Boris Karloff: A Life on Stage and in Film


An Interview with Sara Karloff

NYPL: What was your father’s opinion of his role in Frankenstein?

Karloff: People always asked him if he minded being typecast. He said, and truly meant it, that he was grateful for the difference that that role made in his life, both personally and professionally. He often referred to the Creature as his “best friend.” As far as the role itself, I think the way he portrayed it, with such pathos and such empathy and such sympathy for the character, is why it’s had such long legs, why it has become iconic. I think part of my father’s own life experiences came through, some of his own personality. But his feeling, his gratitude for the opportunity simply to be a working actor, was lifelong.

NYPL: Did he read Mary Shelley’s novel, either to do research on the role or afterward?

Karloff: My father read the novel and I think his portrayal shows that. He was an avid reader, a very well educated man and a very articulate man, so part of his interpretative skills and his interpretative reading skills came though.

NYPL: Is it true that your father didn’t like the term “horror” movie?

Karloff: He preferred the word “terror” to the word “horror.” He felt that horror denoted disgust, revulsion, and that terror made the hair on the back of your neck stand up — it invited the audience’s imagination and participation in the experience.

Boris Karloff with his daughter, Sara, on the set of the American International Pictures film A Comedy of Terrors (ca. 1963). Photo courtesy Sara Kaloff

A Vandamm Studio portrait of Boris Karloff. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Promotional material for the 1986 restored version of the 1931 film Frankenstein. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

NYPL: Did he take you to see his films when you were a child?

Karloff: He didn’t go see his own films. He wasn’t even invited to the premiere of Frankenstein — he was a piece of meat to the studios at that time, as were most actors. The first time he saw Frankenstein, he and my mother were visiting a college friend of hers up in San Francisco. They thought, “Well, now we can sort of sneak off and see it.” He’d seen cuts of it at Universal, the dailies, but he’d never seen the whole film. They snuck into the theater unrecognized because he didn’t look like he did in the film. My mother’s name was Dorothy and her friends called her Dot for short. In one famous shot my father appears in a doorway and turns around so you see his face for the first time. My mother’s friend screamed out, “Dot! How could you live with such a monster?” Whereupon the three of them had to leave the theater. Even then, my father didn’t get to see the whole film!

I saw Frankenstein for the first time on television when I was 19 years old. I didn’t make a practice of going to see my father’s films. It wasn’t really what a girl going to private school in San Francisco did. I was out of sync with my father’s films when they came back around to the theaters. I’ve seen some on television and some on DVDs. A lot of his films have actually been lost, some of the silents and the serials he did really early on. He made in excess of 170 films. That’s a remarkable film legacy. The worst kept secret is that I don’t like scary movies.

Boris Karloff as the Creature in a scene from the 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and produced by Universal Pictures. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

NYPL: His stage career is not as well known to audiences now. Did he tell you about it?

Karloff: He was the youngest of nine children in England and all of his brothers had been trained for diplomatic service. He was educated for the same, but he ran away from home because he wanted to become an actor. He joined or burgled his way into a repertory theater group in British Columbia. When the curtain went up on his first performance, according to the story he told, his salary was $30 a week; when the curtain came down on his first performance, his salary was $15 a week because it was evident he’d never set foot on a stage before. He’d only seen the plays he said he’d been in. But he learned his craft and made his way down to the States and eventually to Hollywood. He was in three to five plays a week and it was a wonderful learning platform.

The Criminal Code was his last play until the 1940s, when Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse approached him to be in Arsenic and Old Lace. He was absolutely terrified at the prospect of being on Broadway. He had been a film actor at that point for 15 years. My father had the worst difficulty in rehearsals: he blew his lines. He finally made the decision that he was letting the whole cast down and he told them his decision was to pull out. The cast talked him into trying one more set of rehearsals before going to the producers. Evidently that rehearsal went well enough in my father’s estimation that he stuck with it. The rest became theater history.

Boris Karloff as Captain Hook in a stage production of Peter Pan. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

A publicity photo of Boris Karloff and Erich von Stroheim from Arsenic and Old Lace, by Joseph Kesselring. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Boris Karloff in a scene from Arsenic and Old Lace, by Joseph Kesselring. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Boris Karloff, as Captain Hook, in a scene from a stage production of Peter Pan. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

NYPL: Did your father have a favorite film appearance?

Karloff: I think he had several for different reasons at different times in his career — certainly Frankenstein for the pivotal difference it made in both his personal and professional life. He had been a starving actor and then he was an overnight star after 20 years. It was his 81st film and no one had seen the first 80 — go figure.

I know he really enjoyed making the three films with Val Lewton: Bedlam, Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher. Those were fine films, and he and Val Lewton became good friends. Later on in his career he enjoyed working with his good friends Vincent Price and Peter Lorre and making the remake of The Raven and A Comedy of Terrors, and those old men had such a good time, spoofing their bogeymen images and driving Roger Corman crazy on the set, playing practical jokes.

Toward the later part of my father’s life, probably the last film of merit would be Targets, which he did with Peter Bogdanovich. Roger Corman had 10 minutes of “Karloff time” left over and he gave the assignment to Peter to use them. Peter created the vehicle of Targets; he wrote it and directed it and acted in it alongside my father. The on-film time of my father exceeded the 10 minutes, but my father admired Peter and enjoyed it so much that he donated the balance of his time to the film. It was my father playing an aging horror film star — brilliant casting — he was really playing himself. In part it was my father’s philosophy that the real horror is going on on the streets, not up on the screen. I know that film would make my father’s list.

Boris Karloff as featured in a Turf Virginia Cigarettes card series on film stars, ca. 1933–1934. NYPL, George Arents Collection

Boris Karloff as featured in a Turf Virginia Cigarettes card series on film stars, ca. 1933–1934. NYPL, George Arents Collection

A publicity photo of Boris Karloff. NYPL, Billy Rose Theatre Division

Sara Karloff is the daughter of actor Boris Karloff (1887–1969). She visited The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center on October 27, 2011 for a program in honor of her father. This is a partial transcript from her conversation that evening with librarian John Calhoun. As it happens, Sara is the only legally named Karloff. Her father's given name was William Henry Pratt, she explained, and he told people that the name Karloff "was from someplace way back on his mother's side of the family and Boris was from thin air."
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I'm a woodcut artist living

I'm a woodcut artist living in Los Angeles.
I recently carved an original woodcut print inspired by Boris Karloff's depiction of Frankenstein.
I thought you might be interested. Here is a link to my blog:

Sincere Regards,

Loren Kantor


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