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Basil Rathbone Profile
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Basil Rathbone Profile
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Actor Basil Rathbone had something of a love-hate relationship with his own screen image. He was most often cast as a sword-wielding, mustache-wearing villain and rarely as a hero. Rathbone so frequently played the "bad guy" that he won just one sword fight in his whole career (as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, 1936). His opportunity to play the hero came in 1939 with The Hound of the Baskervilles; he was cast as Sir Author Conan Doyle's classic sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone jumped at the chance saying, "for once I got to beat the bad guy instead of play him." The casting clicked - and Rathbone played Holmes in 13 more films. But the success of these Universal B-movies was as much a curse as a blessing. The series typecast Rathbone and after its run, he never had another truly great screen role.

Rathbone was born June 13, 1892 in Johannesburg, South Africa. When Basil was just three, his family fled to England. His father had been accused by the Boers of being a British spy. Rathbone discovered his interest in theatre while still in school, but his father disapproved of the profession and made his son a deal. He was to work in the business world for a year before making his final decision and Rathbone did just that. For exactly one year he worked as an insurance clerk and when the year was up, Rathbone contacted his cousin who was an actor-manager of a Shakespearean troupe. Rathbone began performing in bit parts in 1911. Though his career was interrupted for several years by WWI service, he made his way to the London stage by 1920. The next year, he made his screen debut in the silent romance Innocent (1921).

Over the next decade, Rathbone continued to split his time between the stage (both London and New York) and the screen. By the late 20s, however, acting in movies became his main line of work. Rathbone began his film career playing romantic leads (with sometimes questionable intentions) in films like Sin Takes a Holiday and A Notorious Affair (both 1930). He also took on the first detective role of his career - Philo Vance in The Bishop Murder Case (1930). It was in the mid-1930s when Rathbone found his Hollywood niche as the villain.

He played every kind of unsavory character imaginable, from Pontius Pilate in The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) to the evil stepfather Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield (1935). Rathbone, whose fencing skills were said to be the best in Hollywood, dueled with Errol Flynn in two pictures; first, as a French pirate in Captain Blood (1935) and again in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He also took on Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940). One notable exception to Rathbone's reign of evil came in the Flynn anti-war vehicle The Dawn Patrol (1938) with Rathbone cast as a squadron commander. The actor would be nominated twice for Best Supporting Actor in the 1930s; for his roles in Romeo and Juliet and If I Were King(1938). He lost both times to Walter Brennan.

In 1939, Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes for the first time in The Hound of the Baskervilles. A sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), would quickly follow. Universal took over the franchise from 20th Century Fox in 1942 with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, the first of twelve Holmes films for Rathbone and the studio. The rest of the films in the series are: Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944), The Scarlet Claw (1944), The Pearl of Death (1944), Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear (1945), Sherlock Holmes and the Woman in Green (1945), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), Sherlock Holmes in Terror by Night (1946) and Sherlock Holmes in Dressed to Kill (1946). Rathbone also played Holmes on the radio from 1939-1946 in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

After the Holmes film series wrapped, Rathbone took a break from Hollywood and returned to the New York stage. In 1948, he won a Tony Award for his performance in the play The Heiress. But soon rewarding film and stage roles became harder for Rathbone to find. In 1952, he returned to the safety of a known part - once again playing Holmes, this time on stage, in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The play, written by his wife Ouida Bergere, was not successful.

Rathbone had better luck with character roles in films such as the Humphrey Bogart comedy We're No Angels (1955) and The Last Hurrah (1958), a political drama directed by John Ford and starring Spencer Tracy. He also had some success spoofing his earlier work in Bob Hope's Casanova's Big Night (1954) and Danny Kaye's The Court Jester (1956). Rathbone made his final screen appearance in the Spanish film Autopsia de un Fantasma (1968). He died June 21, 1967 in New York.

by Stephanie Thames

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