Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Basil Rathbone -- The Business of Acting

Cleveland Press

The trouble with the theater is both a matter of economics and the idealization of youth.

That's the opinion of veteran actor Basil Rathbone, in Cleveland yesterday to entertain at a tea and fashion show at The Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel in behalf of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival.

"The theater is, shall we say deteriorating? No, let's not. Let's say it's disappearing," expounded Rathbone.

"Much of this is a matter of economics. If you can get your entertainment without paying a high price, why shouldn't you?

You can sit home in front of television every night -- though I don't advise it -- and get all your entertainment for nothing except for the price of your set. And you can get that on payments.

"If you want to pay something you can go out to the movies. But even this is getting terribly expensive," he added as an afterthought. "Do you know what I paid the other night? Well, never mind."

"I came to this country in 1923 to appear in New York in "The Swan." The producer paid $48,000 to put on that production and there was an uproar. Everyone thought he was nuts.

"There were 72 theaters in New York I then. There now are 26 and half of them are devoted to musicals.

"When I was learning my trade as a youth in London I was paid the equivalent of $7 a week. Four of us shared quarters and we lived reasonably well. We only wanted for luxuries.

"With only 13 theaters doing plays where can the young playwright earn a living? You can't blame him for going out to the Coast and writing for the movies and television.

"As a result there just are no plays. Will I do another play? You find me a good play and I'll do it."

Privately, Rathbone has told friends here that if the London show "Robert and Elizabeth," a musical version of "Barretts of Wimpole Street," comes to New York he would like to play the father.

'There aren't many good movies either," he added. "Oh, l make a few exceptions, but there's not one of them that I want to mention. People ask me why I don't appear in better pictures and they mention 'Becket" and 'Dr. Zhivago.' Well, there aren't many pictures like that in any one year and besides, nobody asks me.

"That applies not only to me, but to a lot of actors my age, Charles Laughton had to stop and he went out and created the one-man show.

"And that's what I and a lot of others have been doing, thanks to Charlie Laughton. It's not really theater but it is a live presentation and you read and pick out the things you want to do.

"I can get as much money for a one-night performance in a college town as l can doing eight performances of a play in New York.

"Why appear in an indifferent play that bores you when you can do this?

"I think the theater is making a mistake in not using some of us, as sort of a leavening to their bread. I learned the business of acting by acting with older actors.

"This Lincoln Center Repertory Theater in New York is an example. It is utterly ridiculous to have a first class repertory theater without a single actor that anyone knows anything about.

I'd be willing, for example, to play a small role such as the friar in 'Romeo and Juliet' and I wouldn't charge an exorbitant salary.

"Katherine Cornell would be magnificent as the nurse and I'm sure she would be willing to do it. They could have their young, handsome people then as the leads.

"But these experienced people like Miss Cornell, and the Lunts and Helen Hayes are not being used."

"The trouble with the theater is the idealization of youth. The young performers aren't working with the old timers. They have a chance for that here in Cleveland in your Play House, but believe me, the Play House is rare.

Rathbone will be 74 next month, looks 10 years younger, speaks fluently and with energy. His criticisms of the theater are made without rancor. He's played a variety of roles in his career, is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the movies and on radio.

"For God's sake, let's not talk about that," he said. "I've played 52 Shakespearean roles and all people remember is Sherlock Holmes."