Mon
Dec 26 2011 4:30pm

Who’s Your Holmes? The Various Sherlocks of the Stage and Screen

Sherlock Holmes stands out among fictional characters insofar as a staggering amount of actors have interpreted him on the stage and screen for over a hundred years. Holmes himself has been called numerous things: intellect, superhero, amateur, specialist, addict, liar, egomaniac, and most recently “a functional sociopath.” But has anyone really nailed it all? Which actors throughout the years have given us the best Sherlock Holmes?

Obviously there are far more actors who have played the great detective beyond the ones I’ve listed below. Yes, I’ve excluded Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Roger Moore, Ellie Norwood, Tom Baker, and even John Cleese. But I consider the ones discussed below to be leading contenders, the winning horses, if you will, in the conversation about Sherlock Holmes as interpreted by an actor.

 

William Gillette

If there is one actor who is truly responsible for the various Holmes acoutrements, such as the cloak, the hat, the pipe, or the robe, it is William Gillette. Gillette not only starred as Holmes in the stage play Sherlock Holmes, he also adapted his own version! The original version was a five-act play written by Doyle, which Gillette changed to a four-act structure, with Doyle’s approval. According to various accounts, when Conan Doyle met with Gillette to approve this project he felt as though Sherlock Holmes himself had stepped off the train to meet him. Interestingly, Gillette was an American, and was most famous throughout his career for this part. Many of the “incorrect” assumptions about the character come from this version, such as “Elementary, my dear Watson,” a phrase which never actually appears in the books. When one thinks of a sort of traditional version of Holmes, that interpretation most likely comes from Gillette, who played the character in nearly 1,300 performances throughout his life. Was he faithful to the original work? The verdict seems to be: kind of. However, at the point at which Doyle himself was around to endorse his interpretation, Gillette remains one of the most canonical Holmes actors of all time. Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes was so popular that during the 1932 farewell tour, novelist Booth Tarkington said “I would rather see you play Sherlock Holmes again than be a child again on Christmas morning.”

 

Basil Rathbone

The famous screen actor, though born to English parents, was from South Africa. Thanks to his Shakespearean background and a turn at dueling with Errol Flynn in films like Captain Blood, Rathbone was already a major star before he took on the role of Holmes. Rathbone’s tenure as Holmes is probably largely responsible for making The Hound of the Baskervilles the most wildly remembered Holmes title amongst the general public. His first Holmes role was a full-length film of Baskervilles in which, along side Nigel Bruce as Watson, Rathbone delivered a proper Victorian Holmes in keeping with Gillette’s interpretation. Rathbone is of course a great character actor and highly convincing as Holmes. However, despite having a bumbling and useless Watson, the Rathbone tenure has two major problems. The first is that Rathbone continued the trend started by Gillettte which emphasized Holmes as a gentleman. The sort of unkempt crazy-person of the stories and novels isn’t as evident in Rathbone’s performance, which is instead the more cartoony Holmes many pictured for years and years. Second, post-Baskervilles the majority of the Rathbone adventures are NOT adaptations of any kind and set in a WWII timeline. This is not to say putting Holmes in a timeline other than the Victorian era is bad, but at the point at which Rathbone’s Holmes was more of a caricature than a character, the jingoistic aspect of these stories only made that quality worse. The real crime isn’t Rathbone himself here, but rather that the majority of his Holmes work feels dated.

 

Peter Cushing

Of all the actors to play Sherlock Holmes, Cushing perhaps looks the part more than others, specifically the hawk-like nose. In the grand scheme of various actors who have assumed this mantle, Cushing often gets lost in the shuffle because of various other and perhaps more famous performances. However, Cushing brought a level of theatricality to the detective that was more intense than Rathbone, and more nuanced than some of the later incarnations. Cushing’s Holmes is one that has a lot of “Ah-ha!” moments in which he demonstrates in broad strokes just why he is such a genius. (A certain scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Cushing throws a knife onto a letter springs to mind.) There is nothing particularly wrong with Cushing’s portrayal of Holmes at all, other than the fact that he has such stiff competition. If the depiction of Holmes on the screen had ended with Peter Cushing, the world would be just fine. However, it didn’t.

 

Jeremy Brett

In the 1980s, Granada Television set out to do something that had yet to be attempted with the canon of Sherlock Holmes: faithfully adapt all the stories and novels. Though minor changes and framing devices were altered throughout the run of this series, for the most part the accuracy to the source material is striking. Anyone who has seen the first two seasons of the Jeremy Brett era will agree; he may well be the definitive screen Sherlock Holmes. From his flippant arrogance, to his deadly serious demeanor, Brett perfectly blended the bohemian and messy Holmes with the Victorian gentlemen of the public consciousness. The costumes of Brett’s Sherlock were also fantastic because it reminded us that Holmes wasn’t about the deerstalker and the magnifying glass, but rather about the person. Brett’s performance also brought something somewhat new to the role: Holmes was human.

The character’s drug addiction is addressed with this Holmes and his feelings for Irene Adler are explored with more tenderness than in the original text. This Holmes is also hilarious. I’ve heard many fans cite this as something they didn’t like about Brett’s portrayal, however if you’ve never laughed out loud while reading Sherlock Holmes, then I think we’re reading different books. Brett’s Holmes was funny, messed up and sexier than previous Holmes. (He was considered for James Bond in the 70s!) Though some of the later episodes and TV movies are hard to watch as this great actor’s health deteriorated, he is still one of the best actors to ever tackle the part.

According to various interviews with Brett, the part deeply changed him as he found he had so much in common with Sherlock Holmes. In short, poor Jeremy Brett went a little bonkers from playing this iconic character, a character who is also a little bonkers. And though it is a tragedy that Mr. Brett was taken from us so early in his life, we’ll always have his perfectly mad Holmes to enjoy forever.

 

Robert Downey Jr.

In 2009, Guy Ritchie decided to remind us that Holmes could handle himself in a fight as well as be an awesome intellect. Robert Downey Jr. then punched, kicked and shot his way through a pseudo-steampunk version of Sherlock Holmes. At first, this level of physical violence annoyed me because I tire of people telling me how “in the books Holmes fights people.” BUT, the thing is,  Robert Downey Jr. is actually great as Holmes. He combines the intellect with the insanity with such a smooth ease that sometimes you forget he’s the famous actor that he is. In terms of an actor who really shows how messy and screwed up Holmes is, Downey Jr. might be the best ever. This is closer to what Conan Doyle intended; a messy addict who happens to be more brilliant than everyone around him.

The only problem with the Downey Jr. Holmes is that he existed inside of a dull plot structure in the first film, which relied too much on violence to work. However, in the second film, this was largely improved by making him funnier, making the adventure more entertaining, and giving him a great Moriarty to play off of. My guess is if there is third Holmes film with Downey Jr., they will have perfected everything so much that if they toned down the violence, nobody would even notice.

 

Benedict Cumberbatch

The most recent Holmes is easily the best since Brett. Unlike some of the WWII era Rathbone Holmes, the transportation of the character to a non-Victorian setting actually does Cumberbatch a lot of favors. Cumberbatch is arrogant, confident, funny, hyper intelligent, and absolutely social awkward. The way in which the various famous Holmes maxims are paraphrased in this version breathes new life into the character. The fact that writer Steven Moffat decided to play up Sherlock’s ignorance on a variety of subjects is a masterful move. Many a casual fan might forget that Watson drew up a list of Sherlock’s knowledge on various subjects in A Study in Scarlet, which demonstrated the great detective had limited information about all kinds of things, including knowing nothing about astronomy. In the text, Holmes refers to his mind as being like an attic full of furniture whereas Cumberbatch asserts, “this is my hard drive!”

Because there are so many moments when Benedict Cumberbatch owns the fact that he IS Sherlock Holmes, it’s hard to pick just one. Perhaps my favorite is when he is looking out the window of 221B Baker in “The Great Game” and describes the quiet peaceful atmosphere of the street below as “hateful.” Holmes thrives on conflict and hates boredom above all else. This, more than anything is the character. And Cumberbatch plays that aspect perhaps better than anybody.

 

What about you? Which Holmes is your favorite? Does it matter to you how accurate he is to the text? Do you like your Holmes funny or dark? Proper or sloppy? Let us know!


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. The only trait he shares with Holmes is being a smartass and being awesome at the Kalamari Desert track in Mario Kart 64.

40 comments
Barb in Maryland
1. Barb in Maryland
Team Jeremy Brett here. (And both his Watson's were good, too.)
Cumberbatch is entertaining, but he hasn't done enough stories yet for us to see if he can carry the role over a long period.
Barb in Maryland
2. DIYGene
Another fan of Jeremy Brett. He best captured Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes. Watching almost any other actor play the part, it just doesn't quite fit.
Barb in Maryland
3. Rabbit
Jeremy Brett is the best I've seen by far, but Cumberbatch does seem to have potential.
Barb in Maryland
4. Myaf
Hm, why didn't you say anything about russian Vasilii Levanov?
As far as I know, many people, even british critics and Queen herself mentioned him.
For me he is the best Holmes :)
tatiana deCarillion
5. decarillion
Brett, Rathbone, Cumberbatch--Downey doesn't even belong in such illustrious company.
Ryan Britt
6. ryancbritt
@5
You know, I used to feel about the same, but I've lightened up and realized Downey Jr. is okay. The writing itself isn't as good, but he's pretty great for what he's dealing with.
Barb in Maryland
7. rushmc
Brett, and it isn't even close.
Barb in Maryland
8. Zach Hilgers, DDS
I do like Downey, Jr., and the other Holmes of old were all great in their own way, but I really do enjoy Cumberbatch and his take on Holmes and his foibles and idiosynracies.His Watson is also very good and a good foil for Mr. C. I sure as hell hope they are making more of those; 3 is just not enough!
Ryan Britt
9. ryancbritt
@8 Dr. Hilgers, they are making more! Jan 1st is the debut on the BBC, so I imagine we'll get them here (officially) a bit after that.
TW Grace
10. TWGrace
I think Hugh Laurie has done a fine job.
Barb in Maryland
11. HelenS
Leonard Nimoy's played Holmes at least once. I would rather like to have seen that.
Glenda Wilson
12. glinda
Jeremy Brett, no question. (after a rather startled reaction of "wait a minute, that was Freddie in "My Fair Lady"??" *grin*)
Barb in Maryland
13. Harkirat
Honestly, as much as Mr. Downey, Jr. is a good enough reason to go and watch a movie, there is something very discomforting about watching him be more like someone who can plan the perfect robbery than be someone who can solve it. The action oriented approach to Holmes is completely targeted at people who have never read the books.

For me, Mr. Brett remains the benchmark agaisnt which all other actors trying to depict Holmes will be measured. I do believe that Mr. Cumberbatch is onto something incredible and after a few more seasons, he will be as well recognized as Mr. Tennant is now recognized as Dr. Who
Barb in Maryland
14. Syllabus
Brett, with Cummerbatch second. I think, however, that Cummerbatch played Holmes as to much of a borderline psychopath. Granted, Holmes was a bit of a rough diamond, but he did have a certain amount of dry irony about him, rather than the upfront loathing that Sherlock treats everyone with. Holmes was an ironist and a gentleman. Cummerbatch is brilliant, but he's much much more of an absolutely cynical bastard than anything else.

I suppose we're all about the cynical anti-hero these days. Me? I miss the days when we could have a hero that wasn't any reflection of the Byronic type. Those are entertaining, no doubt, but they've been done to death.
Barb in Maryland
15. Andrea Santa Maria
I like Cumberbatch best, and I *love* the psychological aspects of both him & Moriarty. I get unreasonably excited about the accuracy of their psychological profiles and behaviours.
Lynda Kennard
16. winter_marigold
RDJ's Holmes amuses me and Cumberbatch's Holmes fascinates me, but it was Jeremy Brett's Holmes that I imprinted on in my youth. He's still my favorite.

As for accuracy and faithfulness to the text, frankly I'd rather have an adaptation follow the spirit, not the letter, of canon. There are aspects of the original text that, while acceptable in Victorian times, seem appallingly racist and sexist today. At least they do to me; YMMV.
Barb in Maryland
17. mad_for_fantasy
My vote goes to Cumberbatch. He portrays the character with the required intensity and intelligence. And the modern-day representation is just the icing on the cake. Freeman does a great job as Watson and is the best of the lot(I agree with the previous post on the importance of Watson.)
Valentin M
18. ValMar
I'm glad to see so many Jeremy Brett's Holmes fans here. He is Sherlock Holmes for me (and Watson). Basically, whilst I'm a huge fan of the Grenada's series no other interpretation of Sherlock Holmes has really impressed me much. The orininal stories are ok, and Data too ;)

Also, someone wrote something about the peaceful quietness of Baker Street in the latest interpreation. A nice little reminder that this is fiction.
Linden Wolfe
19. Lilith
Jeremy Brett was "my" Holmes for years, but he has been overtaken by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Fake Name
20. ThePendragon
@10 TWGRace. Hugh Laurie is a great one. He's the alternate universe where Holmes became a doctor instead of a detective.
Barb in Maryland
21. liontime
I like the Downey Jr. films. But I always remember John Neville in A Study in Scarlet from 1965. I was young at the time and it quite impressed me. I don't know if I would like it as much now. I've seen Rathbone as Holmes and maybe Brett but the other fellow, Cumberbatch not yet.
Ryan Britt
22. ryancbritt
Whenever this discussion comes up, I realize I need to see the Russian Holmes and start watching House! Glad to see so many Brett loyalists!
Barb in Maryland
23. SaraSilkwood
I felt that Benedict Cumberbatch captured the essence of Holmes' character. But I also want to point out that it's the relationship between Holmes and Watson that really brings the characters to life. I've never completely understood why everyone chooses to focus on the portrayal of Holmes and ignore Watson completely.

In the books, we always see Holmes through Watson's eyes, he is the only filter we have. Watson doesn't talk about himself a lot, but it says something that it's always Watson that Holmes turns to when he needs a second pair of eyes or hands. When he runs away to Europe when Moriarty is hunting for him, it's Watson that he asks to go with him. In as much as Holmes is capable of human friendship, Watson is his best (if only) friend. Coming from a man that is almost completely socially inept, I think that says something.

All that to say, I think that when you look at any actor who portrays Holmes, you also need to look at who they get to play Watson and the relationship that they have on screen. While Downey, Jr.'s Holmes isn't "canon", he and Law come close to something like the camaraderie in Doyle's books. You get that feeling resigned patience as he follows Holmes blindly into any number of schemes or when he's being used as a prop in one of Holmes' investigations.

But I think that Cumberbatch and Freeman are the best I've ever seen. Freeman's Watson doesn't come across as a complete idiot (he's an army medical doctor for goodness sake, he lacks imagination, not intelligence), and he really gets the "I'm game for anything" mentality and the loyal heart that Watson has in the books. Watson is the one who sees and recognizes Holmes genius and as such allows the reader to recognize it as well. He grounds Holmes in reality. While it doesn't happen all the time, Holmes does listen to Watson. I think we forget a lot of the times that without Watson, Holmes would undoubtedly overdosed on cocaine at some point or another, and his collection of cases would have been much, much smaller.

So while his role is smaller, I would suggest that the characterization of Watson is just as important as Holmes'.
Teresa Jusino
24. TeresaJusino
I LOVE Cumberbatch. But also wish there were a way to inject a little of the "action hero-ness" of RDJ. I love that, because it's done in a way that makes sense. RDJ's Holmes isn't a muscle-bound, Stallone-esque action hero - he uses his BRAIN to fight by calculating his moves using the info around him. I love that!

But Cumberbatch distills all of Sherlock's traits in a way that makes sense to me. That, and he's hot. ;)
Barb in Maryland
25. Rufus
Brett. Case Closed.

One caveat: his mental and physical health problems were not caused by playing Holmes (well apart from the stress of carrying an entire series learning tons of complicated lines when you are dyslexic). He had had them for some time and they simply became more pronounced as time went on.

@Lilith: I would say that, good as he undoubtedly is, Cumberbatch is playing a modern incarnation of Holmes, shaped by the social expectations of the 20th century - therefore a much pricklier, really quite unlikeable Holmes. Brett still nails the original article, hands down.
Barb in Maryland
26. Terry Wylis
I agree with the wise reader who pointed out the real magic is in the team of Holmes and Watson. Brett/Burke, and later Brett/Hardwicke, presented a Victorian Holmes/Watson in vivid and utterly believable glory.

The shifting of Watson's was very credible, because Edward Hardwicke chose to make it such -- one dismisses the physical differences in the light that Edward's Watson seems to be a man who has been without the other half of his soul for a long and heartbreaking two/three years. His wife has died as well, and he has nothing left that truly invigorates his soul. He tries, but the spark is gone from him. Until that one perfect moment in his consulting room when the spark comes back.

Haven't seen the second RDJ/JL movie yet, but it's a different world - more steampunk than anything. Which is fine, and they're very good on-screen together (and Law is a brilliant Watson - I would love to be able to twist time around and see today's Jude Law on the screen as Jereny Brett's Watson), but it's hard to compare.

Comparing Brett and Cumberbatch is also difficult simply because you're comparing an Edwardian universe to a modern one. "Gentlemen" are no longer necessarily expected to behave a certain way in public (which is why the tabloids have a field day). So yes, a modern and somewhat younger Holmes is bound to be far pricklier -- we all are. He's brilliant, he's gotten flak for being who he is all his life because it offends people to have their "secrets" spilled at the breakfast table, the police hate him because he sees things they don't (without any of their formal training), and he doesn't apologize for any of it. He is himself.

I think he's incredibly believable - and the isolation of this great mind that nobody around him really understands is a quality Cunberbatch plays to perfection. You may not like Holmes, but you can relate to him.

And again a plug for Watson -- Martin Freeman is absolutely brilliant as the good doctor. He's not overly social himself, even though he does know "how to behave in polite company," he's empty inside until this completely mad individual grabs hold of him and almost literally sucks the life back into him. No wonder he's willing to put up with, and on occasion apologize for, Sherlock's rudeness and superiority.

So if I have to actually rank them, Brett and Cumberbatch tie for first.
Barb in Maryland
27. T D McKinney
I have been addicted to Sherlock Holmes since I first read the canon at age ten or so. When I saw Jeremy Brett as Holmes it was as though someone had pluck the character from inside my head and placed him on film. That has not changed. When I read Doyle or set out to write a new novel, Mr. Brett is still Sherlock Holmes to me. Always will be.

That said, Benedict Cumberbatch is doing an absolutely stellar job. His Holmes is wonderful and perfectly suited to the 21st century. He, Steven Moffat, and Mark Gatiss deserve every accolade they have received for SHERLOCK.

So for me, Brett and then Cumberbatch. None of the others even come close.

To the discussion of Watson: I completely agree – Watson makes or breaks Holmes. I cannot watch the Rathbone movies because I want to fling something breakable at his Watson. Jude Law, however, makes me want to watch the Robert Downey, Jr. movies multiple times. Mr. Downey is watchable but not something to get overly excited about. I think of him as “Action Hero Holmes.” I do think his performance in the second movie is much more…Holmesian. Mr. Law may be the closest to canon Watson there ever has been. Edward Hardwicke is marvelous and David Burke is MY Watson. Martin Freeman is a wonder and only misses looking like Watson to be perfection.
Barb in Maryland
28. Adena
Jeremy Brett. Always and forever.
To me, accuracy to the character is even more important than accuracy to the text, and somehow the Granada series manages both. In my humble opinion, Jeremy Brett is the best Sherlock Holmes, as David Burke and Edward Hardwicke are the best John Watson.
For the second place...
I would choose Peter Cushing, and Benedict Cumberbatch (at least from the three first episodes of Sherlock available to date).
Then Robert Downey Jr. and maybe Vasily Livanov.
Barb in Maryland
29. tigeraid
Granted I had only watched the Brett version when I was pretty young, but I'll go against the Haters and say RDJ is "my" Holmes.

Because I DID read a lot of Holmes, and what you said sums it up nicely:


This is closer to what Conan Doyle intended; a messy addict who happens to be more brilliant than everyone around him.

Whenever I watched ANY version of Holmes (including the others you didn't put in your list--Jonathan Pryce comes to mind), I always had the little voice in the back of my head saying "shouldn't he be a bit more of an ass? A bit more eccentric? A bit more incorrigible?"

And Downey brought that to the role. I always felt people around here "barely tolerated what a douche he was" because he was so brilliant. And that's what the RDJ movies have done for me. Regardless of little plot holes or how faithful they were to the settings and stories of the books. For me, the FEELING of Holmes was there for the first time.
Barb in Maryland
30. S. E. Dahlinger
For the record, Mr. Gillette did not wear a cape in the play Sherlock Holmes, nor was he ever depicted in any of the famous photos by Sarony or Byron wearing one. "Elementary, my dear Watson," was not uttered by him in either that play or in a variously titled curtain-raiser he wrote called, "The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes." Probably the best acting job in the play after Gillette was by the amazing John Wood, who appeared both in London and in the States in the RSC revival.
Barb in Maryland
31. Eliss
Benedict Cumberbatch is my favourite to date. I actually just finished watching BBC's Sherlock A Scandal in Belgravia for a second time today.
Barb in Maryland
32. jharris22586
Rathbone. But I like Cumberbatch a lot too...
Barb in Maryland
33. tim1724
When I read the books, Jeremy Brett is the one I picture in my mind. Whether that's because I grew up watching his work in the '80s or whether it's because his versions are so close to the text, I'm not sure.

I do love the Cumberbatch interpretation of Holmes, but I don't think he'll displace Jeremy Brett as "my" Holmes. (Very much like Doctor Who … I still tend to picture the Doctor as Tom Baker, although Tennent came pretty damn close to edging out #4. Although at this point my inner picture of the Doctor might be drifting more towards Tennent wearing Baker's scarf over Davison's cricket outfit and carrying McCoy's umbrella while driving Pertwee's Bessy…)
Barb in Maryland
34. Sherli
Vasily Livanov forever
Barb in Maryland
35. Tripleransom
Can I just say that I adore Ronald Howard as Holmes in the 1954 TV series "Sherlock Holmes"? H. Marion Crawford does a great job as Watson, too. I love how exasperated his Watson gets with Holmes and their meet-up scene from STUD is perfect. Granted that the series was shot on a tiny budget and 26 minutes per episode is not a lot of time to develop a story or work on a lot of character development, but still, it's great fun.

That said, Jeremy Brett defines Holmes for me and always will. Too bad the role didn't come along when he was a little younger. If it had, Brett would have had 'em swooning in the aisles for sure. I too wish that we could timeswap Jude Law in with him. Now, that would be truly be the best of all possible worlds!
Barb in Maryland
36. NYJ
"This is closer to what Conan Doyle intended; a messy addict who happens to be more brilliant than everyone around him."

Mmmm...no. Have YOU read the books? RDJ is a fantastic actor but the is not ACD's Holmes. Period.

Always clean, possessing a "cat-like sense of personal cleanliness" is what Doyle 'intended'.
Barb in Maryland
37. Tehanu
I have to put in my 2 cents for Christopher Plummer as Holmes and the great, great James Mason as Watson, in the movie "Murder by Decree" which dates from 1979. Mason's Watson is rather on the dim side but it's JAMES MASON so .... And in general, I agree with those who point out that Holmes isn't Holmes properly without Watson, so that pretty much puts Cumberbatch & Freeman up front. Jeremy Brett was brilliant but Edward Hardwicke, alas, wasn't.
Barb in Maryland
38. ??????
I don't know...for me Sherlock Holmes - Vasily Livanov or Jeremy Brett, Watson - Vitaly Solomin
Barb in Maryland
39. Tony Az
Brett is Holmes, and Holmes is Brett!

I do like and follow the new series with Benedict, but that's because I'm a Sherlock addict. But let's be fair, he really does a great job, and so does his Watson.

The show is actually very moody and the cast adds quality to it. Congratulations.

But man, do I miss "my Jeremy"! His heritage lives on. What a genius.

As for the others, I always had a soft spot for Peter Cushing, and all his "minor" characters he portrayed over his career. I also am very fond of Mr. Downey's work, but the fact his, we are discussing the definitive Holmes.

I can never say enough good about the Granada show . What an epic for the true Conan Doyle aficionados.

Brett, Brett, Brett... that's where I place my bet.
Barb in Maryland
41. Tulpa
Not even a mention of Matt Frewer's Holmes? Oh wait, this is a "best" list, not a "worst" one. Carry on.

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