Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone

Infobox actor
name = Basil Rathbone

caption = from the trailer for the film "Tovarich" (1937)
birthname = Philip St. John Basil Rathbone
birthdate = birth date|1892|6|13|df=y
location = Johannesburg, South African Republic
deathdate = death date and age|1967|7|21|1892|6|13|df=y
deathplace = New York City, USA
spouse = Marion Foreman (1914-1926)
Ouida Bergère (1926-1967)
tonyawards = Best Leading Actor in a Play
1948 "The Heiress"

Basil Rathbone, MC (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967), was a South African-born English actor most famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes and of suave villains in such swashbuckler films as "The Mark of Zorro", "Captain Blood", and "The Adventures of Robin Hood".


Early life

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 née 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 [ [ London Scottish Regiment : UK Territorial Army 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 ironically 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 US again in 1927 and 1930, and in 1931 when he appeared on stage with Ethel Barrymore. He continued his stage career in England, returning to the US late in 1934 where he appeared with Katharine Cornell in several plays.

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 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.

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 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (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).

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.

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 only three performances.

Later career

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". [ [ Basil Rathbone: Master of Stage and Screen - Recordings ] ]

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 "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 "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.

Personal life

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 Bergere. Basil and his second wife adopted a daughter, Cynthia Rathbone (1939-1969).

During Rathbone's Hollywood career, his second wife (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", a movie in which Rathbone does not appear: during a tremendous thunderstorm, Bob Hope observes that "Basil Rathbone must be throwing a party".

The actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell described Rathbone as "two profiles pasted together". [In and Out of Character, Basil Rathbone]

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.


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 Hartsdale, New York.

In popular culture

Rathbone and his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes was the inspiration for the children's book series "Basil of Baker Street" and the later Disney film, "The Great Mouse Detective".

Rathbone's villainous roles inspired the portrayal of the regenerated Master in the "Doctor Who" Virgin New Adventures novel "First Frontier" by David McIntee.

In the 2003 comedy film "Shanghai Knights", the naming of the chief antagonist Lord Rathbone, was an homage to Basil Rathbone.


*"Innocent" (1921) (film debut)
*"The Fruitful Vine" (1921)
*"The School for Scandal" (1923)
*"The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots" (1923)
*"Trouping with Ellen" (1924)
*"The Masked Bride" (1925)
*"The Great Deception" (1926)
*"The Last Mrs. Cheyney" (1929)
*"The Bishop Murder Case" (1930)
*"This Mad World" (1930)
*"A Notourious Affair" (1930)
*"The Firting Widow" (1930)
*"The Lady of Scandal" (1930)
*"The Lady Surrenders" (1930)
*"Sin Takes a Holiday" (1930)
*"A Woman Commands" (1932)
*"After the Ball" (1932)
*"One Precious Year" (1933)
*"Loyalties" (1933)
*"A Feather in Her Hat" (1935)
*"Kind Lady" (1935)
*"David Copperfield" (1935)
*"Anna Karenina" (1935)
*"The Last Days of Pomeii" (1935)
*"Captain Blood" (1935)
*"A Tale of Two Cities" (1935)
*"Private Number" (1936)
*"Romeo and Juliet" (1936)
*"The Garden of Allah" (1936)
*"Love from a Stranger" (1937)
*"Confession" (1937)
*"Tovarich" (1937)
*"Make a Wish" (1937)
*"The Adventures of Marco Polo" (1938)
*"The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938)
*"If I Were King" (1938)
*"The Dawn Patrol" (1938)
*"Son of Frankenstein" (1939)
*"The Hound of the Baskervilles"* (1939)
*"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"* (1939)
*"Tower of London" (1939)
*"The Sun Never Sets" (1939)
*"Rio" (1939)
*"Rhythm on the River" (1940)
*"The Mark of Zorro" (1940)
*"The Black Cat" (1941)
*"The Mad Doctor" (1941)
*"International Lady" (1941)
*"Paris Calling" (1941)
*"Fingers at the Window" (1942)
*"Crossroads" (1942)
*"Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror"* (1942)
*"Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon"* (1943)
*"Sherlock Holmes in Washington"* (1943)
*"Above Suspicion" (1943)
*"Sherlock Holmes Faces Death"* (1943)
*"Crazy House" (1943)
*"The Spider Woman"* (1944)
*"The Scarlet Claw"* (1944)
*"Bathing Beauty" (1944)
*"The Pearl of Death"* (1944)
*"Frenchman's Creek" (1944)
*"The House of Fear"* (1945)
*"The Woman in Green"* (1945)
*"Pursuit to Algiers"* (1945)
*"Terror by Night"* (1946)
*"Dressed to Kill"* (1946)
*"Heartbeat" (1946)
*"The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad" (1949) (narrator)
*"Casanova's Big Night" (1954)
*"We're No Angels" (1955)
*"The Court Jester" (1955)
*"The Black Sleep" (1956)
*"The Last Hurrah" (1958)
*"The Magic Sword" (1961)
*"Tales of Terror" (1962)
*"Ponzio Pilatto" (1962)
*"Two Before Zero" (1962)
*"The Comedy of Terrors" (1964)
*"Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet" (1965)
*"Queen of Blood" (1966)
*"The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" (1966)
*"Hillbillys in a Haunted House" (1967)
*"Autopsia de un fantasma" (1967)

* Sherlock Holmes film


* "Who's Who in the Theatre" - "The Dramatic List," edited by John Parker, 10th edition revised, London, 1947, pps:1183-1184.

External links

* [ Biography]

NAME = Rathbone, Basil
ALTERNATIVE NAMES = Rathbone, Philip St. John Basil
DATE OF BIRTH = 1892-6-13
PLACE OF BIRTH = Johannesburg, South African Republic
DATE OF DEATH = 1967-7-21
PLACE OF DEATH = New York City, New York

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