Rathbone was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to British parents. His mother, Anna Barbara (née George), was a violinist, and his father, Edgar Philip Rathbone, was a mining engineer and scion of the Liverpool Rathbone family. He had two older half-brothers, Harold and Horace, as well as two younger siblings, Beatrice and John. Basil was the great-grandson of the noted Victorian philanthropist, William Rathbone V, and thus a descendant of William Rathbone II. The Rathbones fled to Britain when Basil was three years old after his father was accused by the Boers of being a spy after the Jameson Raid. He was a distant cousin of Major Henry Rathbone, who was present at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and was seriously wounded trying to stop John Wilkes Booth.
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 his cousin Sir Frank Benson's No. 2 Company, under the direction of Henry Herbert. In October 1912, he went to the United States 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, Rathbone 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 2/10th Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment (Liverpool Scottish), where he served as an intelligence officer and eventually attained the rank of captain. Rathbone's younger brother John was killed in action on 4 June 1918. It was after this that 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 describes it thus in his autobiography "Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees. On our heads were wreaths of freshly plucked foliage, our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork." As a result of these highly dangerous daylight reconnaissance patrols in September 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous daring and resource on patrol". Richard Van Emden in his book Famous 1914-18 speculates that this extreme bravery may have been a form of guilt or a need for vengeance following his brother's death.
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 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 1921 in silent movies and appeared in 1923's "School for Scandal", later appearing 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. In the film there is a coincidental reference to Sherlock Holmes. 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) as 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 Blood and in an elaborate fight sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood. He was also 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 twice onscreen, against John Barrymore in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and against Eugene Pallette in The Mark of Zorro (1940). 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 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.
Rathbone is most widely recognised for his many portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. In a radio interview Rathbone recalled that Twentieth Century-Fox producer and director Gene Markey, lunching with producer-director-actor Gregory Ratoff and 20th Century-Fox mogul Daryl Zanuck at Lucey's Restaurant in Hollywood. Markey proposed a film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. When asked who could possibly play Holmes, Markey incredulously replied, "Who?! Basil Rathbone!" The film was so successful that Fox produced a sequel which appeared later in 1939. Interest in Holmes cooled at Fox, but Universal Pictures picked up the character, and twelve feature films were made between 1941 and 1944 for release until 1947, 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 produced by Fox in 1939), were set in the late Victorian times of the original stories. The later installments, produced by Universal, beginning with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), were set in contemporary times. The first three had World War II-related plots.
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 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 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, wherein the character ' Eric Von Zipper' played by Harvey Lembeck jokes, "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 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 dramatised version of Oliver Twist to a recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (with Leopold Stokowski conducting) to a dramatised 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.
Rathbone died suddenly of a heart attack in New York City on 21 July 1967 at age 75. He is interred in a crypt in the Shrine of Memories Mausoleum at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
- The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes: Terror By Night: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Roy William Neill: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Buy The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes: Terror By Night: Read 91 Movies & TV Reviews - Amazon.
- Sherlock Holmes & The Woman In Green: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Hillary Brooke, Henry Daniell: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Buy Sherlock Holmes & The Woman In Green: Read 293 Movies & TV Reviews - Amazon.
- Sherlock Holmes in the Sign of Four: Arthur Wontner, Isla Bevan, Ian Hunter, Graham Soutten: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Buy Sherlock Holmes in the Sign of Four: Read 78 Movies & TV Reviews - Amazon.
- The Search for Sherlock Holmes: David Street: Amazon Digital Services LLC
- Buy The Search for Sherlock Holmes: Read 65 Movies & TV Reviews - Amazon.
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). Their own baby had died some 11 years previously. The American actor Jackson Rathbone is a distant relation (a third cousin, several times removed). Basil Rathbone was a first cousin once-removed of the British campaigning independent MP, Eleanor Rathbone.
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". 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."
He was the cousin of the eminent actor Frank Benson, to whom he bore a strong resemblance.
He was a devout Episcopalian and a member of the Episcopal Actors Guild.