Philip St. John Basil Rathbone 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 includedBroadway, self-ironic film and television work; he received a Tony Award in 1948 as Best Actor in a Play.
Born as Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in Johannesburg to English parents, Edgar Philip Rathbone, a mining engineer and scion of theLiverpool Rathbone family, and Anna Barbara (née George), a violinist, he had two older half-brothers, Harold and Horace, as well as two younger siblings, Beatrice and John. The Rathbones fled to Britain 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 in Repton, Derbyshire, and was employed by the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies.
On 22 April 1911, Rathbone made his first appearance on stage at the Theatre Royal, Ipswich, Suffolk, 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 Britain, 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.
At the end of 1915, he was called up via the Derby Scheme into the British Army as a private with the London Scottish Regiment, joining a regiment that also counted in its ranks his future professional acting contemporaries Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman at different points through the conflict. After basic training with the London Scots in early 1916 he received a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the Liverpool Scottish, where he served as an intelligence officer and eventually attained the rank ofcaptain. 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. On one occasion, in order to have better visibility, Rathbone convinced his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions during daylight rather than at night, as was the usual practice to minimize the chance of detection. Rathbone completed the mission through his skillful use of camouflage. In September 1918, he was awarded theMilitary Cross for "conspicuous daring and resource on patrol". His younger brother, John, was killed in action during the war.
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 inThe 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 British stage. He began to travel and appeared at the Cort Theatre, New York, in October 1923 in a production of The Swan opposite Eva Le Gallienne, which made him a star on Broadway. He 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 US again in 1927 and 1930 and again in 1931, when he appeared on stage with Ethel Barrymore. He continued his stage career in Britain, returning late in 1934 to the US, where he appeared with Katharine Cornell in several plays.
Rathbone was once arrested in 1926 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 films, and played the detective Philo Vance in the 1930 film 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, and, in 1949, was also the narrator for the segment "The Wind in the Willows" in the animated feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.
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 Bloodand 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 won only once onscreen, in Romeo and Juliet (1936). Rathbone earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Rolefor 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 was 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, but to no avail.
Despite his film success, Rathbone always insisted that he wished to be remembered for his stage career. He said that his favourite role was that of Romeo.
The Sherlock Holmes films
Main article: Sherlock Holmes (1939 film series)
Rathbone is most widely recognised for his many portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. In a radio interview Rathbone recalled thatTwentieth Century-Fox producer Gene Markey proposed a film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, and when asked who could possibly play Holmes, Markey incredulously replied, "Who?! Basil Rathbone!" The film was so successful that it spawned a series. Fourteen feature films were made between 1939 and 1946, all of which co-starred Nigel Bruceas Dr. Watson. The first two films, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (both produced by Fox in 1939), were set in the late Victorian times of the original stories. Later installments, produced by Universal Pictures, 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, which began in October 1939. Rathbone appeared in the radio series as long as the film series was active, but after the films lapsed in 1946, Rathbone ceded his radio part to Tom Conway. Conway and Bruce carried on with the series for two seasons, until both dropped out in July 1947.
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 Naziringleader 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 appeared 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 films, including the Humphrey Bogart comedy We're No Angels (1955) and John Ford's political dramaThe 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 modernisation of the Biblical trials of Job.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, he continued to appear in several dignified anthology programmes on television. To support his second wife's lavish tastes, he appeared as a panelist on the television game show The Name's the Same (in 1954), and he also took roles in cheap film thrillers 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 John Carradine.), 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 ofEdgar 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 dramatised version of Oliver Twist to a recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (with Leopold Stokowski conducting) to a dramatised version ofCharles 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 dramatisation of Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."
Basil Rathbone has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for films, 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. In 1924 he was involved in a brief relationship with Eva Le Gallienne. In 1927, he married writer Ouida Bergère; the couple adopted a daughter, Cynthia Rathbone (1939–1969). The American actor Jackson Rathbone is a distant relation (a third cousin, several times removed). Another distant relation was Henry Rathbone, the U.S. Army officer who, along with his fiancée, was Abraham Lincoln's guest in the Presidential box at Ford's Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated.
During Rathbone's Hollywood career, Ouida Rathbone, who was also her husband's 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 film 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". British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell described Rathbone as "two profiles pasted together". As cited in the same autobiography, Mrs. Campbell would later refer to him as, "a folded umbrella taking elocution lessons."
Rathbone died suddenly 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 Hartsdale, New York.