It’s Halloween, and I’m sure you’ve seen at least one image of Frankenstein as you’ve geared up for the holiday. Chances are that the Frankenstein that you saw was based on the bolt neck, flat-headed lumbering portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster made famous by Boris Karloff in the Universal Frankenstein film series. Karloff played The Monster in the original 1931 film and the first two sequels, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), and also appeared as a mad scientist in 1944’s House of Frankenstein and as Baron Von Frankenstein in the non-Universal film Frankenstein 1970 (1958).
Many would assume that an actor who portrayed one of the greatest monsters in film history so many times would have a dark side as well, but according to his only child, daughter Sara Karloff, “He was kind, he was gentle and wise, and a good listener.” Sara Karloff appeared at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image on October 30 for a screening of Frankenstein and her family home movies and also to talk about her father’s legendary career in depth.
A little known fact about Karloff is that he was in his forties and had appeared in over eighty movies when he finally found fame as Frankenstein’s Monster after a long period of struggling. Sara confirms this about her father, pointing out that her father was “a starving actor for 20 years,” adding “It was hardly an overnight success.” Born in England, Karloff began as an English theatrical actor before moving to Hollywood, but spend most of his pre-Frankestein life earning money from physical labor. He only received the role of a lifetime after being spotted by director James Whale in the commissary at Universal Pictures after fellow horror icon Bela Lugosi turned down the role for not having any lines (and not wanting to wear the creature’s makeup). Karloff was happy to take the part, but the seventy-pound costume turned out to take a physical toll on his body, with Sara commenting, “My father lost 20 pounds during the making of that film, and he’d already had a bad back!”
Sara Karloff also recounts her cherished childhood memories of her father to the New York Post, including many key life lessons. However, perhaps most touchingly she recalls that out of her father’s fans, it was children that truly appreciate his Frankenstein films. She says, “My father always said that kids got it — they weren’t afraid of the monster. They understood that he was the victim, not the perpetrator.”