South African-born Basil Rathbone was the son of a British mining engineer working in Johannesburg. After a brief career as an insurance agent, the 19-year-old aspiring actor joined his cousin's repertory group. World War I service as a lieutenant in Liverpool Scottish Regiment followed, then a rapid ascension to leading-man status on the British stage. Rathbone's movie debut was in the London-filmed The Fruitful Vine (1921). Tall, well profiled, and blessed with a commanding stage voice, Rathbone shifted from modern-dress productions to Shakespeare and back again with finesse. Very much in demand in the early talkie era, one of Rathbone's earliest American films was The Bishop Murder Case (1930), in which, as erudite amateur sleuth Philo Vance, he was presciently referred to by one of the characters as "Sherlock Holmes." He was seldom more effective than when cast in costume dramas as a civilized but cold-hearted villain: Murdstone in David Copperfield (1934), Evremonde in Tale of Two Cities (1935), and Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) (Rathbone was a good friend of Robin Hood star Errol Flynn -- and a far better swordsman). Never content with shallow, one-note performances, Rathbone often brought a touch of humanity and pathos to such stock "heavies" as Karenin in Anna Karenina (1936) and Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Pompeii (1936). He was Oscar-nominated for his portrayals of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and the crotchety Louis XVI in If I Were King (1938). In 1939, Rathbone was cast as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first of 14 screen appearances as Conan Doyle's master detective. He also played Holmes on radio from 1939 through 1946, and in 1952 returned to the character (despite his despairing comments that Holmes had hopelessly "typed" him in films) in the Broadway flop The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which was written by his wife, Ouida Bergere. Famous for giving some of Hollywood's most elegant and elaborate parties, Rathbone left the West Coast in 1947 to return to Broadway in Washington Square. He made a movie comeback in 1954, essaying saturnine character roles in such films as We're No Angels (1955), The Court Jester (1956), and The Last Hurrah (1958). Alas, like many Hollywood veterans, Rathbone often found the pickings lean in the 1960s, compelling him to accept roles in such inconsequential quickies as The Comedy of Terrors (1964) and Hillbillies in the Haunted House (1967). He could take consolation in the fact that these negligible films enabled him to finance projects that he truly cared about, such as his college lecture tours and his Caedmon Record transcriptions of the works of Shakespeare. Basil Rathbone's autobiography, In and Out of Character, was published in 1962.
by Hal Erickson biography