Day 303: It’s A Life! It’s A Life! The Karloff Story

originally published October 29, 2012

I have been asked by hundreds (or more accurately, two) people whether or not I plan on running a series of spooky-themed articles in the days leading up to Halloween. My response has ranged from “I haven’t decided yet” to “who are you, and why are you in my bathroom?”

So, in order to meet this pressing demand, Ms. Wiki plunked a couple of moderately on-topic subject ideas into my bag of treats, beginning with one of the actors whose very name evokes the spirit of the candy-grubbing season: Boris Karloff.

Boris was born William Henry Platt to a family in London, way back in November of 1887. Eliza, his mother, was the sister of Anna Leonowens, the same Anna who was immortalized in The King And I. He was on his way to becoming a diplomat when he opted to drop out. With a notable stutter, a lisp, and a bowlegged gait, Platt figured acting might be the way to go.

In 1909, he moved to Canada and changed his name. He felt ‘Boris’ sounded exotic, and claimed Karloff was a family name, though it’s now believed he just needed some new last name so he could save his family the shame of such lowly work. In fact, Boris was convinced that his brothers, who were all decorated members of the British foreign service, would see his career choice as unbecoming and beneath them. Friggin’ actors and their brittle egos.

Karloff toured Canada as an actor, but needed to find other work to keep food on the table. He was a baggage handler for a while, then settled in Minot, North Dakota, performing in an opera house that was conveniently located above a hardware store. The manual labor jobs took their toll on him, and Karloff was unable to fight in WWI due to a bad back.

He wisely headed south to Hollywood; the movie industry had recently relocated there due to its perpetually sunny skies and abundant cocaine supply. Karloff – who to my knowledge never touched illegal drugs, my lawyers and I can’t stress that enough – had a face that was perfect for the big screen, and he started making silent films in the late teens. He was often cast as a villain, occasionally as one from Arabic or Indian descent. Karloff’s family has a touch of Indian blood up both sides of his lineage, which gave him the prefect face for these roles.

The role that made him a celebrity came when Dracula  star Bela Lugosi declined the offer to portray Frankenstein’s monster in the first talkie-film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

In keeping with theatrical tradition, in which the actor playing the monster would remain unnamed in the playbill, Universal kept Karloff’s name and visage away from any publicity prior to the film’s release. In the opening credits – which, back in those days, were generally the only credits a film would show – the monster is credited as being portrayed by “?”

Some say this was done as a cheap publicity stunt. Lugosi was a star, and it was common knowledge that he had been originally tied to Frankenstein. By not revealing any information about the film’s star (it was a lot harder to get inside dirt on upcoming flicks back then), a lot of people went to see the movie, believing Lugosi had changed his mind and played the role. Oh, and the original poster still credited Lugosi as the star too.

With this one film, Karloff became a Hollywood leading man. Well, maybe not a ‘leading man’, but his name was enough to drag people into theaters. He starred as Imhotep in The Mummy, got gunned down in a bowling alley in 1932’s Scarface, and sported a wicked ‘stache in The Mask of Fu Manchu. Not all his roles were in horror movies, but those were his bread and blood-stained butter.

Karloff was dropped into a pair of sequels, reprising his role as the monster in Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 and Son of Frankenstein in 1939. By the time Abbot & Costello met the monster, Karloff had moved on. He didn’t want to spend his entire career in that makeup, and he felt the character had run its course. In a 1940 celebrity baseball game, he indulged his fans by wearing the full get-up, hitting a staged home run, then stomping onto home plate after running the bases, causing the catcher (Buster Keaton) to faint.

There was a well-known feud between Karloff and Lugosi, as both spent the 1930s competing to be the King of Horror. In actuality, the feud was a publicity stunt, and the two worked together in a number of movies, including the last film in the Frankenstein trilogy.

In 1958, Karloff starred in Frankenstein 1970, but he played the mad scientist, not the creature. He did don the neck-bolts one last time, for a Halloween episode of Route 66 in 1962, though he was playing himself dressed as the monster.

Karloff made dozens of films throughout his career, though none of them even came close to carving a notch of fame even remotely as noteworthy as his role as the monster. He earned himself a Tony nomination for his work on Broadway in The Lark, and had a regular spot as a Scotland Yard detective on British TV in the 1950s. He’d drop in on Jack Benny or Fred Allen’s radio shows to spoof his iconic image as one of the masters of horror, which shows the guy had a sense of humor.

Of course, Karloff shows up all over TV around this time of year, when so many cable stations aim to cram as many classic horror movies as possible into their schedules (like we really need to sit through Child’s Play 4 again). But he also gets on the air every Christmas, as the narrator and voice of the titular character in Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Not the singing voice, mind you – gotta give props to Thurl Ravenscroft for that number.

That’s a pretty impressive career for someone who spent the first two decades of it believing his profession made him the family outcast. Sure, he finished up his legacy in a quartet of campy Mexican horror flicks, but by the time pneumonia nabbed him in 1969, Karloff had built up an enviable resume. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for movies, one for TV), one of those snazzy blue plaques at his place of birth in London, and he has been on a postage stamp.

Not bad for a monster.

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