Criswell said that he had worked as a radio announcer and news broadcaster early in his life. He began buying time on a local Los Angeles television station in the early 1950s to run an early equivalent of infomercials for his own "Criswell Family Vitamins." To fill in the airtime, he also began his "Criswell Predicts" segments as part of the show. The shows made him something of a minor, off-beat celebrity in Los Angeles and around Hollywood, and his friendship with old show-business types like Mae West and other up-and-coming fringe celebrities like Korla Pandit made Criswell an entertaining presence at parties.
His fame brought him appearances on the Jack Paar show, among others, and he published two books of predictions.
Criswell found cinematic infamy in the movies of Ed Wood, including Plan 9 from Outer Space (filmed 1956, released 1959) Night of the Ghouls (filmed 1959, released 1987) and Orgy of the Dead (1965). He was portrayed by actor Jeffrey Jones in the biopic Ed Wood (1994), in which it is suggested that Criswell was simply a showman and never claimed to be a real psychic. However, those who knew him, such as actress and fellow Plan 9 alumna Maila Nurmi ("Vampira"), have disputed this. According to writer Charles A. Coulombe, whose family rented an apartment from the psychic, Criswell told Coulombe's father "[I] had the gift, but … lost it when I started taking money for it."
Criswell was a flamboyant figure, best remembered for his spitcurled hair, his stentorian speaking style, and his sequined tuxedo. He was the possessor of a coffin, in which he claimed to sleep (he had grown up in a troubled family in Indiana with relatives who owned a funeral home, and said that he had gotten comfortable with sleeping in caskets in the storeroom). The casket found its way into one of Wood's later works, the 1971 pornographic film Necromania
Criswell authored several books of predictions, including 1968's Criswell Predicts: From Now to the Year 2000. In this book, the author claimed that Denver would be struck by a ray from space that would cause all metal to adopt the qualities of rubber, leading to horrific accidents at amusement parks. He also predicted an outbreak of mass cannibalism and the end of planet Earth, which he set as happening on August 18, 1999 (perhaps coincidentally, his birthday).
Criswell was an ardent student of history. He was of firm belief that history repeats itself, that the United States is what he often referred to as the 'modern Romans.' Each day, he would read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from cover to cover, looking for signs and clues for his predictions. In his later years, he became obsessed with the Mayan calendar and read every bit of information he could lay his hands on. Just prior to his death, he told several people that his previous 'end of the world predictions' were incorrect by a dozen years and the world will end on the morning of the Winter Solstice in the year 2012, which exactly coincides with the last day of the Mayan calendar.
Some sources claim that Criswell's most famous prediction was made on The Jack Paar Program (1962-65) in March 1963, when he predicted that John F. Kennedy would not run for reelection in 1964 because something was going to happen to him in November 1963.
Criswell was a longtime friend of actress Mae West, once predicting her impending rise to the position of President of the United States, whereupon she, Criswell and George Liberace, the brother of showman Liberace, would ride a rocket to the moon. West used Criswell as her personal psychic, as well as lavishing him with gifts of homecooked food, dropped off via chauffeur. The food was often then eaten by Criswell and Nurmi, who refused any direct contact with West after a many-decade-old unpleasant experience with the film actress. Additionally, West was known to sell Criswell her old luxury cars for $5. For her 1955 album The Fabulous Mae West, she recorded a song about the psychic, titled, appropriately enough, "Criswell Predicts."
In the early 1950s, Criswell lived in the penthouse of the Highland Towers Apartments at 1922 N. Highland Avenue. The building is a city landmark today.