Even today it is rare for an actor to play both heroic and villainous roles. From John Wayne to Tom Cruise, most actors either stick to wearing white hats or black hats. That having been said, from the Twenties to the Sixties there was an actor who became famous for playing both heroes and villains. He not only played some of the screen's most famous good guys, but some of its most famous bad guys as well. That actor was none other than Basil Rathbone. He was born 120 years ago today on 12 June 1892.
Of course, the most famous role that Basil Rathbone would ever play was a heroic one, that of Sherlock Holmes. He first played the detective in 20th Century Fox's adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). The film proved successful enough that it was followed by 20th Century Fox's production of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). The success of both movies would lead to a series produced by Universal Studios, starting with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror in 1942 and ending with Dressed to Kill in 1946. A total of 12 films were made in Universal's "Sherlock Holmes" series. Not only would Basil Rathbone be so successful in the role of Holmes that he became typecast to some degree, but he would be so successful in the role that to this day he remains for many the quintessential movie version of Sherlock Holmes.
In many ways Basil Rathbone was ideal for the role of Sherlock Holmes, and not simply because he looked the way many people pictured the great detective. The fact is that like Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone was a master of disguise and camouflage. During World War I he had served as an intelligence officer and was so skilful that he once scouted enemy positions in broad daylight!
Basil Rathbone would play other heroic roles besides Sherlock Holmes. One of his more famous roles was that of Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the son of Henry Frankenstein (creator of the Creature), in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In the film Wolf von Frankenstein attempts to redeem his father's reputation while crossing wits with evil blacksmith Ygor (played by Bela Lugosi). Basil Rathbone would also play detective Philo Vance in one film, The Bishop Murder Case (1929), ten years before he first appeared as Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Rathbone would play heroes in the films The Dawn Patrol (1938--the only film in which he was Errol Flynn's ally) and International Lady (1941).
Of course, while Basil Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes in many films and occasionally played heroes in a few others, beyond playing Holmes he is perhaps best known for playing the villain in many swashbucklers. In fact, his most famous role besides that of Sherlock Holmes may well be that of Sir Guy of Gisbourne in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The Adventures of Robin Hood would not be the only film in which Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn fought each other. Mr. Rathbone had also been the villain of Captain Blood (1935). Mr. Rathbone was also the villain in the classic swashbucklers The Mark of Zorro (1940). He would go onto play the villain in the parodies of the old swashbuckler films Casanova's Big Night (1954) and The Court Jester (1955). Basil Rathbone was not only the villain in swashbuckler movies, but in adaptations of classic literature such as David Copperfield (1935) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935). He would play sinister figures in such horror movies as Tower of London (1939), The Mad Doctor (1940), and Tales of Terror (1962).
Just as Basil Rathbone shared skills with Sherlock Holmes, he also shared a skill with the villains he played in his swashbuckler movies. Quite simply, Basil Rathbone was a master fencer. While Errol Flynn won their battles in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, in truth Mr. Rathbone could have beaten Mr. Flynn in matter of minutes, if not seconds. Ironically given his skill in real life and his many on screen sword duels (including ones in Tower of London and The Court Jester), he only won one fight in a movie, playing Tybalt in the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet!
Ultimately, Basil Rathbone was a singular talent, capable of playing both heroic and villainous roles. In fact, off the top of my head I can only think of one actor who was as capable of playing both good guys and bad guys: Vincent Price. Interestingly enough, Vincent Price's career paralleled that of Basil Rathbone in many ways. Both appeared in costume dramas early in their career and would later appear in horror movies. The two appeared together in Tower of London (1939), Casanova's Big Night (1954), Tales of Terror (1962), and Comedy of Terrors (1963).
Sadly, Basil Rathbone would die of a heart attack at the age of 75 in 1967. He left behind an amazing legacy of films in which he often played the villain, but also films in which he played the hero as well. He was an actor of such skill that he was convincing in playing both good guys and bad guys. Indeed, he played Sherlock Holmes for the first time in the year following his famous turn as Guy of Gisborne! There are very few actors who get to play the hero and the villain in various films. There are still fewer who can do both well. Basil Rathbone was one of those very few.