Terry Kiburn & Frankie Thomas, Rivals
DATELINE: From Sherlock to Nancy Drew
Sometimes I forget how old I am. One of my late friends actually auditioned for a role in the first Basil Rathbone movie of Sherlock Holmes.
Passed over to play the page boy Billy in Mrs. Hudson’s employ for the Rathbone version of Adventures of Sherlock,child star Frankie Thomas was busy with other projects in 1939, but as a standard freelance actor now in his mid-teens, he could have easily played the role of Billy.
Having cut his teeth playing Bonita Granville’s sleuthing boyfriend in the Nancy Drew series, he was ripe for a role in his favorite reading material, the Holmes stories.
Frankie’s family were Broadway theater professionals, part of a clique that dominated social strata in Hollywood of the era. Through his father and mother, youthful Frankie met Basil Rathbone, the emerging Holmes of the film world. The coveted role of Billy went to Terry Kilburn, a native British boy who had picked up the mantle of Freddie Bartholomew.
Nevertheless, Frankie loved the Holmes stories and read all avidly. He later, as an adult, when out of Hollywood’s limelight, wrote a series of novels that featured Holmes and Watson in new adventures.
Frankie’s Holmes titles, over a dozen, are still in print. He disliked the Bruce portrayal of Watson intensely and would alter that in his own books, but always favored the actor he saw frequently on the studio lot, Basil Rathbone.
Frankie also had a key role in a series of Nancy Drew mysteries made in the late 1930s. As a teenage boy, he was cast as the boyfriend of Nancy. In fact, he played Watson to Bonita Granville’s female Sherlock.
Recently I put together a book called Sherlock in Movies: Personal Views & Reviews, in which I tried to do honor to Frankie.