The Gable of Gothic
Price was a distinctly mannered actor who came by his manners naturally. Born in St. Louis in 1911, one of four children of Leonard Price, a wealthy candymaker, and his wife, Mary, he attended private schools, bought his first Rembrandt sketch at 12 (for $37.50) and traveled to Europe at 16. He majored in art history at Yale and earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of London in 1935. By then a theater buff, Price won the role of Prince Albert in the West End production of Victoria Regina and was such a hit that the play's American producer, Gilbert Miller, asked him to repeat the role on Broadway opposite Helen Hayes.
It helped that Price was tall (6'4"), exquisitely well-spoken and highly polished: He was one of the few American actors who looked at home in a tuxedo. His breeding and bearing won him a number of lubricious parts, most notably the role of Shelby Carpenter, the smoothly charming, hopelessly weak Southern aristocrat who woos and loses Gene Tierney in Laura.
But villainy was Price's destiny. "The best parts in movies are the heavies," he once said. "It's the heavy who has all the fun." The good limes included coating corpses with wax as the mad museum owner in House of Wax. He perfected the camp-horror motif in the '60s with a series of low-budget gothic classics derived from Edgar Allan Poe works (The House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Raven), all made with director Roger Gorman, the B-movie king.
Age didn't dim Price's lunatic luster; the lines that came to etch his face made him look just that much more sinister. In 1973 he made Theatre of Blood with Coral Browne, whom he electrocuted—on film—with her own hair curlers. In real life, the pair wed in 1974 and remained married until Coral died of breast cancer two years ago. (Price's two previous marriages, to actress Edith Barrett, from 1938 to 1948, and to designer Mary Grant, from 1949 to 1973, ended in divorce. He has a son, Vincent, a writer in Albuquerque, N.Mex., by his first wife, and a daughter, Mary, by his second.)
Away from his on-camera dungeons and dragons. Price was well-loved and widely respected in the show-business community. An authentic art expert who was once a legitimate finalist on TV's The $64,000 Challenge, Price owned a collection valued al $5 million. He was also something of an artist in the kitchen, and his cookbooks sold more than 350,000 copies. But he never disdained the bloody hand that had fed him so handsomely; as recently as 1990 he played Johnny Depp's Dr. Frankenstein in Edward Scissorhands. "I like to be seen, I love being busy, and I believe in being active," he said. "I know some people think I've lowered myself as an actor—well, my idea of professional decline is not working."