Sir Basil Rathbone, KBE, MC, Kt (13 June 1892, Johannesburg � 21 July 1967, New York City) was a South African-born British actor. He rose to prominence in England as a Shakespearean stage actor and went on to appear in over 70 films, primarily costume dramas, swashbucklers, and, occasionally, horror films. He frequently portrayed suave villains or morally ambiguous characters, such as Murdstone in David Copperfield (1935) and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). His most famous role, however, was heroic�that of Sherlock Holmes in fourteen Hollywood films made between 1939 and 1946 and in a radio series. His later career included Broadway and television work; he was awarded a Best Actor Tony Award in 1948.
He was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in Johannesburg, South African Republic, to English parents Edgar Philip Rathbone, a mining engineer and scion of the Liverpool Rathbone family, and Anna Barbara n�e George, a violinist. He had two younger siblings, Beatrice and John. The Rathbones fled to England when Basil was three years old after his father was accused by the Boers of being a British spy near the onset of the Second Boer War at the end of the 1890s.
Rathbone was educated at Repton School and was engaged with the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies. In 1916, he enlisted for the remaining duration of World War I, joining the London Scottish Regiment as a private, serving alongside his future successful acting contemporaries Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, and Ronald Colman. He later transferred with a commission as a lieutenant to the Liverpool Scottish, 2nd Battalion, where he served as an intelligence officer and eventually attained the rank of captain. During the war, Rathbone displayed a penchant for disguise (a skill which he coincidentally shared with what would become perhaps his most memorable character, Sherlock Holmes), when on one occasion, in order to have better visibility, Rathbone convinced his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions during daylight hours instead of during the night, as was the usual practice in order to minimize the chance of detection by the enemy. Rathbone completed the mission successfully through his skillful use of camouflage, which allowed him to escape detection by the enemy. In September 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross. His younger brother, John, was killed in action during the war while also serving Britain.
On 22 April 1911, Rathbone made his first appearance on stage at the Theatre Royal, Ipswich, as Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew, with Sir Frank Benson's No. 2 Company, under the direction of Henry Herbert. In October 1912, he went to America with Benson's company, playing such parts as Paris in Romeo and Juliet, Fenton in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Silvius in As You Like It. Returning to England, he made his first appearance in London at the Savoy Theatre on 9 July 1914, as Finch in The Sin of David. That December, he appeared at the Shaftesbury Theatre as the Dauphin in Henry V. During 1915, he toured with Benson and appeared with him at London's Court Theatre in December as Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
During the Summer Festival of 1919, he appeared at Stratford-upon-Avon with the New Shakespeare Company playing Romeo, Cassius, Ferdinand in The Tempest, and Florizel in The Winter's Tale; in October he was at London's Queen's Theatre as the aide-de-camp in Napoleon, and in February 1920 he was at the Savoy Theatre in the title role in Peter Ibbetson with huge success.
During the 1920s, Rathbone appeared regularly in Shakespearean and other roles on the English stage. He began to travel and appeared at the Cort Theatre, New York, in October 1923 and toured in the United States in 1925, appearing in San Francisco in May and the Lyceum Theatre, New York, in October. He was in the U.S. again in 1927 and 1930 and again in 1931, when he appeared on stage with Ethel Barrymore. He continued his stage career in England, returning late in 1934 to the U.S., where he appeared with Katharine Cornell in several plays.
Rathbone was once arrested in the 1920s along with every other member of the cast of The Captive, a play in which his character's wife left him for another woman. Though the charges were eventually dropped, Rathbone was very angry about the censorship because he believed that homosexuality needed to be brought into the open.
He commenced his film career in 1925 in The Masked Bride, appeared in a few silent movies, and played the detective Philo Vance in the 1930 movie The Bishop Murder Case, based on the best-selling novel. Like George Sanders and Vincent Price after him, Rathbone made a name for himself in the 1930s by playing suave villains in costume dramas and swashbucklers, including David Copperfield (1935) as the abusive stepfather Mr. Murdstone; Anna Karenina (1935) as her distant husband, Karenin; The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) portraying Pontius Pilate; Captain Blood (1935); A Tale of Two Cities (1935), as the Marquis St. Evremonde; The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) playing his best-remembered villain, Sir Guy of Gisbourne; The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938); and The Mark of Zorro (1940) as Captain Esteban Pasquale. He also appeared in several early horror films: Tower of London (1939), as Richard III, and Son of Frankenstein (1939), portraying the dedicated surgeon Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, son of the monster's creator.
He was admired for his athletic cinema swordsmanship (he listed fencing among his favourite recreations). He fought and lost to Errol Flynn in a duel on the beach in Captain Blood and in an elaborate fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood. He was involved in noteworthy sword fights in Tower of London, The Mark of Zorro, and The Court Jester (1956). Despite his real-life skill, Rathbone only won once onscreen, in Romeo and Juliet (1936). Rathbone earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performances as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and as King Louis XI in If I Were King (1938). In The Dawn Patrol (1938), he played one of his few heroic roles in the 1930s, as a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadron commander brought to the brink of a nervous breakdown by the strain and guilt of sending his battle-weary pilots off to near-certain death in the skies of 1915 France. Errol Flynn, Rathbone's perennial foe, starred in the film as his successor when Rathbone's character is promoted.
According to Hollywood legend, Rathbone was Margaret Mitchell's first choice to play Rhett Butler in the film version of her novel Gone with the Wind. The reliability of this story may be suspect, however, as on another occasion Mitchell chose Groucho Marx for the role, apparently in jest. Rathbone actively campaigned for the role, however, to no avail.
Despite his film success, Rathbone always insisted that he wished to be remembered for his stage career. He said that his favorite role was that of Romeo.
The Sherlock Holmes films
Rathbone is most widely recognized for his starring role as Sherlock Holmes in fourteen movies between 1939 and 1946, all of which co-starred Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. The first two films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both 1939), were set in the late Victorian times of the original stories. Both of these were made by 20th Century Fox. Later installments, made at Universal Studios, beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), were set in contemporary times, and some had World War II-related plots. Rathbone and Bruce also reprised their film roles in a radio series, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939�1946). Attempting to limit his typecasting as Holmes, Rathbone ceded his radio part to Tom Conway in 1946. Bruce dropped out of the radio series a few years later.
The many sequels typecast Rathbone, and he was unable to remove himself completely from the shadow of Holmes. However, in later years, Rathbone willingly made the Holmes association, as in a TV sketch with Milton Berle in the early 1950s, in which he donned the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. In the 1960s, in his Sherlock Holmes costume, he appeared in a series of TV commercials for Getz Exterminators (Getz gets 'em, since 1888!).
Rathbone also brought Holmes to the stage in a play written by his wife Ouida. Thomas Gomez, who had appeared as a Nazi ringleader in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, played the villainous Professor Moriarty. Nigel Bruce was too ill to take the part of Dr. Watson, and it was played by Jack Raine. Bruce's absence depressed Rathbone, particularly after Bruce died on 8 October 1953, while the play was in rehearsals. The play ran for only three performances.
In the 1950s, Rathbone excelled in two spoofs of his earlier swashbuckling villains: Casanova's Big Night (1954) opposite Bob Hope and The Court Jester (1956) with Danny Kaye. He appeared frequently on TV game shows and continued to appear in major motion pictures, including the Humphrey Bogart comedy We're No Angels (1955) and John Ford's political drama The Last Hurrah (1958).
Rathbone also appeared on Broadway numerous times. In 1948, he won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his performance as the unyielding Dr. Austin Sloper in the original production of The Heiress, which featured Wendy Hiller as his timid, spinster daughter. He also received accolades for his performance in Archibald Macleish's J.B., a modernization of the Biblical trials of Job.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, he continued to appear in several dignified anthology programs on television. To support his second wife's lavish tastes, he also took roles in films of far lesser quality, such as The Black Sleep (1956), Queen of Blood (1966), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966, with comic Harvey Lembeck joking, "That guy looks like Sherlock Holmes"), Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967, also featuring Lon Chaney Jr.), and his last film, a low-budget, Mexican horror film called Autopsy of a Ghost (1968).
He is also known for his spoken word recordings, including his interpretation of Clement C. Moore's "The Night Before Christmas". Rathbone's readings of the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe are collected together with readings by Vincent Price in Caedmon Audio's The Edgar Allan Poe Audio Collection on CD. Rathbone also made many other recordings, of everything from a dramatized version of Oliver Twist to a recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (with Leopold Stokowski conducting) to a dramatized version of Charles Dickens's a Christmas Carol.
On television he appeared in two musical versions of Dickens's A Christmas Carol: one in 1954, in which he played Marley's Ghost opposite Fredric March's Scrooge, and the original 1956 live-action version of The Stingiest Man In Town, in which he starred as a singing Ebenezer Scrooge.
In the 1960s, he also toured with a one-man show titled (like his autobiography) In and Out of Character. In this show, he recited poetry and Shakespeare as well as giving reminiscences from his life and career (e.g., the humorous, "I could have killed Errol Flynn any time I wanted to!"). As an encore, he recited Vincent Starrett's famous poem "221B."
Vincent Price and Rathbone appeared together, along with Boris Karloff, in Tower of London (1939) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964). The latter was the only film to feature the "Big Four" of American International Pictures' horror films: Price, Rathbone, Karloff, and Peter Lorre. Rathbone also appeared with Price in the final segment of Roger Corman's 1962 anthology film Tales of Terror, a loose dramatization of Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."
Basil Rathbone has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for motion pictures, at 6549 Hollywood Boulevard; one for radio, at 6300 Hollywood Boulevard; and one for television, at 6915 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.
Rathbone married actress Ethel Marion Foreman in 1914. They had one son, Rodion Rathbone (1915�1996), who had a brief Hollywood career under the name John Rodion. The couple divorced in 1926. Rathbone was involved briefly with actress Eva Le Gallienne. In 1927, he married writer Ouida Berg�re. Basil and his second wife adopted a daughter, Cynthia Rathbone (1939�1969). He is distantly related to American actor Jackson Rathbone, who starred as Jasper Hale in the Twilight Saga films.
During Rathbone's Hollywood career, his second wife Ouida Berg�re�who was also his business manager�developed a reputation for hosting elaborate expensive parties in their home, with many prominent and influential people on the guest lists. This trend inspired a joke in The Ghost Breakers (1940), a movie in which Rathbone does not appear: During a tremendous thunderstorm in New York City, Bob Hope observes that "Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party."
The actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell described Rathbone as "two profiles pasted together".
Unlike some of his British actor contemporaries in Hollywood and Broadway, Rathbone never renounced his British citizenship. His autobiography, In and Out of Character, was published in 1962.
Rathbone was made a knight bachelor for services to the stage by King George VI in 1949, and in 1960 he became a member of The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire when he was created a KBE by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1961 New Year's Honours List. Despite this, Rathbone rarely used his titles socially and never professionally.
He allegedly refused an MBE in 1935 from King George V, who admired his stage work, though this has never been substantiated.
Basil Rathbone died of a heart attack in New York City in 1967 at age 75. He is interred in a crypt in the Shrine of Memories Mausoleum at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.
Photograph was Hand Oil Tinted by artist Margaret A. Rogers.