,” she said. “Working in Hollywood during the hot month of August and wearing a dark wool suit resulted in my father losing twenty-five pounds during filming.”
After the make-up and costume came off, Boris Karloff enjoyed life on his three and one-half acre estate in Beverly Hills where he liked to garden, read and pursue his life-long passion of playing cricket. He was on the Hollywood Cricket Team. He also loved animals. At one time, the Karloff family owned twenty-two dogs and a pig named Violet.
“Always the consummate professional,” was how Sara Karloff described her father who, along with a group of other actors, founded the Screen Actors Guild as a way to give back to the profession he loved and was so grateful to have had the opportunity to work in.
Boris Karloff worked in the film industry all his life, but no role surpassed the one he created as Frankenstein, the monster put together from used body parts, which made him an overnight star.
Sara Karloff said she was nineteen years-old before she saw the movie, made in 1931, several years before she was born. “Since my father never brought his work home I was mesmerized by the role he created, but more importantly in awe of the man behind the monster. He was the least scary human being in the world.”
In addition to Frankenstein, the part that rolled out the red carpet for him, Boris Karloff appeared in many other movies, television shows, Broadway Plays, and radio shows. One of his favorite roles, according to Sara Karloff, was the aging horror film icon, Byron Orlok in the thriller Target directed by Peter Bogdanovic. It was made in 1968, just one year before Karloff’s death on Ground Hog’s Day in 1969.
Karloff also enjoyed working with other movie monsters, namely Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. “While on the set, the group played practical jokes, each trying to out-“Boogie Man” the others,” said Sara Karloff.
Keeping her father’s professional and personal legacy alive, Sara Karloff maintains a website, www.karloff.com and participates in many Halloween-themed productions (Chiller Theater at the Sheraton in Parsippany, New Jersey is hosting an event) and throughout the year speaks to Boris Karloff’s multi-generation fan-base.