Any look at the future really ought to pay homage to the past, too, so it's time for
another visit with Forry Ackerman. Last time, Forry took us for a tour of his home,
the famous Ackermansion, including one room where he has a 'life mask' of Boris
Karloff. In this installment, Forry recalls a few of the occasions he was in the
company of Boris Karloff, and some of the things that made those occasions
Boris Karloff, dear Boris, when he was nearly 80 years old, made his final four films in five weeks in a little hell-hole out in Hollywood -- I don't even know if they had the nerve to call it a studio. He would get directly out of his chauffeured limousine into a wheelchair. He had a tank of oxygen by his side and metal braces on his legs, and was getting by on just half a lung. But he was a consummate actor.
Some of us who were there almost spoiled a scene by not being familiar with the script. Boris was busy being the mad doctor in his laboratory when he suddenly clutched his heart and fell against a wall. We were ready to run in and give him first aid. There were four little children who were very anxious to come on the set with me and meet Mr. Karloff. But mom and pop, rightly so, thought that four kids was about three too many underfoot.
The lucky one chosen was little Ricky; he was a little Korean War orphan whose G.I. father had abandoned him. The magic moment came for this little 9-year-old child to meet Boris Karloff. I took him by the hand; he was trembling and swallowing, and as he came forward and said, "Oh, Mr. Karloff, I've waited for this moment all my life!"
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I've been in Boris's company nine times in my life, but I never really had him sort of all to myself. Robert Bloch was a very close friend of his, so I asked Bob, "Would it be possible for you to have him to your home, and have your wife put on a little dinner for us?"
"Absolutely, Forry!" he said. "But we ought to have a quartet. Who would you suggest as a fourth person?"
Well, I thought for a minute and then suggested Fritz Lang, who was about the same age as Boris Karloff. I thought that, with any luck, maybe they could be persuaded to talk about some of the classic movies they'd been associated with. So when the magic evening came, I sat down at a table with Robert Bloch across from me, Boris Karloff to the left, and Fritz Lang to the right. What an evening! Ordinarily, Bob and I could be depended on for all of the conversation, but that night we just zipped our lips and opened our ears. Boris and Fritz were great company, not only for us but also for each other; they laughed and remarked to each other, "Here we are, two old dinosaurs who have survived." And I sure wish I'd had a tape recorder under the table, because there was some marvelous conversation -- all kinds of reminiscences, of Frankenstein and Metropolis, and a lot more.
I actually have many memories about Boris Karloff. Once, I had a telephone call from a friend, Verne Langdon, who said "Boris Karloff is in town. Don't you think it would be great if we could get him to do a phonograph album?"
And I said, "Well, I certainly agree with you!"
He said, "I've written a script. Would you take a look at it and let me know if you think he would find it satisfactory?"
So he sent it over and I read through it fairly quickly. It started out with a creaky door opening, and Boris would say "I bid you welcome... oh, be careful of the spiders, they're my friends, you know." Well, it looked okay to me -- after all, Boris had been doing some funny stuff like The Comedy of Terrors and The Raven. He seemed to like scripts with humor in them.
But that night, I got a phone call from Verne, and it seemed like tears were coming out of the phone. "Oh, dear, Mr. Karloff let me down very gently. He said, 'No, no, dear boy, this is not my cup of tea'." So I commiserated with him, and he kind of surprised me when he told me he'd be right over.
I said, "But, it's eleven o'clock!" And not only that, the crying towel seemed like it was soaking wet -- what else could I do for him?
But then he said, "Mr. Karloff told me that if, by nine o'clock tomorrow morning, if I could show him a new script, one that he likes, he would stay an extra day and record it."
And then I made a mistake. I said to Verne, "But where in god's name are you going to get a new script before nine o'clock tomorrow morning?" I figured he'd need to find a couple of good professional script writers, and they would need about six months before they'd finally they'd have a rough script that Karloff might not reject.
There came the dreaded words over the phone: "You're going to do it!"
"I'm going to do it?? I've never written a script for a phonograph album in my life! I don't know anything about the format, or..."
He cut me off: "Yes, yes, you can do it! I know you can!
Well, he must have been very persuasive, because by half past eleven he had arrived. All I could think of was that if Mr. Karloff didn't like the funny stuff, maybe I could remember some things that had pleased him over the years -- maybe if I could sort of feed his words back to him he'd feel comfortable. The fellow wanted to watch the magic words come out of my fingers, but I said, "No, no... go to the piano and give me some mood music from The Mummy." So he sat down and played some of the Tchaikovsky theme from Swan Lake that had been used in The Mummy. It was kind of settling, actually. I found that I was able to make rapid work of it, and finally, at 2:30 in the morning I wrote 'The End'. And I thought that, boy, the world should never going to know that something like this was even attempted; it was all too ridiculous.
Anyway, the next evening I got a call: "Karloff loves it! His wife loves it, his agent loves it! The front office says 'Great!' Be here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning and you can hear it recorded!" So, for one magic hour the next day, every word that came out of Boris Karloff's mouth was a word I had put into it.
And he was just magnificent! He'd run a finger over a few lines, give the signal to the guy in the studio, and then record it flawlessly. He came to only one word he was unfamiliar with; it was then I realized that while he had been the Frankenstein monster and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he had never played a werewolf -- I had used the fancy term, 'lycanthrope'. Suddenly, the spotlight was on me; I told him how to pronounce it, and he did it just perfectly.
Afterwards, we all clustered around him and somebody said, "Mr. Karloff, we're aware of your advanced age, and you performed like a man of about one-third your age. Could you give us any helpful hints about how you accomplished that?"
And he said, with mock seriousness, "Well, I don't know, gentlemen, I guess it's just good clean living." And then he smiled. "Up to the age of 6."
All illustrations by Teddy Harvia