How did he manage that? By accepting a role and embracing it, (and later hating it) — and become the definitive Sherlock Holmes.
Rathbone had been on stage then in his early films a suave detective (think Philo Vance) but throughout the 1930s he became the ultimate villain, most notably in costume dramas. Rathbone was an excellent swordsman and his talents were well used in films such as Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro.
The Sherlock Holmes series made him a star. He and Nigel Bruce recreated Holmes and Watson for a successful radio series as well.
To escape the type casting of Sherlock Rathbone returned to the stage and the role of the unloving and almost villainous father in The Heiress, opposite Wendy Hiller. (The film role was softened a bit by Ralph Richardson opposite Olivia deHavilland.)
In later years Rathbone turned to television, and we are indebted to the recollections of William Shatner in his lively 2008 memoir, Up Till Now, coauthored by David Fisher, for this remembrance of Rathbone.
Although the transition from movies to live television wasn’t as traumatic as the shift from silents to talkies, the change did trip up Rathbone (then in his mid-Sixties) in the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s one-hour television production of Billy Budd, based on Herman Melville’s novel about an innocent sailor who is hanged. (A young Shatner was also in the cast.)
Remember, this was in 1955 when many such programs were aired live – no taping or filming. What went on in the studio went out unfiltered over the air.
I’d grown up watching (Rathbone) play Sherlock Holmes in the movies… but this was one of his first, if not his very first, live television appearances, Shatner recalled.
Montreal-born Shatner and Rathbone were prime and ready, and the live telecast proceeded on schedule. We went on the air and the first act was progressing very well, right until (Rathbone) walked onboard the ship and stepped into a bucket.
His foot got caught in the bucket and he couldn’t get it off. The camera shot only his upper body so none of the viewers could see him madly shaking his leg, trying to get his foot out of that bucket. He was working so hard to get his foot free that he forgot his lines. And when he forgot his lines he began to sweat.
The rest of us tried to feed him his lines … It was a disaster.
It should be noted that Rathbone subsequently flourished in television in a variety of series and formats, as did Shatner, of course. But series such as Burke’s Law and Dr. Kildare in the Sixties, and later specials and TV movies were either filmed or taped.