Sherlock Holmes Actors

Who were the best Sherlock Holmes actors, and how do they compare to Doyle's original character?

Who Were the Best Sherlock Holmes Actors?

More actors have portrayed Sherlock than any other literary character - quite a recognition of Doyle's detective. But who was the best? And as the next generation of Sherlock fans reach for the remote, who should they watch?

The Perfect Sherlock Holmes Actor

If we could form the absolutely perfect actor for Sherlock, it would be a hybrid between the three favorites below: We'll give you the reason for this assessment below, as well as strengths and flaws of other major players in the field. (Sorry, we can't do all two thousand plus actors.)


#1 Jeremy Brett

Sherlock Holmes Actor Jeremy Brett
1933-1995

Jeremy Brett's name consistently comes to the top when discussing the best Sherlock Holmes actors for three major reasons.

Details of the Studious Actor

Brett's performance includes attention to detail achieved by no other, probably because he studied the text like no other. For one single example, in the Bruce Partington Plans the text states he was restless with weather-induced cabin fever "biting his nails." That's the only reference I can think of to Holmes' nail-biting. In Grenada's production of that story, you see the character nervously biting his nails as he paces up and down in the opening scene. Brett is the actor that best reflects the verbs and adjectives carefully chosen by Doyle.

Moods and Complex Personality

Here is where Jeremy Brett's performance soars. Holmes was a complex character, not the one-sided austere silhouette usually portrayed. Yes, he was an aloof, cool figure. But he was human. He had moods. (Oy, did he have moods!) A major literary feature of the Sherlock Holmes stories is Watson's achievement of understanding the complexity of the detached detective.

Holmes-a-la-Brett achieves this goal. He doesn't just think and talk. He responds. His range of reactions include humor, disgust, surprise, annoyance, even jealousy. With a raised eye brow, a chuckle, or a deep sigh Brett makes Holmes human.

Beyond his reactions to his surroundings, Jeremy Brett also renders the inner moods of his character. Excitement, depression, callous disregard, solemn meditation are reproduced from the book to the screen.

The Stories Reflect the Original

Brett's authenticity is significantly enhanced by the fact that the Grenada writers sought to tell the story as it was written. They do embellish but largely remain true to the tales while interpreting them on film. (The few where they significantly deviate from the text are the episodes that are the least likeable.) Brett himself was reportedly involved in keeping the story-line close to the original - to which screen play writers and producers alike should be thanked.

Critiques of Jeremy Brett's Holmes

While Jeremy Brett has earned the #1 title as Best Sherlock Holmes Actor from many quarters, his performance is not flawless.

Rude

While I often snickered watching Holmes-by-Brett petulantly yell, "Mrs. HUDson" or abruptly open the door to his flat to indicate the visitor should leave immediately, these rude behaviors are not seen by our literary Holmes who is consistently the gentleman. Even Doyle's daughter in an interview acknowledged Brett as the greatest actor. (She said only Brett called her to invite her critique.) But she also noted that he was frequently rude unlike the Holmes penned by her father. In his effort to portray the darker, moody side of Sherlock, Brett deviated from his personality in this regard.

Anger

In addition to his rudeness, and underlying it, a simmering anger boils beneath the surface of Jeremy's Sherlock. The Original Sherlock is not a character that would intimidate a shy neighbor or young child (though neither would he attract them.) But Holmes-by-Brett is a bit intimidating and frequently his moodiness is expressed as anger far more frequently than the literary Holmes. (He did get angry at injustice and impatient with slowness, but was not an angry man per se.)

Age

None of us - actors included - can help how old we are. The Grenada series began in 1984 and the 51 year old Brett makes an admirable Holmes in his 30s. Oh that youth and good looks could last forever!

Ten years later the superb actor had passed the age of 60 and it showed. Indeed it is painful to watch the later shows and observe a man whose illness was ending his career and his life. With 19 stories unfilmed, the actor had to resign his contract and died a year later. He is still missed.

At their rate of 40 stories in ten years the producers would have completed the sixty story canon in five more years. It is a loss to Sherlock fans everywhere that it wasn't completed. If only they could have started five or ten years earlier when the favored performer was in his prime!

Finish the Grenada Series????

This is wishful thinking on my part, but it would be great if the screen-plays of the other 19 unfilmed stories could be resurrected and performed. It wasn't done in the 1990's because Brett's popularity was so strong no one else would have been accepted by the public. But the availability of the real stories in film version is highly desirable for the modern Holmes-reader. Is there anyone out there that can make that happen?

#2 Benedict Cumberbatch

Sherlock Holmes Actor Benedict Cumberbatch

To many in the younger generation, Cumberbatch is The face of Sherlock Holmes. This popular BBC series began in 2010 and twists the original stories into a modern soap opera. The contemporary setting adds a fresh interpretation to old narratives and Cumberbatch is a more responsive Holmes than his older counterparts - acting not rehearsing lines. He achieves Doyle's goal of showing how the detective deducted his solutions by quickly rehearsing the facts that led to his conclusions. These mini-performances do portray the "high quick voice" of Holmes-the-original (description from The Adventure of the Cardboard Box.) But sometimes these sound too much like a rehearsal than a logical conclusion.

Another strength of Cumberbatch's execution is the complexity of the charater portrayed. With Cumberbatch, one senses the energy, strength and vitality behind the cold mask, a significant theatrical achievement. Holmes-by-Cumberbatch is not as emotional and responsive as Holmes-by-Brett, but nonetheless still portrays more of a round character than most actors.

Another assett of the series is the person of Dr. Watson as played by Martin Freeman. He is not the stiff, boring, middle-aged British man often portrayed but a distinct character that adds quality to the show. His "huh-what" reaction to Holmes' statements and behavior uniquely mirrors the perpetual surprise of Doyle's Watson.

Cumberbatch heightens the role of Holme's genius. He "knows" the background by looking at a client, instead of "deducing" it through logical thought as the literary Holmes always did. The genius of the detective contrasted with the surprise of Watson amplifies that aspect of their partnership.

Cumberbatch's Holmes is a quirky fellow. In fact, a criticsm might be that this Holmes is a quirk who happens to be a genius instead of a genius who happens to have some quirks.


#3 Doug Wilmer

1920 - 2016
Sherlock Holmes Actor Doug Wilmer

Doug Wilmer was the Sherlock actor in the 1964-65 BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes with Nigel Stock alongside as Dr. Watson. (The series later replaced Wilmer with Peter Cushing - see below - but kept Nigel Stock as Watson.)

Wilmer has the distinct advantage of having a face that matches the pictures drawn by Doyle's most prolific illustrator - Sydney Paget. Although Paget attempted to faithfully represent Doyle's descriptions, his drawings helped shaped the public image of Sherlock. In this capacity, Wilmer was probably the best Sherlock Holmes.

Wilmer also brought out the intelligent logician who sorted through clues to come to his conclusion. His sardonic smile reflected the written-Holmes and kept him at arm's length. Wilmer's was an intellectual, and not an emotional, performance.

Sherlockian film buffs may find it interesting that Wilmer also appeared in the 1975 movie Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother and in 2012 in Reichenbach Falls with Benedict Cumberbatch.


Peter Cushing

Peter Cushing starred as Sherlock in the second season of BBC's 1964-1968 Sherlock Holmes TV series. This series produced 29 of Sherlock stories. Most were half an hour in length.

Star War fans may recognize Peter Cushing for his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, the Death Star commander. In the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope his facial profile dominates the screen seconds before the explosion of the notorious Death Star. Of course, his role as Sherlock Holmes is a bit different than that of a military commander for the evil Republic.

So what authenticity does Cushing add to the Sherlockian hall-of-fame?

Cushing's sharply chiseled facial features reflect the cool, gray-eyed sleuth. Perhaps his profile best matches Doyle's description of Holmes' "clear cut, hawk-like features". (B. Sign Chapter 2) Cushing himself remains cool, aloof, without humor and low on personality.

This personality, of course, is that of Holmes-the-original; but one might say Cushing's bland personality is TOO bland. The low-humor Holmes DOES have personality, and certainly has moods. Not so Cushing - whose single mood is focused and direct.

Nonetheless when Cushing is on a case, one can visualize the cerebral wheels spinning as the detective investigates with Holmes-like precision.

We do give credit to BBC for their dramatization of the original stories. His co-actor, Nigel Stock, makes a reasonable Watson who also appeared with Doug Wilmer in the first season of this TV production.


Robert Stevens

1931-1995

Robert Stevens played Sherlock Holmes in a two hour 1970 film, The Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes. This case purports to be stored in Watson's tin box until 50 years after his death and is not from Doyle's work. It does extract many quotes about Sherlock from Doyle's original canon.

Stevens makes a plausible Holmes acting with Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson. He is detached, spits out a number of one-liners without a smile shadowing his face, and maintains mystery and mystique regarding his personal life. This, as the movie title indicates, is the driving force behind this film.

Without giving away too much info, one can say that there is tension between the possibility of Holmes as a homosexual (he hints at it to get out of the grasp of a conniving woman) and a straight man who has buried personal pain (he recalls a fiance who died before the wedding.)

So for those who want an extra-canonical movie exploring Holmes-inner personality, Stevens makes a great Sherlock. Add some humor, the Loch Ness monster, and Queen Victoria herself - as well as contrasts between the stories Watson published in The Strand magazine and how Holmes views himself.

And just for fun, my favorite line in the movie when Holmes and Watson hear voices downstairs:
Watson: Maybe Mrs. Hudson is entertaining.
Holmes: I never found her so.

Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey starred in the 2009 movie Sherlock Holmes and a sequel Game of Shadows. These are pastiches which include the most famous characters (Irene Adler, Mrs. Hudson, Mary Morstan, Moriarty etc.) in a plot that weaves a few of the Doyle's theads into it's own Victorian-era drama.

Robert Downey's major contribution, in my opinion, is that he does reflect the comic nature of Holmes better than most other actor-interpreters. Doyle's readers note the underlying humor and chuckle at Holmes and Watson. Holmes-by-Brett and Holmes-by-Cumberpatch both capture some of the humor.

But Downey's performance is primarily comic. One doesn't see the sense of justice, the logic and deduction, the kindness behind the mask as much as they snicker at the quipster of Holmes-by-Downey.

In fact a critque can be made that the performance is too comic and not one of interest to the serious Sherlockian fan. Neither Downey nor the Holmes he portrays can be taken too seriously.

In addition to his comic tone and authentic Victorian era, Downey gives us a believable and enjoyable Watson by the actor Jude Law. The Game of Shadows in particular, is an amusing addition for the Sherlock enthusiast.

Basil Rathbone

1892 - 1967

Sherlock Holmes Actor Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker Hat

There was a time when Basil Rathbone's name would likely have been the first to be suggested as the best Sherlock Holmes actor. That time ended when Jeremy Brett donned the black gloves and black top hat and showed the world what a reactive character Doyle created.

What made Rathbone such a popular Sherlock actor? He had made fourteen Sherlock films in seven years, beginning with the popular Hound of the Baskervilles. Rathbone can also be thanked for bringing Sherlock to the forefront of the non-reading, film-watching public. It is his use of the Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat that created the stereotype of detectives in such hats. (It's mentioned in the canon once.)

In spite of the popularity of these films, there are three severe problems that prevent his portrayal of the detective from earning top marks.

First and foremost, Bruce Nigel played Dr. Watson and did an incredible disservice to the entire series with his stupid and bungling demeanor. Since much of the public base their opinion on film rather than print, an entire generation thought Watson absolutely stupid. Yes, Watson is less intelligent and slow compared to the genius he assisted. But he was after-all a surgeon and a military officer. The Watson in the Rathbone films was way too dumb to do either of those things. It was neither Rathbone's or Nigel's fault that the screen-writers made him such an imbecile, but it reduces the value of the shows.

Second, other than The Hound of Baskervilles, all of the shows are pastiches (or take-offs) from Doyle's stories. Doyle really was better at writing Sherlock Holmes than anyone else.

Finally, the black and white films are outdated. (Though some recolored versions are available.) Again it is no reflection on the actors, times change and techniques improved. But as the next generation of Sherlock readers contemplate which of the many series to view, the lack of color is a deterrent.

While not recommending Rathbone as a top contender for the younger fans, it cannot be over-looked by any Sherlockian film buff that Basil Rathbone earned a significant place. His portrayal of the detective is actually enjoyable to watch particularly for those with a fondness for older black and white shows.

Charlton Heston

1923 - 2008

Charlton Heston is a great actor by all accounts, but the role of Sherlock Holmes just didn't bring out the best in him, nor he the best in Sherlock Holmes. The Crucifer In Blood is a 1991 movie based off The Sign of Four and played with Richard Johnson as a kind but dull-witted Watson. The most obvious flaw is the almost 70-year-old Heston playing the part of Holmes in his early career. The blossoming romance between the sixty-plus Watson and the young beautiful 20+ client doesn't come off naturally either. (We will give credit for an interesting twist on the original, however.)

Heston does make a plausible detective, carefully deciphering the clues, giving orders, trying to redirect Scotland Yard's Lestrade. His attempt to play the bored genius using cocaine is a fail; and the two aged partners arguing about it so late in life is unbelievable. In spite of that, the film is entertaining enough for those who want a fresh interpretation on a Doyle-original.

Will Ferrell

Q: What do you get when you cross an elf with Sherlock Holmes?

A: Not much.

Will Ferrell plays Sherlock with John Reilly as Watson in the 2018 film Holmes and Watson.

This movie is complete slapstick. It does have the actors playing in the correct Victorian era - complete with Queen Victoria. It also has the names of the characters from Doyle's writing. That's the closest it gets to the original stories.

This is basically a slapstick comedy with a Sherlock Holmes theme rather than a Sherlock Holmes movie. Not a film for the serious Sherlock scholar.


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Sherlock Holmes Pages

A catalog of our pages on Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes: The Unit Study Sherlock Holmes Unit Study
Our 183 Page Unit Study
of 8 popular stories - great for Middle & High School
Adventure of the Speckled Band Speckled Band
Analyze the compelling mystery of the dangerous whistle in the night in this famous who-dunn-it.
Silver
Blaze
Silver Blaze
Uncover the who, the where, and the why of a murdered man and missing horse.
The Red Headed League Red Headed League
Evaluate how Doyle turned a silly-looking prank into a serious international crime.
Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb Engineers Thumb
Assess if this strange tale is one of Doyle's best - or worst - stories.
The
Crooked Man
Crooked Man
Analyze who the truly crooked man is in this twisted tale of love and betrayal.
Scandal
in Bohemia
Scandal in Bohemia
Multiple scandals in this international drama of love gone wrong
Adventure of the Dancing Men Dancing Men
Investigate the form and outcome of one of Sherlock's saddest cases.
The Final
Problem
Final Problem
An evaluation of Doyle's daring decision and the outcry that followed.
More About Sherlock Consulting Detective
Interesting tidbits about the world's only consulting detective.
More About Dr. Watson Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes
There was more to Dr. Watson's life than the readers understood at first.
Super Hero Prototypes Holmes and Watson: Superheroes prototypes
Were Holmes and Watson the original prototypes for modern superheroes?
List of All Short Stories List of Sherlock Holmes Short Stories
A list of the the Sherlock Holmes short stories and books they were published in.
Famous
Quotes
Sherlock Holmes Quotes
Famous quotes, brilliant sayings, and intriguing insights from Sherlock and company.
Action Plot Summary Summary of Sherlock Action Plot
See how Doyle's unique action plot made Sherlock stories a permanent feature in the halls of classic lit.
Who Is the Best
Sherlock Actor?

Sherlock Holmes best actors
If you want to watch, find who portrayed him the best.
Kids and
Sherlock

Sherlock stories for kids
What are the most appropriate Sherlock stories for kids? Check out our recommendations.
What made him lit's
#1 character?

Sherlock Holmes popularity
Why is Sherlock the most popular character in fiction?
What did Sherlock think of Women?
Sherlock Holmes and Women
An armchair quarterback in the battle of the sexes

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