Like Robin Hood, Ebeneezer Scrooge and Ichabod Crane, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is another literary heavyweight with a lengthy filmography. Holmes is not only a captivating character, but is widely credited with influencing today’s use of forensic sciences.
The first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study In Scarlet was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887, when Conan Doyle was twenty-eight. Holmes was based on one of Conan Doyle’s teachers, surgeon Joseph Bell, who had amazing powers of observation. The book wasn’t an instant sensation, but as more stories were published it built its audience. However, while readers loved the character, Conan Doyle wasn’t crazy about Holmes and dreamed of ousting him. The one time he tried to do away with his signature character, the public wouldn’t hear of it. Not even Conan Doyle’s mother wanted Holmes to die. Conan Doyle tried to get out of writing more Sherlock stories by raising his publishing fees, but all it did was make him richer. Sixty Sherlock Holmes stories were published during Conan Doyle’s lifetime.
Fans are still protective of the peerless detective, with societies and clubs around the world devoted to all things Sherlock. It’s sort of akin to being a Trekkie, except that no one speaks Klingon. There are approximations of 221B Baker Street in various locales, the most complete being the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.
Naturally, Holmes’ filmography is long and diverse, spanning every entertainment medium. There was no way to pick just one, so in a nod to the fandom, I thought I’d do a totes scientific Twitter poll to see which portrayal was the most popular among those responding.
And oh muh word. My Mentions be like…
Oh yes. People were enthusiastic and helpful, picking everyone from Jeremy Brett to Peter Cushing to Ronald Howard to Köichi Yamadera. A couple of responses (Howard Ostrom, for one) even mentioned that there’s a Sherlock Holmes ballet.
In order to keep things manageable, I thought I’d only go into detail about thirteen Sherlock favorites, with popularity and novelty as the determining factors. The write-in choices are represented with the number of votes, while the four suggested Sherlocks have percentages. Everyone else gets an Honorable Mention, with some names linking to more info. Soooo, without further ado, here’s our gallery of Sherlocks.
- Douglas Wilmer
- Ian Richardson
- Christopher Plummer
- Kevin McCarthy
- Basil the Great Mouse Detective
- Will Ferrell
- Köichi Yamadera
- Nicol Williamson
- Ian McKellen
- Robert Stephens
- Ronald Howard
- John Barrymore
- Paul Chuckle
- Nicholas Rowe
- Arthur Wonter
- Paxton Whitehead
- Michael Cain
- Larry Hagman
Hope I didn’t miss anyone. Onward…
The Baker Street Baker’s Dozen
13. Sir Kenneth Macmillan (1 vote)
Again, yes, there’s a Sherlock Holmes ballet. How that would work with such a dialogue-heavy series is a bit of a headscratcher, but work it did. Sir Kenneth Macmillan played our title character in Margaret Dale‘s 1953 production of The Great Detective. The ballet gave a great career boost to Macmillan, who would go on to be a respected choreographer.
12. Data (aka Brent Spiner) (1 vote)
Oh, the wackiness to be had on a Starship Holodeck. In “Elementary, My Dear Data,” the third Season Two episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Commander Data (Brent Spiner) dons Holmes’s deerstalker with delightful results. Unfortunately, things got out of hand, and Picard had to disable the program. Derp. The ban wasn’t for good, though, as Data once again played Holmes in a later episode, “Ship In A Bottle.”
11. Yûko Takeuchi (2 votes)
Not only has Japan given the world Köichi Yamadera as Holmes, but Yûko Takeuchi, who puts her own spin on the character in the HBO series, Miss Sherlock. “Sherlock” is a nickname in this case, though, for police consultant Sara Shelly Futaba, and the series is set in the modern day. I’ve yet to see this one as I don’t have HBO, but it looks intriguing.
10. Clive Merrison (3 votes)
The Brits have an edge on Americans in terms of entertainment diversity, because TV in the UK didn’t kill the radio star. Clive Merrison starred as Sherlock Holmes for BBC Radio between 1989 and 1998, and has the distinction of being the only Sherlock to play the role in all sixty stories. According to the show’s official site, the producers found ways to add touches of Victorian authenticity, including utilizing a hansom cab (pulled by a very gassy horse, by the way) to simulate the sounds of a nineteenth-century London street. The show is still broadcast on the BBC Radio Archive and widely available on CD. Several episodes can be found on the Internet Archive as well.
9. William Gillette (3 votes)
Simply put, stage actor William Gillette was the Bela Lugosi of the Sherlock Holmes universe in terms of extra-canonical elements and props not yet used by actors playing the character. He was the first actor to wear the deerstalker. Holmes’s curved pipe was his idea, because it was easier to read lines with a curved pipe. “Elementary, my dear Watson” was Gillette’s idea too. Gillette, who was personally cast by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, first played the role in the theater in 1899 at the age of forty-six, and reprised the character approximately 1,300 times, off and on between 1899 and 1932. Even when he was touring other shows, audiences would clamor for a performance of Sherlock Holmes. Watch a clip of Gillette as Holmes here.
8. Eille Norwood (4 votes)
Several people have recommended Eille Norwood to me as an excellent Holmes (and just so we’re all on the same page, his name is pronounced Eye-lee), and they’re right. Norwood played Sherlock from 1921 to 1923 in a series of films for Stoll Pictures, basing his portrayal on Sidney Paget’s illustrations. One of Norwood’s biggest fans was one Sir Arthur himself, who deemed Norwood’s Holmes an “extraordinarily clever personation.” High praise, indeed. Having seen some of Norwood’s work on YouTube, I can say it’s a shame that he isn’t more well-known. He’s a master of disguise, he’s steely-eyed, and he learned to play the violin for the part. The purist crowd will like this guy.
7. Vasily Livanov (6 votes)
Another favorite is Vasily Livanov, who played Sherlock Holmes in Russia from 1979 until 1985. Livanov is primarily a voice actor, but he made an able, very true Holmes. The show looks surprisingly polished, as Cold War-era Russian shows were notorious for their poor quality. Livanov’s turn was so well-received that he was awarded an honorary MBE in 2006. Then in 2007, a statue of Livanov and his costar, Vitaly Solomin was erected outside the United Kingdom Embassy in Moscow. See a sample of Livanov’s work here, and a Russian newscast about his visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum here.
6. Jonny Lee Miller (8 votes)
Jonny Lee Miller is also well-loved–I forget how many people asked me why I left him off the poll. Miller doesn’t need much of an introduction, as his series, Elementary is hugely popular. Also set in the modern day, it follows Sherlock Holmes as a recovering addict and former Scotland Yard consultant. Some would argue that it’s even better than the Benedict Cumberbatch series, as its Holmes seems much more fleshed out and the dynamic more natural. I like that the series thought outside the box a little bit by making Watson a woman, played by Lucy Liu. By necessity because American TV is wacky about story arcs, Elementary very loosely adheres to Conan Doyle’s original stories, but Miller still approximates Holmes.
5. Peter Cushing (10 votes)
I knew Cushing would get a lot of votes. Not as many as I thought, but not too shabby, either. Peter Cushing first played Sherlock in 1959 for the Hammer Films production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then in 1968 for the the BBC series, replacing Douglas Wilmer. Cushing was a big fan of the Conan Doyle stories, but found the BBC show to be hectic and the directors of inconsistent quality. Some of the clothing colors are also rather garish for Victorian era men’s clothing–Holmes’ dressing gown is bright blue, for example, when he probably should have worn burgundy or navy. Still, Cushing’s Holmes is very distinguished and accurate to the source material. Those who are most familiar with Cushing as Governor Tarkin will be in for a treat. See his version of “The Blue Carbuncle” here.
4. Robert Downey, Jr. (10 percent)
A lot of responders think RDJ is not Sherlock Holmes, and I happen to agree, but he did get 226 votes so here he is. His version of Sherlock is more action-oriented than cerebrally-oriented which, of course is the style of our time, and the prevailing opinion among critics is that the films are mixed bags. However, as the cliche goes, to each their own, and Downey is definitely a decent actor. I just like him better as Iron Man.
3. Basil Rathbone (20 percent)
Ah, the great Basil Rathbone. He not only played Sherlock in fourteen movies between 1939 and 1946, but also on the radio from 1938 until 1946. His versions of the stories weren’t terribly close to Conan Doyle’s originals, and Nigel Bruce’s performance as Watson tends to divide fans, but Rathbone became the character for a lot of people. Several responders to my poll mentioned that they had fond memories of watching Rathbone as Holmes.
Rathbone’s Holmes was a time traveler. His first films for 20th Century Fox were set in the Victorian era, while the later ones for Universal were set in the modern era. Since the war was on, it conveniently gave Universal another hero to pit against the Nazis and boost public morale.
According to the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia, Rathbone hated being typecast as Holmes and did everything he could to distance himself from the character. It’s understandable, but it speaks to Rathbone’s acting abilities that he is still identified today with the great detective. Watch Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon here.
2. Jeremy Brett (21 percent)
I’ll be honest: I thought Jeremy Brett was going to bury the competition, or at least tie with Basil Rathbone. For countless Holmes fans out there, Brett is Sherlock Holmes, and the word most often used to describe his portrayal is “canon.” Brett’s performance is multi-layered; he communicates Holmes’s inscrutability while throwing in a hint of humor and fun. It’s not easy to twinkle merrily while projecting laserlike focus and thoughtful depth.
Purists often call Brett’s show “the Granada series” by way of shorthand because Granada Television produced it, and each episode is unfailingly true to Conan Doyle’s vision. According to Brett’s obituary, the Granada series wasn’t his first foray into the Sherlock Holmes universe; that was in 1981 when he was Watson in the stage production of “The Crucifer of Blood,” opposite Charlton Heston.
Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes on the Granada series between 1984 and 1995, and like Clive Merrison, intended to film all sixty stories. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated, and his presence on the show became less and less, to the point that Brett directed Watson in solving cases, heard via narration. It does hurt the later episodes, but Brett’s overall legacy remains intact. If anyone hasn’t seen Jeremy Brett as Sherlock, I can’t recommend him highly enough. The Granada series is available on DVD as well as on YouTube (see my favorite episode, “The Copper Beeches” here).
1. Benedict Cumberbatch (49 percent)
The dark horse winner of our little poll, at least for the purists, Cumberbatch played Holmes on the BBC series, Sherlock, a contemporary retelling of Conan Doyle’s work. Personally, I believe the show had its good and not-so-good points. It was a clever idea to make Watson a blogger, as this is a widely accepted platform for writers to present their work to the public (heh heh). Cumberbatch is a competent Holmes, with all the necessary intensity and enigmatic energy. Fun fact: Cumberbatch modeled his Holmes on Jeremy Brett’s version as a tribute to Brett’s mastery of the character.
However, where the series falls short is this: Sherlock Holmes is very Victorian. In order for that to work in a modern setting, what audiences have loved about the stories has to be heavily manipulated and tweaked, sometimes to the point of non-existence. It also adds unnecessary baggage. I don’t know about anyone else, but it feels like Holmes and Watson get asked in every episode if they’re gay, at least in the first season. We get it. They’re straight. Move on, people. Let the characters breathe.
On the plus side, and this is a big one, the series has gotten people to read the original Conan Doyle stories and that’s awesome.
Yipes, that’s a lot of Sherlocks (See more here). Conan Doyle may have been “meh” about Holmes, but judging by the plethora of adaptations there have been over the decades, there’s little chance our super sleuth is going away anytime soon.
Thanks heaps to everyone who contributed to my poll, and I hope you’ll check back tomorrow for another “Origins” post…
14 thoughts on “Page To Screen: Sherlock Holmes”
Thanks for the lovely mentions for my posts. Go you for such a phenomenal final response to your poll and good to see Robert Downey Jnr made it to the Top 5!
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Thanks, Gill! I was shocked, really. Last time I did a poll I got one vote, lol. And you’re welcome–they were so interesting. 🙂
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Polls can be a bit hit and miss, but well done again for striking gold.
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Thanks, Gill! Glad you could contribute.
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Cumberbatch, eh? H’m. I guess all the Wontner fans were offline that day.
Quite a Herculean task you gave yourself with a look at Sherlock. It seems we all find the great detective irresistible.
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I think we do, and yep, I had no idea people would get that enthusiastic. I thought Brett was going to win, myself.
Thank you for doing this, Rebecca. I’m happy that Arthur Wonter got an honorable mention. I think Brett should have won, but that is probably a function of my age. I’m going to share this with the Peter Cushing fan club.
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Aw, thank you, Joe! That’s nice of you.
What a fun poll! I voted Cumberbatch, mostly because its the version I’m most familiar with. Like you mentioned in the post, the show “Sherlock” actually did inspire me to go back and read the original stories, so bonus points there.
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Thanks, Julia! And that’s great–Conan Doyle is gripping.
I never knew about the Sherlock ballet! I guess there are no limits for the detective, right?
I also didn’t know Cumberbatch modeled his Sherlock over Brett’s. I guess I’ll have to look for more of the latter’s filmif I want to solve this case!
Thanks for mention!
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You’re very welcome, Le! And yeah, the ballet thing blew me away, too. 🙂