Sherlock Holmes Actors

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

More actors have portrayed Sherlock than any other literary character - quite a recognition of Doyle's detective. But who was the best?

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.


#1 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 actor. 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 scenes. 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) she 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.

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 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 the Sherlock industry and 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

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 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 strength 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'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

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

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.

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.
Kids and
Sherlock

Sherlock stories for kids
What are the most appropriate Sherlock stories for kids? Check out our recommendations.

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