Boris Karloff: How I Became a Monster

In this 1962 throwback, Boris Karloff discussed his decades-spanning career of playing creatures that went bump in the night.

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—“Memoirs of a Monster,” as told to Arlene and Howard Eisenberg, November 3, 1962

It is not true that I was born a monster. Hollywood made me one.

My childhood as William Henry Pratt in a serene London suburb was extraordinarily tame.

At 42, I was an obscure actor playing obscure parts. I quit writing home for I had nothing to write. Then director Jimmy Whale said to me, “We’re getting ready to shoot the Mary Shelley classic, Frankenstein, and I’d like you to test — for the part of the monster.”

It was a bit shattering, but I felt that any part was better than no part at all.

The studio’s head makeup man, Jack Pierce, spent evenings experimenting with me. Slowly, under his skillful touch, the monster’s double-domed forehead, sloping brow, flattened Neanderthal eyelids, and surgical scars materialized. A week later I was ready for the test. I readily passed as a monster.

To fill out the costume, I had to wear a doubly quilted suit beneath it. We shot Frankenstein in midsummer. After an hour’s work I would be sopping wet. I’d have to change into a spare undersuit, often still damp from the previous round. So I felt, most of the time, as if I were wearing a clammy shroud myself. No doubt it added to the realism.

Frankenstein was the first monster film of any consequence ever attempted. It was released for its premiere on December 6, 1931, at Santa Barbara. I was not even invited and had never seen it. I was just an unimportant freelance actor, the animation for the monster costume.

Occasionally someone asks me if I regret my years as a monster. Rubbish! Thanks to the monster, I’ve worked steadily at the work I love best. And I’ve been well paid — in more ways than with money. Here I am, 75 years old this month, no longer the black sheep of the Pratt family, still hard at work, still enjoying life to the fullest.

This article is featured in the November/December 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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