Basil Rathbone





Johannesburg, South Africa



Birth Name

Philip St. John Basil Rathbone




Basil Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1892, but 3 years later, his family was forced to flee South Africa because his father was accused by the Boers of being a British spy. The Rathbones escaped to England, where Basil and his two younger siblings, Beatrice and John, were raised by their mother Anna Barbara, a violinist, and their father Edgar Philip, a mining engineer. From 1906 to 1910, Rathbone attended Repton School, where he was more interested in sports than studies but discovered an interest in the theater. After graduation, he wished to pursue acting as a profession, but his father disapproved and suggested that his son try working in business for a year, hoping he would forget about acting. Rathbone accepted his father's suggestion and worked as a clerk for an insurance company--for exactly one year. As determined as ever to become an actor, he contacted his cousin Frank Benson, an actor managing a Shakespearean troupe in Stratford-on-Avon. Rathbone was hired as an actor on the condition that he work his way up through the ranks, which he did quite rapidly. Starting in bit parts in 1911, Rathbone was playing juvenile leads within 2 years. In 1915, however, his budding career was interrupted by the First World War. During his military service, Rathbone became a second lieutenant in the Liverpool Scottish, Second Battalion, worked as an intelligence officer, and received the Military Cross of England for bravery. In 1919, released from military service, he returned to Stratford-on-Avon and continued with Shakespeare but, after a year, moved onto the London stage. The year after that, he made his first appearance on Broadway and his film debut in the silent film "Innocent" (1921). For the remainder of the decade, Rathbone alternated between the London and New York stage and appeared occasionally in films. In 1929, he co-wrote and starred as the title character in a short-running Broadway play called "Judas." Soon afterwards, Rathbone abandoned his first love, the theater, for a film career. During the 1920s, his roles had evolved from the romantic lead to the suave lady-killer to the sinister villain (usually wielding a sword), which Hollywood put to good use during the 1930s in numerous costume romps, including "Captain Blood," "David Copperfield," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Anna Karenina," and "The Last Days of Pompeii" (all made in 1935), "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), "Tower of London" (1939), "The Mark of Zorro" (1940), and others. Rathbone earned two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor as Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet" (1936) and as King Louis XI in "If I Were King" (1938). However, it was in 1939 that Rathbone played his best-known and most popular character, Sherlock Holmes, with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, first in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and then in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," which were followed by 12 more films and numerous radio broadcasts over the next 7 years. Feeling that his identification with the character was killing his film career, Rathbone went back to New York and the stage in 1946. The next year, he won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Dr. Swoper in the Broadway play "The Heiress" but afterwards found little rewarding stage work. Nevertheless, during the last 2 decades of his life, Rathbone was a very busy actor, appearing on numerous television shows, primarily drama, variety, and game shows; in occasional films, such as "Casanova's Big Night" (1954), "The Court Jester" (1956), "Tales of Terror" (1962), and "The Comedy of Terrors" (1964); and in his own one-man show "An Evening with Basil Rathbone" with which he toured the U.S. until his death in 1967.