Brought up in Dulwich and Enfield, Karloff was the youngest of eight children. His given name was William Henry Pratt. He never knew his father, Edward Pratt of the Indian Salt Revenue Services; he died when Karloff was a baby. His mother also died when he was still young, and he was largely brought up by his brothers and half-sister Emma. His eldest brother, George, was an actor for a time, and this had an influence on the youngWilliam Henry, who did his best to emulate his brother. He had also inherited a sense of wander lust from his father, who had spent his final years living a romantic life on far away islands. In 1909, Karloff sailed for Canada where he dug ditches, laid rail track and tried acting with touring companies.The quiet, gentle, watchful actor's sympathetic nature shone through the role that was to make him a household name and a star, the 'monster' in 'Frankenstein' (1931). The overwhelming success of this part, to a certain degree, dictated the direction his career was to take. The majority of his movies tended to be in the horror/fantasy gendre, hiding his scope as an actor. In later years, though, he used this typecasting to comic effect. 'The Raven' (1963), also staring Peter Loree and Vincent Price, is an almost cute, black comedy about two elderly, waring magicians (Karloff and Price) who, at one point, zap Peter Loree, turning him into raspberry jam.
The latter paid best, so he decided to stick with it. In 1919, he moved to America and got his first movie jobs as an extra. He worked steadily through the 20's, usually playing the villain, but not getting any leading parts until Howard Hawks cast him as the murderous prison barber in 'Criminal Code' (1931)
Karloff did make other genre movies during this time. He played a gangster in 'Scar Face' (1932) with Paul Muni and George Raft. He made his soft voice with its English Public School accent and slight lisp sound sinister and menacing. It could have detracted, but it worked well. He was also the opera singer in 'Charley Chan at the Opera' (1936) which was totally undubbed. One of his lesser known portrayals and one of my personal favourites is the almost autobiographical movie 'Targets' (1968). It was Peter Bogdanovich's first outing as a director and Karloff's last in a movie. He plays an aging actor making a guest appearance at the re-release of one of his old movies - 'The Terror' was used for the movie scenes. The cinema is itself terrorized by a young sniper who is randomly shooting at the audience. The Karloff character helps capture him during the final nerve-wracking scene.
Undoubtedly though, Karloff will be remembered for his horror movie roles, mainly 'Frankenstein', but also 'The Mummy', 'The Walking Dead' and 'The Old Dark House'. Surprisingly, from the master of horror, he read a collection of stories for children that was released on record. They are compulsive listening with that quiet, lilting voice, almost hypnotic in nature. He can also be heard as the voice of the Grinch in the animated 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas'.
Karloff was married three times. First in 1923 to Helen Vivian Soule, a dancer who was professionally known as 'Polly'. They divorced in 1929. By 1932, he was married to his second wife, Dorothy Stein, a librarian in the Los Angeles public school system. They divorced in 1945. His third wife was Evelyn Helmore, Daryll Zanuck's assistant story editor and fellow Londoner.
Karloff had known her several years before marrying her in 1946. After his death, rumours erupted that Karloff had been married up to ten times. In fact, an entire sub-life based on stories began to emerge . To date, most remain unsubstantiated.
In many ways, Karloff was typical of the era and class into which he was born. He went to a British Public School boy, and was a fanatic cricketer, gardener and gentleman. In 1951, he and Evelyn moved to New York, frequently traveling between there and their other home in London. Very little is known about Karloff's private life, only what he chose to make public. He preferred his films to speak for him, and, with them, he left us a rich legacy.
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