By Brad Dison
William Henry Pratt was born just outside of London, England in 1887. William was the youngest of nine siblings. His father, Edward, was a government civil servant. William’s mother’s family descended from India, which gave William a darker complexion than most of his peers. To exacerbate his feelings of not fitting in, William was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered. William eventually learned how to control his stutter by slowing his speaking, but he was never able to overcome his lisp.
William’s father died in 1897. His mother died nine years later, which left William under the care of his older brothers. When William was ten years old, he participated in a parish Christmas pantomime. William loved performing for an audience and told his brothers of his desire to become a professional performer. They wanted William to go into government work, as their father had, and forbade him from acting in church programs.
In 1909, 22-year-old William decided to leave the care of his dominant brothers. He left it up to the toss of a coin whether to emigrate to Canada (heads) or Australia (tails). William carefully placed the coin on his thumb and index finger, applied a small amount of force, and the coin flipped into the air. The coin flipped over and over until William caught it and opened his hand. Heads had won. William struck out on his own and moved from England to Ontario, Canada. While in Canada, he worked a host of jobs such as a farmhand, a laborer, and a logger. William held onto his dream of being a performer and joined the Harry St. Claire repertory company in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada.
After much success with the repertory company, William decided to try acting in Hollywood. In 1919, aided by his dark skin, William appeared in his first Hollywood film as a Mexican bandit in “His Majesty the American”. For twelve years, William played largely forgettable and sometimes uncredited film roles. Then, one fateful day in 1931, William was eating quietly in a Hollywood movie studio’s cafeteria. Film director James Whale was searching for someone to play a non-speaking role in an upcoming film. The character would only utter an occasional moan or growl. The director wanted a tall, stocky man. Little more was required for the part because the makeup and costume departments would transform the chosen person into the director’s vision of the character. After a quick look around the room, the director’s attention focused on William. At the request of the director, William stood and turned around. The director studied William’s body and face. William was approximately six feet tall and had a unique look. The director offered William the part, which he accepted without much enthusiasm. William had already played small parts in over eighty films. William quietly returned to eating his lunch.
Between August 24 and October 3, 1931, William donned some forty pounds of costume and underwent 4 hours of makeup per day for his non-speaking part. When the film came out in theaters in November of the same year, rather than including William’s name in the credits, the studio replaced it with a question mark. William’s name was also absent from theater marquees. He was not invited to the film’s premier. This was not an intentional snub from the movie industry. William’s character was not the star of the film… or so they thought. Although William did not receive top billing, it was his character that theatergoers wanted to see. William’s iconic character still attracts viewers to this film nine decades after it was first released.
William’s acting career spanned seven decades. William appeared in over 250 film and television productions as well as 1,400 Broadway performances in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “The Linden Tree,” “The Shop at Sly Corner,” and “Peter Pan.” Even with such an astounding acting career, William will be forever linked to the non-speaking role, the big break he got during a lunch break. William became famous due to his portrayal of a monster, the monster, in Frankenstein. You know William Henry Pratt as… Boris Karloff.
- Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael, California), February 3, 1969, p.2.
- The Miami News (Miami, Florida), February 3, 1969, p.28.
- Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), February 3, 1969, p.30.
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