Basil Rathbone : 1967 Obituary

1967 Obituary

The New York Times, July 22, 1967


… Basil Rathbone, the suave Shakespearean actor who won motion-picture fame in the early 1940s as the detective Sherlock Holmes – and reg 5b4 retted the identification the rest of his life – died of a heart attack yesterday.
… The tall, impeccably mannered actor, who was 75 years old, was found dead on the floor of his study at his home, 135 Central Park West, by his daughter Cynthia. She said her father had suffered a heart seizure several years ago, but had appeared to be in good health.
… Mr. Rathbone had been in the theater and the movies for more than 50 years, in roles that ranged from Shakespeare's Romeo and the snobbish Boston brahmin in "The Last Hurrah," the 1958 film about a political boss.
… But for at least two generations of Americans, who saw his Sherlock Holmes pictures in theaters and later on television, Mr. Rathbone was instantly recognizable as the incarnation of the imaginary Holmes, magnifying glass, dear stalker hat, calabash pipe and all.
… Although the role brought him fame and considerable fortune, Mr. Rathbone spoke derisively of it in almost every interview he gave after he stopped being Holmes.
… "I played Holmes for seven years, and nobody thought I could do anything else," he once said. "When I would come onto a set or into a radio studio, it was never 'Hello, Rathbone.' It was always 'Hello, Holmes' I simply threw away the pipe and hat and came back to Broadway. It was a simple question of survival – Holmes or Rathbone"
… Actually, of the more than 100 films he made, only 16 16d0 were about the slightly smart aleck eccentric of Baker Street who was forever fond of making the bumbling Dr. Watson appear the perfect ass. The role of Watson in the Holmes series was played by the late Nigel Bruce.


… Before the Holmes series began in 1939, with "The Hound of the Baskervilles," Mr. Rathbone had appeared in dozens of pictures, more often than not as the villainous man audiences love to hate. When Ronald Coleman skewered him on a sword in "If I Were King," the moviegoers cheered.
… Mr. Rathbone's first movie was a silent, "The Masked Bride," in 1925, but he achieved stardom with the advent of the talkies, in which his well-trained crispy modulated voice stood him in good stead. His first "talkie" was "the Last of Mrs. Cheyney" in 1929.
… Mr. Rathbone was born, the son of a mining engineer, on June 13, 1892, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The family lived in the Transvaal, and after young Basil narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Boers, his father decided to send him home to England to be educated.
… "I received a classical education at Repton School," Mr. Rathbone said. "There I joined the debating society and the musical society. I was not a good student. My chief aim was to win the highest honors in all forms of sport."
… When he was 18, Mr. Rathbone went to work for an insurance company, which he found "frightfully dull and uninvigorating," so much so that in 1911 he left it to join a theatrical company managed by his cousin Sir Frank Benson.


… Mr. Rathbone's first stage appearance was at the Theater Royal in Ipswich, in "The Taming of the Shrew." He played Hortensio. He was good enough and – he said himself – close enough to his cousin to persuade Sir Frank to let him travel to the United States with the troupe in 1912.
… The 6'1" actor cut a dashing figure on Broadway, playing Fenton in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and Paris in "Romeo and Juliet." He made is London stage debut as Finch in "The Sin of David," in 1914.
… Although Mr. Rathbone won the Military Cross for his service in World War I as a Capt. with the Liverpool Scottish Regiment, the characteristically droll actor spoke of his feat later with disarming self-effacement.
… "All I did, old man," he told one interviewer, "was disguise myself as a tree –, a tree – and cross no man's land to gather a bit of information from the German lines. I have not since been called upon to play a tree."
.… In 1922, Mr. Rathbone returned to this country to play Alexi in "The Czarina," and three years later he went to Hollywood, where he remained, except for occasional appearances on Broadway, until the mid-40s. By then the Holmes series had run its course.


… Mr. Rathbone's Hollywood career was spent mostly as a contract player at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Universal Pictures. He seldom had starring roles in the more expensive films, but settled for meaty character parts that made an indelible impression on moviegoers. Among his films were "A Notorious Affair," "The Bishop Murder Case," "A Tale of Two Cities," "Anna Karenina," "David Copperfield," and "Son of Frankenstein," a "penny-dreadful," as he put it, in which Mr. Rathbone played the title role.
… Back on Broadway, Mr. Rathbone played opposite some of this country's great actresses, among them the late Laurette Taylor. He considered her the greatest of them all. He appeared with Catherine Cornell in "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and in a touring production of "Romeo and Juliet."
… In more recent years, Mr. Rathbone was seen on Broadway as the coldly domineering father in "The Heiress," and in "Obsession," "The Devil Passes," "The Golconda Smile," "Jane" and "Judas," a flop he wrote with Walter Ferriss.
… His last Broadway appearance was in Archibald MacLeish's 1959 drama, "JB," in which he succeeded Raymond Massey in the role of Mr.Zuss, a character symbolizing God. It was a tribute to Mr. Rathbone's versatility that later in the run he took over the role of Mr. Nickels, symbolizing the devil, from Christopher Plummer.
… "To me that's the most fascinating role in the play, much more in my line," Mr. Rathbone said. "Nichols is the character who motivates the play."


… Mr. Rathbone liked to live well, and he did so, by staying busy most of the time. He supplemented his income with a Sherlock Holmes radio series in the late 1940s and 50s, despite his distaste for the role.
… In recent years, he appeared in the movies "Tales of Terror," based on three Edgar Allen Poe stories, released in 1962, and "Comedy of Terrors," a spoof of horror films in which he zestifully played a wealthy old miser given to reciting Shakespeare at the drop of a chopped-off head.
… Mr. Rathbone was not above making "B" movies such as these, known in the trade as "exploitation pictures," but he was not very proud of them. They made money for him and gave him a chance to indulge in the kind of acting he really liked – recording the classics for Caedmon Records and touring campuses to read Shakespeare, Browning and other poets.
… Mr. Rathbone loved acting and took roles, no matter how small, because he liked them. He summed up his philosophy last year during rehearsals of a "Hallmark Hall Of Fame" tele b68 vision drama called "Soldier in Love," in which he had a brief role as The Duke of York.
… Besides his daughter, Cynthia, Mr. Rathbone is survived by his wife, the former Ouida Bergere, whom he married in 1926, and a son, Rodion, by his previous marriage, to Ethel Marian Forman, which was dissolved.
… A funeral service will be held at 11 AM Tuesday in St. James's Episcopal Church, at Madison Avenue and 71st St.

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Re: 1967 Obituary

Nicely done. What a great actor.

Re: 1967 Obituary

There's a line in the obit ("When Ronald Coleman skewered him on a sword in "If I Were King," the moviegoers cheered") that's totally wrong; this never occurs in the film. I hope the rest of it is more accurate...