Boris Karloff, a monster talent remembered
Our Hollywood history specialist, Susan King, looks back in horror Monday at Boris Karloff.
“He preferred the word terror to horror,” says his only child, Sara Karloff. “He preferred the word thrill to chill, where [a story] went right up the spine of the viewer and kept them on the edge of their seat. He was opposed to gore of any sort, and he really thought anything that dumped either the solution or the gore into the audiences’ lap was an insult to the intelligence of the audience and felt that suspense and thrills were far more effective.”
And he served up a lot of suspense and thrills as host and frequent star of the classic 1960-62 NBC anthology series “Thriller.” The entire 67 episodes are being released Tuesday on DVD from Image Entertainment.
Though not as strong as the landmark anthology series of the era — “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone” — Karloff’s “Thriller” did offer some pretty terrific tales.
Robert Bloch (“Psycho”) was among the writers on the show and among its directors were Paul Henreid, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, Mitchell Leisen and Arthur Hiller. And Karloff is a sly host who talks about the episode with a wink and a nod…
“He loved doing it,” Sara Karloff says. “He just didn’t do a standard walk-on introduction. He knew the material for each show, so he [was] thrilled to tailor each introduction for the particular show. It was very highly regarded. They had excellent writers and directors, even Ray Milland took a turn at directing.”
The series gave Karloff the opportunity to play a wide variety of characters including an elderly man working in a city morgue who can talk to the dead and an undead professor who seeks an elaborate revenge on the department head who fired him. The series also spawned a Gold Key comic book version of the series, which changed its title to “Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery” after the series went off the air.
“I was given as a gift, the entire series of 97 issues,” Sara Karloff says. “He wasn’t involved in writing them, but there were some wonderful writers and artists. I set about trying to find a publisher who would put them back out in hardback format as a collector’s edition. Dark Horse Comics and their archival division have done a wonderful job republishing them. The first volume came out not quite a year ago and Volume 2 is out.”
And Volume 3 arrives Wednesday — among the writers featured in this volume are Paul S. Newman and Dick Wood; artists include the late, great Al Williamson as well as Bob Jenny, Joe Certa and Angelo Torres.
“I wrote an introduction to Volume 1,” says Karloff. “Hugh Hefner wrote the introduction to Volume 2 because he’s a huge Karloff fan and then John Landis has written one to Volume 3.”
And Karloff has lined up an equally eclectic pair to write the introductions to the upcoming next two volumes — Ray Bradbury wrote the intro to the Volume 4, with Frank Sinatra Jr. is handling the chores for Volume 5. (See the opening sequence from “Thriller” in the video below.)
Born William Henry Pratt in 1887 in London, Karloff immigrated to Canada in the 1910s where he got his start acting in repertory theater in British Columbia.
“He presented himself to the theater manager as an experienced British actor,” says his daughter. “He told the story that his salary was $30 a week when the curtain went up on his first performance and it was $15 when it went down because he had never stepped foot on a stage before and it was absolutely obvious. He worked 10 years in repertory theater, sometimes getting paid and sometimes not. He built sets and painted sets.”
And when he played the monster in James Whale’s seminal 1931 horror film, “Frankenstein,” Karloff reports that her already lean father lost 25 pounds.
“The entire wardrobe including the boots weighed about 70 pounds. They shot the outside scenes in the hot August heat in L.A. climbing that back hill on the Universal lot carrying actor Colin Clive up the hill time and time again until James Whale thought the had got the shot just right.”
She says that though “Frankenstein” was not faithful to novelist Mary Shelley’s original storyline, “it was inspired by Mary Shelley and you had the magic of James Whale and the absolute genius of makeup artist Jack Pierce and you had my father’s interpretation of the creature. It was just a magical marriage of talent.”
Karloff is simply billed with a “?” in the original 1931 classic. Karloff also played the monster in Whale’s 1935 “Bride of Frankenstein” and 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein.”
“Nobody expected that film to be the huge success that it was, and they certainly didn’t expect my father to be the star of it,” she says. “He wasn’t even invited to the premiere. Everybody expected Colin Clive to be the star. What a pivotal difference that made in my father’s life, but professionally and personally. You know, it was his 81st film, but no one had seen the first 80!”
In 1949, she says, he left Hollywood for New York where he embraced the new medium of TV.
“It gave him a whole new fan base,” she says. “He was able to turn his bogey man image around on itself and spoof himself by guest starring on some of the variety shows of the day, so people learned he had a great sense of humor. Audiences also saw him as a dramatic actor in many roles on TV.”
And of course, generations of children know him as the voice of the Grinch in the classic animated version of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” He even received a Grammy Award in the spoken word category after the story was released as a record. One of the reasons his legacy has endured 41 years after his death, says Karloff, is audiences love “the empathy and pathos he brought to his roles.” “He was a lovely dad,” Karloff adds. “And a lovely human being.”
— Susan King
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Photos: Los Angeles Times