Frankenstein Vs. Captain Kirk: The Battle Of The Stage

Two of Hollywood’s most iconic figures, horror’s Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) and Sci-Fi’s Captain Kirk (William Shatner) shared the stage in one of the most iconic American plays of all time.

The battlefield was set while both actors appeared in the dark American comedy, “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Shatner and Karloff never appeared in the same performance of the play which has run for nearly 80 years and is still in production, but their roles can still serve as a source of comparison and evaluation. Who would have won the “Battle of the Stage”?

Playwright Joseph Kesselring wrote “Arsenic and Old Lace” in 1939 and according to the opening night review in The New York Times, the play was “so funny that none of us will ever forget it.” The 1944 film adapatation by Frank Capra starred Carrie Grant as Mortimer Brewester. Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Benny were also considered for the role.

Looking for name recognition, the dark and macabre subject matter was perfect for actor Boris Karloff and attracted the attention of the director. Karloff, who would later become an investor in the stage production, played Jonathan Brewster a homicidal maniac.


The play focused around Mortimer Brewster, a newspaperman and author known for his diatribes against marriage. Mortimer is married at city hall in the opening scene. Now all that is required is a quick trip home to tell Mortimer’s two maiden aunts. While trying to break the news, he finds out his aunts’ hobby; killing lonely old men and burying them in the cellar.

The stage play saw many famous stars of TV and the Big Screen.

During Karloff’s time in the play, due to a scheduling conflict, fellow horror alum Bela Lugosi filled in for 5 weeks. Upon Karloff’s death, Munster’s Fred Gwynne resumed the role. Other Actors to star in the play were Bob Krane (Hogan’s Heroes), Billie Hayes (Witchi Poo / HR Puff N Stuff), Tony Randall (Odd Couple), Tom Bosley (Happy Day’s), Stockard Channing (Grease), Jean Stapleton (Archie Bunker), Larry Storch (F Troop), Marion Ross (Happy Days), Abe Vigoda (Godfather, Barney Miller). During the 1970s, Richard Pryor was selected to play Mortimer Brewester, but the stage revival never made it into production.

During 1973, William Shatner appeared with the Kenley Players of Warren, Ohio to perform the lead role of Mortimer. The show had a small run time, but was well received.

With two iconic actors appearing in the play, who won the “Arsenic and Old Lace” stage battle, Shatner or Karloff?

William Shatner is known for his distinctive acting style, unusual vocal intonation, and very singular form of gravitas which is displayed with unique acting style punctuated by hyper-dramatic pauses and inflections.

Karloff was known for his wonderful voice, elegant and effortless grace, and a total control of his mannerisms and style.  Both Karloff and Shatner were very recognizable in their styles. I created a check list to see who the winner was-


Longevity: Karloff

He appeared in the role for 30+ years.


Critical Acclaim: Tie

Available reviews showed excellent marks for both actors in their respective roles.


Importance of Role: Shatner

Karloff played the creepy Jonathan Brewers, while Shatner played the lead role of Mortimer Brewster.


Winner: Shatner.

Stealing the contest in true Shatner like style, the unique portrayal of the lead character edged out the longevity Karloff brought to the production.


For collectors, there is a variety of memorabilia which is associated with the play. Due to Karloff’s longevity with the play, play bills featuring the actor are must more common than the single city performance associated with Shatner.


Karloff Playbills


1941 Fulton Theatre

Davidson Theatre (Waukesha)

1943 Junior Reading League

1944 Playhouse Delaware Institution

1944 Movie Poster & Stills

Autographed Playbills (very desirable)


Shatner Playbills


1973 The Kenley Players in Warren, Ohio

1973 The Kenley Players Autographed Playbills (rare)


“Arsenic and Old Lace” Playbills featuring Karloff and Shatner are affordable collectibles which represent the great careers of these two actors. Both of these legendary actors learned their craft on the stage, and continued to hone and perfect their art way after having accomplished much in Hollywood, showing their desire to be their best.