general biography, Uncategorized
Comments 12

Basil Rathbone: Union Man!

Throughout his career, Basil Rathbone was active in the Actor’s Equity Association, the union that represents the interests of stage actors. The Actor’s Equity Association is governed by its own members through an elected Council. In 1948 Rathbone was elected Vice President of the association’s Council. The following year he was elected to serve as recording secretary.

Today’s post, however, concerns an exchange of letters between actor Frederick Kerr and Basil Rathbone in 1922. At the time, both actors were appearing on the Broadway stage in The Czarina: Kerr as the Chancellor and Rathbone as Count Alexei Czerny. The letters were published in the New York Times. Mr. Kerr’s letter appears first:

I wonder if the opinion of an old actor, who in the course of his long career has been everything from a utility man at Wallack’s Theatre to manager of London theatres, and who is now chiefly occupied in playing elderly statesman, would have any weight in regard to the perpetual quarrel which is going on between actors and managers both in England and America, and more particularly in America. Although an Englishman, I am an American actor, and my experience is somewhat extensive in both countries.

Frederick Kerr

No one could accuse Henry Irving of being a mean man, but in my hearing many years ago, when he was asked whether actors should be paid for rehearsals, his reply was, “In my opinion a great many actors should pay very highly for what they learn at rehearsals.” It is because “actors’ associations” and actors’ “equities” and such organizations encourage the incompetence and overcrowding of our profession that I disapprove of them. No examination, no diploma is required of any number of young men and women going upon the stage, who should be in domestic service, and who, as failures, fall back on the help quite unnecessarily provided for them by the actors and actresses who can act. Benevolence? Yes. Help in sickness or misfortune? Yes. But protection of the incompetent? No! Such, at least, is the opinion of one than whom no one has a kindlier feeling for his fellow actors.

Frederick Kerr
New York, Feb. 3, 1922.

Rathbone’s reply was printed about two and a half weeks later. He wrote:

From a Fellow Player.
To the Dramatic Editor:

Having read Frederick Kerr’s letter of February 3, may I, as a Councillor on the Actors’ Association in England and a member of the Actors’ Equity enjoying the generous hospitality of American audiences here in New York, ask you to allow me a short space in your columns?

I am a member of a younger generation and I fully appreciate the fact that Mr. Kerr has had a long and varied experience in the theatre, and has risen to a considerable position in our profession on both sides of the Atlantic.

In view of these facts it seems to me all the more regrettable that Mr. Kerr should have thought it necessary to express in print views highly disparaging to the work of certain American and English actors and actresses who have proved themselves great men and women, as well as successful artists, by their impersonal and whole-hearted support of the Actors’ Equity Association of America and the Actors’ Association of England on behalf of their less successful comrades.

Rathbone in The Czarina

I question the accuracy of Mr. Kerr’s statement that there is a perpetual quarrel going on between actors and managers. I would even go so far as to say there is no quarrel at all. Several members of the Actors’ Association have been expelled for dishonest treatment of their managers; but this, as an alternative, does not constitute a “perpetual quarrel between actors and managers.” If the managers and actors continue to work together, in and out of the theatre, in a spirit of mutual good faith and good will, this undesirable element, on both sides, will, in time, be completely eradicated.

Again I question Mr. Kerr’s accuracy when he states that “such organizations encourage the incompetence and overcrowding of our profession.” The A.E.A. and A.A. stand for equitable treatment for the laborer who is worthy of his hire, or he would not be hired. No man venturing to manage a theatrical speculation is obliged to engage any particular individual, but, if he does, that individual is entitled to fair and equitable treatment, and he or she has not always had it. And very often he, and particularly she, has not been in a position to enforce such treatment. That is why I would suggest to Mr. Kerr that those artists who have been fortunate should sometimes think of those who have been less fortunate; and the element of “good fortune” is as strong if not stronger than the element of ability on the ladder of success.

Statesmen have been to Washington from the end of the earth in a united endeavor to keep the world’s peace. Individually and collectively we can each do our little bit toward this end, and a united federation of the dramatic artists of the world, I feel, would, in its little way, help a great cause. Therefore I deeply regret that an Englishman should endeavor to hang a stone (even though it be only a cherry stone) around the neck of two sincerely altruistic and international associations.

In conclusion, may I offer to Mr. Kerr my sincere congratulation on his high courage in displaying his colossal ignorance of the subject-matter on which he has touched?

Basil Rathbone
New York, Feb. 21, 1922.

Rathbone’s reply reveals his sympathy for his fellow actors, especially those less fortunate than he had been. Rathbone knew what it was like to be a struggling actor, how hard it is to pay the bills when you can’t get employment. He struggled until 1920, when he was lucky enough to have been cast as Peter Ibbetson, and he won acclaim for his performance. His career took off after that. But Rathbone knew that not every actor is so fortunate, and the assistance of the Actor’s Equity Association is essential.



  1. rockhyraxx says

    Hi! I´m trying to organise my Rathbone knowledge a bit, so I don´t say stupid or untrue things, while talking to other people about him (and trying to convince them how awesome he was). And that’s why I got interested so much in quotes about him lately and I have some questions concerning this topic:
    1. I read somewhere that somebody was calling Basil something like “the ultimate professional” but I can’t remember the name or where I read it. Could somebody help?
    2. I just read in the comment section here on The Baz that George Sanders said something like “I thought you died, too bad” to BR…… o_O! I need more info!! When and where and under what circumstances did he say that?
    3. I’m not sure where I read this (but I think it was on YouTube – I know, not the best source for information), but there was a lady saying she (or some relative of hers) was caring for BR after he had a heart surgery, and that she would possess some pictures from BR in a hospital bed. I know about his mild heart attack or stroke or whatever it was during the performance of J.B. but I did not know he had a heart surgery…. I’ve been re-watching all YT-vids I watched lately and can’t find the comment any more, but I swear I didn’t dream it! The lady sounded highly credible and I wonder if somebody could tell me more about his surgery or tell me where I could read something about it!
    Wish you all a lovely day!


    • Judith M. Dawes says

      Love this! The Sanders comment sounds a bit familiar.
      The hospitalization–wow, and did he then go back to work to try to keep Weewee happy??
      Loved also the recent reprint of the Eddie Selover article. Hopefully his biography is well on its way. Tried to answer, and good ol’ Gravatar defeated me. Come yucky winter will send more stuff!


      • rockhyraxx says

        Ha!! I hated myself so much the last few days for not remembering where I read that surgery thing, but luckily I was smart enough to copy and paste the comment into a word document!!! And I have to correct myself, he or she only knew a lady and wasn’t the lady herself! But anyway, here you go:
        “I also knew an elderly woman named Barbara Ninnis, who was Basil’s nurse during one of his later heart surgeries. Just before she passed away, In Rockport MA where I’m from, she gave me his autobiography signed by him and addressed “To Barbara, who fiddles around with my heart and should know all the answers” AND two polaroid snapshots she took of Basil in the hospital, one fully clothed in perfect Rathbone profile, and the other shirtless but trying to cover himself with a shirt.”
        So my question remains: Did he, and if yes, when did he have heart surgeries? Poor little Basil having to jump around like a 20-year-old with such a medical history…..
        (Can’t tell you btw. how relived I feel now, knowing I’m not insane and this comment really exists (or did exist))

        Yep wet days are just made for research work!! Looking forward for new info!!!


  2. rockhyraxx says

    I do have a question. Some time ago (it was quite long ago) I read a quote from young Laurence Olivier praising Basil (things like how good looking he was and something like his voice would be the most beautiful instrument he ever heard). I can´t find this quote now… Does somebody know where it was from or why it disappeared?


  3. ticobasiljd says

    What a great discovery, these two letters. Had no idea of BR’s stature in these organizations. Wonder if his recording minutes still survive somewhere. I don’t know anything about the actor’s world, though there’s a great documentary around about struggling actors who belong to Actors Equity and must pay their yearly dues to get jobs and how Equity says at any given time some very high percentage of them aren’t working. Their devotion and determination brings us many fine actors who endured and learned from this shaky start. BR’s last sentence was a great one! I have stuff on other organizations he belonged to and helped–will do a squib on those when I finish yardwork etc.! Great work here with this find!


    • rockhyraxx says

      Absolutely can’t wait!! Meanwhile you can be puzzled about a little side note I found in an article from Movie and Radio Guide 1940 Aug. 31 – Sept. 6 called “This Week in Hollywood”:
      “War notes: […] Douglas Fairbanks Jr., is planning a trip to Washington to consult Secretary of State Hull about the sixty English refugee children whose care in this country he has agreed to finance… Boris Karloff has five British youngsters on the way to Hollywood and his home, where he and his wife will take care of them for the duration of the war. Likewise, the Lane Sisters, Priscilla, Rosemary and Lola are adopting for the war two six-year-old twin sisters. Similarly, two refugee boys, now in Montreal, are en route to Basil and Ouida Rathbone for war adoption…”
      So did the boys ever get to Ouida and Basil? And how long did they stay there? Could it be possible to find out who they were? Assuming they stayed with OR and BR, the Rathbone household during WW2 would count Basil, Ouida, little Cynthia, Ouida Jr. and the two little boys. I never heard of that before and was very surprised! But from the article it seems it wasn’t an uncommon thing to do…
      Btw wordpress dislikes me again…

      Liked by 1 person

      • marciajessen says

        Wow! I’ve not seen any mention of the Rathbone’s taking care of refugee children during the war. Will do some more digging!


  4. Robert M. Wallace says

    I too applaud Basil for he truly was a Man ahead of his time; clearly, and to echo the previous poster, Basil because of his upbringing and with such illustrious connections to his famous cousin Frank Benson { who was the founder of the annual Stratford–Upon–Avon Shakespeare
    Festival, and ” father ” of British Actors’ Equity. }, Basil knew first hand the struggles afoot for new actors. Always Monumentally admiring Basil, although he Absolutely deserved it, he never became the so–called ‘ heart throb A class ‘ romantic [ as were those like: Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart etc. ]– Basil still gave his craft the Utmost attention and endeavored to give his all. . even when Hollywood saw fit to shaft him with such vehicles as: ” Autopsy Of A Ghost ” and ” Hillbillies In A Haunted House “!
    To me { as I choose to remember Errol Flynn like he was in ” The Adventures Of Robin Hood “– not the debauched, drunken shell he became }, Basil will forever be the respected Actor he was during his ” Captain Blood ” ” The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes “, ” The Mark Of Zorro “, ” The Adventures Of Robin Hood “, et all Career. His caring for Actors and all those involved in the motion picture industry was so very Paramount, and that aspect of Basil’s
    Character is what truly set him apart from those like the person he responded to in his response!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Campbell T Forrester says

    It surprises me, Basil’s response, but it shouldn’t. Given his class, upbringing, education, and experience working for the family firm, I made the rather stupid assumption that he would side against workers. But, I see now that his experiences of being dismissed and, frankly, tossed out of said class by his choice to become an actor as well as, apparently, his experiences backstage have given him a, in my opinion, more accurate view of actors’ struggles. I find him rather heroic. And gallant as he points out the special abuse delivered to women especially in the profession.

    As someone who worked backstage for almost thirty years, I have always wished that actors would show some camaraderie or, at the very least, concern for the men and women who keep them safe and the machinery running. My experience, in both non-union and union theatres have shown me quite the opposite. I wonder how Mr. Rathbone viewed the likes of us. Just curious, I guess. Not that it matters in the long run.

    Thank you, again, for the marvelous revelation. Makes me love him more which I didn’t think possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. rockhyraxx says

    Nawww he is so sweet, when he is getting mad about something! I especially love his last sentence; it made me laugh out loud! And Basil is so right! Just because somebody is a struggling actor it does not necessarily mean that he is “incompetent”. I´m so glad Basil was someone who could stand in for his opinion! I´m sure a lot of other people would have reacted differently!

    Liked by 2 people

share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s