A roaring success since their literary debut 127 years ago today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first appeared on film in a 1900 one-reel called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. He is undoubtedly the first thing that comes to mind when someone utters the word “detective.” Tall, lanky and cerebral, Holmes has thrilled the world with his daring exploits and his almost supernatural deductions since his first novel, A Study in Scarlet. Usually accompanied by his friend and biographer Dr. John Watson, Holmes embodies the eccentric efficiency of the British academic of the Victorian era. Currently, Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Holmes on BBC’s Sherlock) is the best Holmes in the world, but he’s hardly the best in history.
1. William Gillette
Few have done more to shape the popular perception of Holmes than Gillette, a Connecticut-born stage actor and playwright who first started portraying Holmes in 1899. Gillette’s debut as Sherlock Holmes was in the four-act production simply entitled Sherlock Holmes, which was co-written by Gillette and Doyle. Playing Holmes as the Yankee ideal, Gillette is credited with both introducing the curved calabash pipe to the character (in the original stories Holmes smokes straight pipes made out of briar, clay and cherry), as well as being the source of the famous quote “Elementary, my dear Watson.” In his time, Gillette was an international celebrity, and more than any other actor, his alterations and mannerisms helped to define the character of Holmes.
2. Basil Rathbone
While Gillette may have been the best all-around actor to ever portray Holmes, Rathbone, a South African by birth but an Englishman by parentage, was the most popular. Between 1939 and 1946, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (who did untold damage to the legacy of Dr. Watson by playing him as an old buffoon) starred in a staggering 14 films for 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios. For the most part, the Rathbone and Bruce films are set in contemporary London, and as such, their adversaries include femme fatales, Nazis and a chameleon-like Professor Moriarty. While thoroughly campy and sometimes ridiculous, these films expertly capture the prewar, war and postwar attitudes of the Transatlantic public. The best one of the bunch — 1946’s Terror by Night — places Holmes and Watson in situation worthy of an Agatha Christie novel.
3. Peter Cushing
Best known today for his portrayal of Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV, Cushing was a veteran actor whose career lasted four decades. In the 1950s, Cushing first gained international fame for his ability to play both good and bad guys in productions such as 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein (where he played Baron Von Frankenstein) and 1958’s Horror of Dracula (where he played Dr. Abraham Van Helsing). In 1959, Cushing and his friend Christopher Lee teamed up in The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing playing Holmes and Lee playing Sir Henry Baskerville. As the first adaptation to be filmed in color, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the very best Sherlock films, and much of this success is due to Cushing (a real-life aficionado of Holmes) and his gentlemanly posture.
4. Vasily Livanov
For his portrayal of Holmes, Livanov was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire — high praise for a man in Soviet Russia. Between 1979 and 1986, Livanov and Vitaly Solomin portrayed the legendary detective duo in a Russian language series of made-for-television films. Owing to the success of the TV movies, Livanov and Solomin also made a standalone feature film in 1986 entitled The Twentieth Century Approaches. Little known outside of Russia, Livanov is a Russian hero of sorts, and a bust of his likeness can be found on the grounds of the British embassy in Moscow.
5. Jeremy Brett
No actor ever looked more like Holmes than Brett. In fact, if you were to compare Brett to the Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied Doyle’s original stories, you might start believing in time travel. Although he only portrayed Holmes for 10 years (1984 to 1994), the prolific Brett has left an indelible legacy on the character. In fact, many Holmes enthusiasts and scholars point to the Granada Television films that starred Brett and Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson as the single best adaptations of Doyle’s work. Brett often said that playing Holmes was the hardest challenge of his career, and watching him age and weaken throughout the series is a testament to such dedication. Tragically, Brett died in 1995 as a result of his scarred heart valves, thus depriving the world of more brilliant performances.
Oddly enough, while France has Inspector Maigret and the U.S. has two-fisted P.I.s like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, Holmes, an eminently English personality, belongs to the world. This isn’t just hyperbole; it was made legally binding when a U.S. district judge ruled earlier this year that Holmes and Watson belong in the public domain. Adaptations now have the green light, and it will be interesting to see what 2014 brings to the world of Sherlockania.
If the past is any indication, then expect the silver and small screens to be even more littered with pipes and deerstalkers than they already are. Many actors will try their hand at playing the manic and often erratic detective, but few will find that right mixture of authenticity and unique touch.
Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.
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