Basil Rathbone: Pipe Smoker

Basil Rathbone was a distinguished actor who delivered several brilliant performances throughout his career, and he is probably best remembered for his portrayal of legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. He was often type-casted into roles because he was so convincing and delivered realistic interpretations of his assigned characters but struggled to maintain a public identity that wasn't associated with his acting. However, his work continues to be held in high regard by critics and cinema aficionados, with many considering Rathbone's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes to be definitive.

Rathbone's skills as a performer were admired by his colleagues with actor Fernando Lamas recalling, "he was a powerful personality. It was impossible to look at anybody else while he was on screen." Director Allen Reisner worked with Rathbone on an episode of Studio One and remarked, "He spoke to you with a wisdom that you don't hear from people anymore." (Druxman, 1975). Rathbone was also an iconic pipe smoker, frequently seen smoking one on screen as Sherlock Holmes.

Early Life And Career

Philip St. John Basil Rathbone was born a British subject in Johannesburg, South Africa on June 13, 1892 to Anna Barbara, a violinist, and Edgar Philip Rathbone, a mining engineer and a descendant of the Rathbone family of Liverpool. Basil's father worked in the South African gold fields and was accused of being a British spy shortly after the Jameson Raid occurred in 1895, a contributory cause to the Boer War. The family fled via train to Durban, South Africa where Rathbone, his sister, and his mother were diagnosed with typhoid fever. They were ill for several weeks and required intensive medical care but fully recovered and sailed back to England where they settled.

Beginning in 1906, Basil Rathbone attended Repton School in Derbyshire, where he would board and stay during the school term. He struggled with academics but excelled in sports, possessing a physique and speed that surpassed others his age. Rathbone kept his interests in theater and acting to himself as the school was more sports focused and he didn't want to feel alienated from his teachers and classmates, who gave him the nickname "Ratters."

He later wrote in his autobiography:

"Little did my friends realise, that during homework in the dining room, I was working on my first play, 'King Arthur.' Had my friends known, this would have indicated to them that I was not quite the 'he-man' they thought me to be. And so, I kept my love of the theatre to myself."

After graduating, Rathbone told his parents that he wished to become an actor, a career choice his father wasn't enthusiastic about, suggesting that Basil instead take a job in business for a year to see if he liked it. With his father's assistance, Rathbone obtained a job as a junior clerk at the Liverpool, London and Globe Insurance Company but found office work to be unappealing, leaving after one year, in accordance with his father's request, to pursue his acting aspirations.

Rathbone's cousin, Frank Benson, was an established actor-manager and through that familial connection, Rathbone earned the role of Hortensio in a production of The Taming of the Shrew. Benson recognized Rathbone's potential as a performer, inviting him to tour with his No. 2 Company which proved to be an invaluable learning experience. Rathbone was afforded the opportunity to play an assortment of secondary characters and learned the fundamentals of diction, makeup, and fencing, which he became particularly skilled at.

Basil Rathbone, WWI

Military Service

Rathbone continued to perform in several Shakespeare productions until 1916 when he enlisted in the British Army to fight in World War I. It was a difficult decision for Rathbone as he had married actress Ethel Marion Foreman in 1914 and his son Rodion was born a year later, but he felt an obligation to serve his country like his younger brother John, who was by that time a captain in the Dorset Regiment. Rathbone was conflicted about joining, later writing, "I felt physically sick to my stomach, as I saw or heard or read of the avalanche of brave young men rushing to join ... while I was pondering how long I could delay before joining up." He completed basic training in early 1916, successfully applied to become a commissioned officer and was assigned to the Liverpool Scottish unit.

When tasked with gathering intelligence on the German trenches, Rathbone utilized his theatrical experience to hide in plain sight. Rathbone recalled, "Camouflage suits had been made for us to resemble trees and on our heads, we wore wreaths of freshly picked foliage, our faces and hands were blackened with burnt cork." It was incredibly risky but each day he and his fellow soldier, Corporal Tanner, made progress to the German side, identifying the positions of machine gun nests. Rathbone also noted their frontline was sparsely populated, aligning with his superiors' suspicion that something was underway though more information was required.

Rathbone, Tanner, and two other men planned on breaching the German defenses to gather intelligence, crawling for over an hour before reaching the trenches. After encountering and eliminating an enemy soldier, Rathbone found a diary and a folded piece of paper before several more soldiers approached and opened fire. The men left the trench, running through the barbed wire around it before separating and taking cover in shell holes. They successfully reunited and returned to their trenches where they delivered the information they recovered which showed that the Germans planned on retreating. Rathbone was later awarded the Military Cross, which is granted in recognition of "an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land" for his "conspicuous daring and resource on patrol."

Rathbone's time in the military was marred by tragedy as his brother John was killed in action and his mother passed away while he was overseas. After the war, Rathbone struggled to readjust to normal as the war had changed him and his outlook on life.

He later recalled:

"I had come back from the war, where life had been like a long, terrible dream. At the front I had never thought about what would happen or why. There was no past and no future. Nights were either wet nights or dry nights. The important things to me were whether my billet was warm or cold, the food good or rotten. I suppose when you meet death daily for a long time you give up trying to order things. I came out of the war comparatively untouched. That is, I wasn't shell-shocked or scarred up. But I had lost all sense of life's realities. I found I was still a good enough actor. I got some good parts in London. Whatever they offered me, I took. Money meant nothing to me. I never thought of getting ahead. I never cared about it. Somehow, I expected to be taken care of — as I had been in the army. I shrank from decisions. I never went after things I wanted. I hated any sort of battle or argument. I just wanted to be let alone — to vegetate. I was completely negative."

Return To Acting

Rathbone's marriage suffered as a result and in less than a year of returning to London, he separated from his wife Marion and moved into a small, one-room apartment in Kensington. He continued to act in Shakespearean plays, often accepting roles that were beneath him or parts he was overqualified for just so he could financially support himself. Rathbone's perseverance eventually paid off as his stage work attracted the attention of Maurice Elvey, a prolific British director. After acting in a few silent films, Rathbone returned to performing stage plays with his performance in 1923's The Swan earning him significant praise. The comedic play was performed 255 times and was tremendously successful, solidifying Rathbone's reputation as a gifted actor and making him a Broadway star.

Ouida Bergere and Basil Rathbone

It was during this time Rathbone would meet Ouida Bergere, a Hollywood screenwriter and actress whom he'd later marry after finalizing his divorce with Marion. Despite never having met Rathbone, Ouida had been an admirer for some time and after seeing him perform in the 1922 play The Czarina, she stated it was her intention to marry the actor. They shared the same interests, had similar personalities, and after spending a short amount of time together, it was clear they were in love.

Rathbone continued acting on stage and in films throughout the '20s, with Ouida becoming his manager and assisting him in negotiating deals and contracts that proved to be incredibly successful. By the early '30s "talking pictures" had become a global phenomenon and were overtaking silent films in popularity. Movie producers actively sought performers with trained voices and given Rathbone's talent, he became an obvious choice to act in the "talkies." Though his early roles failed to garner critical acclaim, Rathbone continued to appear in films and toured the United States performing in plays. Things changed dramatically after Rathbone was offered the role of Mr. Murdstone, the tyrannical step-father in 1935's David Copperfield, based on Charles Dickens' 1850 masterpiece. Rathbone became an in-demand actor that studios began considering for important roles and due to the numerous offers he was receiving, Rathbone and Ouida moved to Los Angeles.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Rathbone As Sherlock Holmes

In 1938, Rathbone was cast to play legendary detective Sherlock Holmes for 20th Century Fox's adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. The film marked the first appearance of Rathbone as Holmes and he would act in 14 films as the detective, with the final 12 produced by Universal Studios and updated to a World War II setting. Fellow English actor Nigel Bruce portrayed Dr. John Watson in each film, offering comedic relief that counterbalanced the serious nature of Holmes. The first two films produced by Fox had significantly larger budgets, production values, and were set in the late Victorian era while the ones created by Universal aimed "simply to be entertaining 'B' pictures." (Davies, 1976). However, Rathbone delivered exceptional performances in each film and many consider his portrayal of Holmes to be the best.

Despite the acclaim and praise he received for the films and the 220 episodes he voiced for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio show, by 1946 Rathbone became exasperated with the character. Rathbone recalled in his autobiography, "My first picture was, as it were, a negative from which I merely continued to produce endless positives of the same photograph." He moved to New York but casting directors failed to see him as anything but Sherlock Holmes.

Rathbone resented being typecast as Holmes and came to "loathe playing a character he saw as one-dimensional, condescending, cold and mean spirited." (Clayton, 2020). An article published by The Guardian recounted, "On one notorious occasion, the normally mild-mannered actor lost his temper when children asked for his autograph and couldn't understand why he didn't sign it 'Holmes'." (Macnab, 2002). Rathbone looked back on his role unfavorably saying, "When you become the character you portray, it's the end of your career as an actor."

Later in his career, Rathbone acted in several films and made more television appearances, eventually making peace with his association with Sherlock Holmes. He appeared as Holmes during a sketch with Milton Berle in the '50s and brought back Sherlock in the early '60s for his one-man show, named after his autobiography In and Out of Character. Rathbone continued to perform up until his death in 1967, when he passed suddenly from a heart attack in New York City.

Pipe Smoking Habits

One of the most enduring and recognizable aspects of Basil Rathbone's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is the pipe the actor smoked on screen. Peterson notably created the Rathbone design as part of their collectible Sherlock Holmes series in honor of the actor's iconic portrayal of the legendary detective. It originally debuted in 1991 as the first pipe within The Return of Sherlock Holmes collection and is a deeply bent Billiard that reflects Peterson's penchant for muscular proportions and timeless aesthetics. It manages to combine the stretched, swan-neck style pipe Rathbone smoked in his first three Sherlock films for 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios, which was possibly a Dunhill 02 or LC bent Billiard, with the Peterson Premier System 4AB he smoked in the later films.

Gary Malmberg, co-author of The Peterson Pipe: The Story of Kapp & Peterson (2018), recounted in the award-winning book seeing an older Basil Rathbone perform a free, one-man show in 1962:

"Basil Rathbone entered from a side door and placed a few props on the table. He stood facing us just ten feet from my seat. Attired elegantly in a vested suit, the 70-year old actor was imposingly handsome, with an aquiline nose and a long face and chin, above unusually broad shoulders. Yet he was tall and long legged and almost disturbingly thin at the waist, an inverted pyramid overall. Rathbone was absolutely the most distinctive human I had ever seen in my short life, and he remains so these several decades later."

"The actor performed entirely from memory, reciting various poetry, including all of Poe's "The Raven," and doing Shakespeare, from sonnets to dramatic scenes, commenting at length about his own long life and career, and reenacting segments from his Sherlock Holmes movies. When he became Holmes he went for his three props, a deerstalker, a violin, — which he played for us — and a Peterson System 4AB, which he lit pensively and smoked."

The tobacco Rathbone often smoked and is commonly associated with is Wilke's No. 515 blend, a mixture consisting of ribbon-cut Virginias and toasted Black Cavendish with a slightly spicy, yet sweet Jamaican rum topping. Judging from photographs, it appears Rathbone preferred tobacconist prepared blends over factory-made mixtures due to the paint-can style containers the blends were packaged in. Outside of his Sherlock portrayals, there's also a lack of information regarding what brand or style of pipe he primarily smoked, though the ones he used on screen continue to remain iconic and closely associated with his character.

Basil Rathbone was a gifted, enormously talented actor and was a commanding figure in any role he performed. He's one of a select few to have three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring his contributions to film, radio, and theater. His portrayals of Sherlock Holmes continue to be revered and admired, though his other works continue to be respected by critics and fans. However, author David Clayton makes an excellent point in his 2020 book The Curse of Sherlock Holmes: The Basil Rathbone Story asserting, "For Sherlock Holmes purists — and they are legion — there was only one actor who was the living, breathing embodiment of the character Sir Arthur Conan Doyal unleashed upon the world in the 1887 short story A Study in Scarlet — and that man was, indeed, Basil Rathbone."

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers History Pipe Culture


    • LV on September 27, 2020
    • Nice bio. It may have to do with memories each generation keeps from important books or movies, but I just can avoid remembering Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes performance. For me, both are strongly connected. JBrett and Edward Hardwicke's (as Dr. Watson) Granada series of Sherlock Holmes are Art. And everytime I watch any other actor as Sherlock (from past and recent iterations) they don't feel so authentic, so profound. I think that JBrett also had troubles with the intense association with the character. Would be nice to read some of it here too. No?Anyway, keep up the good writing SMPipes Team. Cheers from a windy Lisboa

    • Martin Boxer on September 27, 2020
    • A wonderful read! Thanks!

    • nathan meek on September 27, 2020
    • Thanks for the good article on Basil Rathbone. He had a good presence on screen. I think he was in the Sea Hawk where he played the villain pirate to Errol Flynn and also played Karenin in Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo. Nice information in the article too about his World War I exploits. Thanks for sharing.

    • Stephen on September 27, 2020
    • Thanks for the article on Mr. Rathbone. In addition to his recurring role as Sherlock Holmes, who can forget his role as Sir Guy of Gisbourne playing against Errol Flynn in Robin Hood? He was an accomplished fencer, as evidenced by one of the greatest fencing displays ever filmed. Rumor has it that the light saber battles in Star Wars were based on the fencing in Robin Hood.

    • Brian S. on September 27, 2020
    • While Rathbone's portrayal of Holmes has become iconic, and captures some of the character's love of tobacco, as AC Doyle portrayed him, I would agree with LV that the Granada series with Brett and Hardwicke/Burke as Watson is IMHO, the most brilliant and faithful depictions of the characters as developed by Doyle in the 4 novels and 52 stories in the oeuvre. The Rathbone/Bruce movies are largely caricatures of the roles, and nearly all were screenplays with story lines unrelated to the original texts, but written in an effort to exploit the success of AC Doyles creation, but without any suggestion of his literary talent.As it happens, Brett was also great devotee of tobacco. He was a pipe and cigar smoker, and unfortunately smoked as many as 60 cigarettes a day, according to Edward Hardwicke. In any event, Brett and Hardwicke/Burke and others cast for those productions were remarkably faithful to the stories and characters, including many of the nuances that brings the fiction to life.

    • Paul Schmolke on September 27, 2020
    • Here’s a man that should’ve been given knighthood by the queen. He’s an all time favorite of mine and I’ve seen most of his movies and listened to many of the radio broadcasts. He was likely influential in my taking up pipe smoking as I still have my very first pipe, a large calabash purchased with horse track winnings when I was 14 years old. The pipe is now 60 and in good shape. The biographical piece is excellent and told me much about him that I didn’t know. Seems as though he was good at most everything he tried. I have a couple of the Peterson commemoratives and they’re good smokers as well as unique shapes in Peterson’s lineup. These Sunday morning stories are always fun reads and usually quite informative.

    • Gregory Naaden on September 27, 2020
    • His villains were always the best...which is why it's surprising that he could move effortlessly into a hero like Holmes.

    • Bill Toth on September 27, 2020
    • Another excellent article in this series (It is a series, right?). However, I believe there’s a typo in Rathbone’s chronology. His portrayal of Mr. Murdstone was in 1935’s David Copperfield, not in 1950. A minor detail to be sure.

    • Bill Toth on September 27, 2020
    • Another great article in this series (It is a series, right?). However, I believe there’s a typo in Rathbone’s chronology. His role as Mr. Murdstone was in 1935’s David Copperfield, not in 1950. A minor detail to be sure.

    • Jim McCoy on September 27, 2020
    • I've read that Rathbone was a coach for the US Army's Olympic fencing team.You might like to see this masterful portrait of Rathbone as Holmes, 1939 by Arthur K. Miller, 2011:

    • David Zembo on September 27, 2020
    • Thanks, Jeffery. A great little read worthy of this accomplished man who also endured the horrors of WW1.

    • Jon Randolph on September 27, 2020
    • I'm very familiar with the LC but what is a Dunhill 02? Did you mean 120?

    • Jeffery S on September 27, 2020
    • @Jon Randolph: An example of Dunhill's "02" bent Billiard can be seen here if you copy and paste this SKU - 002-015-4372. The "120" is a beautiful shape as well and is quite similar.

    • Jim on September 27, 2020
    • @Jon Randolph: Helpful Hint: If you're in the blog at the time, you need to return to the store first for that SKU to work as a search term.

    • Astrocomical on September 27, 2020
    • Basil Rathbone looks like he could of played a MEAN James Bond. But would they show him smoking a pipe?

    • Sam Kessler on September 27, 2020
    • This was an enjoyable read. I learned more about Basil Rathbone and his career. It makes me admire him and his work even more. Thank you!

    • Jeff Ashley on September 27, 2020
    • Great read. I love Rathbone in the movie adaptations but Jeremy Brett is the quintessential Holmes. His pipe smoking in the Granada series saw a plethora of pipes as he pondered a ....'three pipe problem '. Nonetheless love Rathbone and his later work with Vincent Price.

    • John Landolfi on September 27, 2020
    • In the Wilke shop on Madison Avenue, while it still existed, a photograph of Rathbone was prominently displayed, with a Wilke pipe in his mouth. Those were the days when Joe Corteggiano was carving for them, and his pipes are legend

    • Tim Frey on September 27, 2020
    • A great read! But how in hell can you do an article on Rathbone (easily one of the cinema's greatest villians) without mentioning him swashbuckling with Errol Flynn? I'll tell you: Rathbone was so accomplished as an actor, there's no room to contain it in a few paragraphs. Thanks Jeffery! I learned a lot!

    • Jon Randolph on September 27, 2020
    • Thanks Jeff & Jim. Signing onto the site with the SKU still produced zero results.But if you guys say it exists, I'm sure it does. I'm just surprised that in 56 (gasp) years of Dunhill ownership I'd never seen it mentioned anywhere, unlike the LC. Is it listed in any of the early catalogs of which I have several?

    • Jim on September 27, 2020
    • @Jon Randolph: Sorry the SKU isn't working for you. If you copy and paste it into the search window, it should come right up. Anyway, as an experiment, I logged into the store site and simply searched on "Dunhill 02" and got a bunch of examples from Group 2 through Group 6 in size with a variety of stems and finishes. SKU 004-002-19183 (a Group 3) is a particularly good example, in my opinion!

    • Brad Judkins on September 28, 2020
    • Odd coincidence: I just happened to be smoking a Peterson Rathbone stuffed with Wilke's 515 as I read this, neither of which is a particular favorite of mine. As for Brett vs. Rathbone as Mr. Holmes, I would say either was highly effective. Great read for the evening. Thanks.

    • DAVID SOMMER on September 28, 2020
    • He will always be my favorite "Sherlock". Granted the other actors have done a fine job but Basil has just theright attitude for the part. Please find me a marathon ofthe collection of fine films.

    • W.G. on September 28, 2020
    • You've made clear details about Rathbone that make me admire him even more. Thank you. Just a style note: I find it very distracting when I come across sentences that end with prepositions. They indicated poor style and lack of care. Besides, they are very inelegant. For example, "... fencing, which he became particularly skilled at." Why not " ... fencing, at which he became particularly skilled". ? Just my pet peave. Thanks again for the information about a fellow piper.

    • Rick Newcombe on September 28, 2020
    • Thank you for another great profile of a famous pipe smoker. Basil Rathbone's pipe smoking influenced many of us. As for W.G.'s comment, I could not help but think of Winston Churchill's remark on this subject: "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."

    • Gianluigi on September 29, 2020
    • Thank you , well done. Bravo.

    • Phil Wiggins on October 1, 2020
    • Awsome Love Beautifuk A!!!

    • JKL on October 28, 2020
    • A great article. I’m a big Holmes, so naturally a Rathbone fan as well. At first I wondered why the article went into Rathbone’s biography, but it was fascinating, and helped put his pipe smoking in context. Someone who spent time at war, concerned with whether his bed would be warm and dry, or not, would unsurprisingly seek comfort and warmth from the pipe. Thank you!

    • Jack Koonce on November 8, 2020
    • A very well written article. Condensed but factual.Thank you.

    • Reggie Melvin on August 8, 2021
    • The first Holmes movie I saw as a boy starred Mr. Rathbone. I might say he inspired me to be a pipe smoker over 50 years ago.

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