Almost in a Sherlock Holmes Movie!

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.

Jan Merlin: Statuesque Among the Stars, 1925-2019

  Jan with his Emmy Award!

My co-author and most important literary collaborator has gone from this world.

Jan Merlin might be recognizable to a generation or two of film and TV fans as the villain who populated a hundred TV shows. He made movies with Ann Sheridan, George C. Scott, and Woody Allen. He starred in two 1950s TV series, The Rough Riders—and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, with Frankie Thomas.

A veteran of the Navy in World War II, Jan went from the military during the big war to the Neighborhood Playhouse where he learned the craft of acting, though he had many talents. He always thought his acting fame was a lesser role. He was always the antagonist to some western star, or some dubious military man.

Yet, despite playing dastardly villains almost constantly, with his Aryan looks (Polish American out of New York City), he was a genteel man with a sense of art and brilliantly self-educated. Like a generation of those who were never able to attend college, he more than made up for it with a dozen books to his credit. He loved fiction—drawing  upon his movie background, or his experiences in Japan after the war.

Together we did a half-dozen books of which I am most proud. We did only one work of fiction, The Paid Companion of J. Wilkes Booth. Most of our Hollywood history tales were based on his insider knowledge of how a set work, from knowing nearly every star of the 1950s and 1960s. He laughed they were all “six feet tall,” no matter what the truth might be.

We wrote about Boys Town, Billy Budd, Reflections in a Golden Eye, among other films, giving a unique perspective on daily life during the studio shoot. He knew Brando, Taylor, Clift, James Dean, in ways that others could never understand. He threw James Dean out of the Pier Angeli house at her mother’s request.

When we did not write books together, he gave me editorial and research insights for my books on James Kirkwood and Audie Murphy. Oh, he knew them too.

Now he is gone, irreplaceable in my life and in Hollywood history, with all those insights and memories. He had stories he would not tell about the damaged figures of show business. He took those secrets with him, as much as I wanted to hear them. He was loyal to the memory of the business he loved and hated.

Once I called it ‘Tinseltown’, and he reprimanded me: it was a cherished professional location, not a frivolous tabloid fantasy to him. He introduced me as his “son” on occasion, which amused me–and made movie star Frankie Thomas look at me with quite an impression.

Goodbye, dear Jan. I am so lucky to have known you and to have worked with you. I have been left a treasure trove of his life, and maybe one day I will tell what he told me. He was my touchstone to a bygone era and glorious movie history.