Sir Basil Rathbone, KBE, MC, Kt was a South African-born British actor. He rose to prominence in England as a Shakespearean stage actor and went on to appear in over 70 films, primarily costume dramas, swashbucklers, and, occasionally, horror films. He frequently portrayed suave villains or morally ambiguous characters, such as Murdstone in David Copperfield and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood. His most famous role, however, was heroic—that of Sherlock Holmes in fourteen Hollywood films made between 1939 and 1946 and in a radio series. His later career included Broadway and television work; he was awarded a Best Actor Tony Award in 1948.
He was born Philip St. John Basil Rathbone in Johannesburg, South African Republic, to English parents Edgar Philip Rathbone, a mining engineer and scion of the Liverpool Rathbone family, and Anna Barbara née George, a violinist. He had two younger siblings, Beatrice and John. The Rathbones fled to England when Basil was three years old after his father was accused by the Boers of being a British spy near the onset of the Second Boer War at the end of the 1890s.
Rathbone was educated at Repton School and was engaged with the Liverpool and Globe Insurance Companies. In 1916, he enlisted for the remaining duration of World War I, joining the London Scottish Regiment as a private, serving alongside his future successful acting contemporaries Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, and Ronald Colman. He later transferred with a commission as a lieutenant to the Liverpool Scottish, 2nd Battalion, where he served as an intelligence officer and eventually attained the rank of captain. During the war, Rathbone displayed a penchant for disguise, when on one occasion, in order to have better visibility, Rathbone convinced his superiors to allow him to scout enemy positions during daylight hours instead of during the night, as was the usual practice in order to minimize the chance of detection by the enemy. Rathbone completed the mission successfully through his skillful use of camouflage, which allowed him to escape detection by the enemy. In September 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross. His younger brother, John, was killed in action during the war while also serving Britain.
On 22 April 1911, Rathbone made his first appearance on stage at the Theatre Royal, Ipswich, as Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew, with Sir Frank Benson’s No. 2 Company, under the direction of Henry Herbert. In October 1912, he went to America 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 England, 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.