Sherlock Holmes is the most popular character in English literature, and the one most frequently portrayed in film history. More than seventy actors have played him in over 200 films and radio and TV series. Sometimes it seems that any actor in need of a hit just throws on an old deerstalker cap, lights up a pipe, grabs a fiddle, and voila! Instant Holmes. As a result, there have been plenty of awful Holmeses, with more sure to come. However, the supreme impersonators of that contradictory, fascinating character are a joy to watch.
Some criteria clearly aid an actor in becoming a great Holmes. First, he must be English – sorry, Robert Downey Jr. Holmes has that unmistakable British anal retentiveness that Americans just can’t get right. He must be well-spoken; nearly all the actors on this list were or are superb Shakespearean actors as well. He must be pale – sorry, George Hamilton. And cadaverous – sorry, Verne Troyer. He must be arrogant and intelligent, or be able to feign those qualities well. And he must be a bit of a romantic at heart. Despite the stereotype of Holmes as a thinking machine, devoid of emotion, Holmes as written is extremely passionate — about his work, if nothing else — and capable of flights of theatrical fancy. He is a crusader for justice, a proto-superhero without tights or mask.
Above all, he can conjure sense from nonsense, and derive causation, intent and effect from a jumble of seemingly unrelated phenomena – a gift each of us has wished for at one time or another. He’s our smart friend, our explainer, our righter of wrongs, a beacon of logic in a terrifyingly random world. In honor of the Sherlock Holmes celebrated at a new exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, here are the ten best portrayals of Sherlock Holmes.
10) Robert Stephens, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
By far the most arch and sarcastic Holmes. Robert Stephens was a brilliant Shakespearean actor, seen as the natural successor to Laurence Olivier until drinking and other problems sidelined him in the mid-1970s. (He did come roaring back at the end of his career with a memorable Falstaff and Lear.) The great writer/director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity) loved Holmes, and his 300-minute rough cut was evidently an epic, episodic, parodic film salute. Then the studio cut it to 125 minutes, and casually tossed the excess, and now no reconstruction is possible; what remains are fragments of an entertaining romp. Stephens is so powdered and rouged that he looks more like Oscar Wilde than Holmes, but the casually acid stream of comments he utters throughout are priceless. Mark Gatiss cited it as an inspiration for his Sherlock reboot with Benedict Cumberbatch (#3 on the list).
9) John Gielgud, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1954-'55)
The most intelligent speaker of English in the twentieth century besides Winston Churchill, Shakespearean giant John Gielgud was a natural as Holmes. His rich, crisp diction is hypnotic, and he is perfectly self-assured in the role. His Dr. Watson? One of other great Shakespearean actors of the time, Ralph Richardson. (His Professor Moriarty? Orson Welles.) Produced impeccably by Gielgud’s brother Val, this series is remarkably faithful to the original stories, and the next-best thing to having reading them aloud to you.
8) Ian Richardson, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Sign of Four (1983)
He’s best known for the TV ad in which he asks for Grey Poupon, but Ian Richardson was another expert Shakespearean (see a trend here?). He comes the closest to resembling the original Sidney Paget illustrations of the character, and he’s a positively chipper, can-do kind of Holmes. Only two of six projected films were made; the project conflicted with the Granada TV series that featured Jeremy Brett (#2 on our list). Richardson’s finest broadcast hour came later, as the scheming politician at the dark heart of the original, English-made House of Cards series.
7) Nicol Williamson, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)
Nicol Williamson was a surly force of nature, on stage and off. He’s the perfect choice for a non-standard Holmes, based on the Holmes pastiche novel penned by Nicholas Meyer, whose credible fabrication of Conan Doyle unfortunately triggered a landslide of worse ones. In it, Holmes is a raging cokehead, paranoid and violent. His patient friend Watson (Robert Duvalll!?) takes him to Vienna for treatment by a young Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Complications ensue. Throughout, Williamson plays Holmes as a spleenful neurotic with scene-chewing fervor. With Laurence Olivier as Moriarty. Uneven, but fun.
6) Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree (1979)
Holmes as matinee idol. Christopher Plummer can’t help being jut-jawed and dashing, so his Holmes is as well. By far the closest Holmes came to Action Hero until Robert Downey Jr. showed up. Murder by Decree is the second film to pit Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it’s distinguished by the direction of sometimes-brilliant Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Black Christmas). With James Mason as Watson. Most intriguing is the idea of a Ripper government cover-up conspiracy, a concept that would later fuel Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell’s landmark graphic novel From Hell.
5) Vasily Livanov, various Russian TV movies (1979-1986)
Who? This Russian actor is regarded by many Holmesians as the best screen incarnation of the detective, and these shows were the most-watched in Soviet history. In fact, Vasily Livanov was so good that Britain paid his performance tribute by giving him an unprecedented honorary MBE. Thanks to the magic of the digital age, we can enjoy his work, with subtitles, online – he is intelligent, self-possessed and compassionate. The production values are top-notch, although little Russian tonal miscues here and there break the spell. That, and everyone’s speaking Russian.
4) Peter Cushing, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)
The famous horror star might seem an unlikely Holmes, but he could project focus and intensity like few actors onscreen, and his Holmes has a laser gaze, and flair to spare. This first color version of The Hound was made, appropriately, by Hammer Studios, noted for their vivid, blood-drenched horror films. Fellow horror icon Christopher Lee plays young Sir Henry Baskerville. It being a Hammer film, it’s even a bit sexy (bosomy ladies in danger!). Cushing would later play Holmes in one season of BBC TV, but it was not up to par and he disavowed it.
3) Benedict Cumberbatch¸ Sherlock (BBC TV, 2010 to present)
The new kid on the block is completely captivating as a young, contemporary Holmes in a ongoing series of updated, innovative and mutated post=modern Holmes TV adventures. True, Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit of the flavor of the month, and evidently sets many hearts aflutter. Holmes as heartthrob? Whatever. Cumberbatch makes Holmes his twitchy own, and Martin Freeman is by far the best Watson to date. Supremely intelligent writing places this Holmes in a category by himself.
2) Jeremy Brett, Sherlock Holmes (Four ITV Granada series, 1984 to 1994)
The definitive canonical Holmes, Jeremy Brett’s portrayal was part of an effort to record every adventure as faithfully as possible. Mission accomplished. Brett consumed himself with the study of Holmes, calling it a more difficult role to play than Hamlet or Macbeth and compiling a 77-page “Bible” that detailed the character completely. His efforts result in a peculiar, spidery, manic-depressive Holmes – not unlike Brett himself, who kept performing despite a severe struggle with bipolar disorder. His exacting professionalism lives on in every episode. His is a pain-wracked, haunted, tragic Holmes.
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1) Basil Rathbone, fourteen films (1939-1946); The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (NBC Radio, 1939-1946)
Okay, okay. Certainly, pretty much none of the films or radio shows that Basil Rathbone starred in as the Champion of Ratiocination bear much, if any, resemblance to the original stories. In fact, his was the first time-shifted Holmes (the studio thought it would be cool if he fought Nazis. It was). Initially overjoyed to play Holmes after being the go-to villain in countless Hollywood films, Rathbone wound up being distressed over being typecast, quit the series, went back to Broadway, and promptly won a Tony. So there. He was saddled with terrible scripts and a bumbling Watson played for laughs, but . . . dammit, his performance imprinted itself on more than one generation, thanks in large part to countless reruns. He simply is Sherlock Holmes.
The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes opens at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, on Friday, October 23, and runs through January 31, 2016. For tickets and information, visit dmns.org.