April 11, 2016 By John Rabon
Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous literary character of the last 150 years, ever since he first appeared in the 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual in “A Study in Scarlet”. Holmes has been portrayed on stage, screen, and television over 250 times since his creation, with the first being William Gillette in a play written by himself and Holmes originator Arthur Conan Doyle. He’s one of the most depicted characters in the world and that tends to attract some of the best in the acting profession. Examine our own list of ten of the best Sherlock Holmes actors from the first to the most recent and let us know your own favorites in the comments.
Sherlock Holmes, a play written in four parts by Doyle and Gillette, was first performed in 1899 in New York City. Doyle had previously tried his hand at writing a play, but little came of it until he was approached by Gillette, an American actor who even put on a deerstalker cap and a cape to convince the author to work with him. After several films were made with various other actors in the role, Gillette tried his hand at a film adaptation of the play in 1916. He would perform the role at least twice more in radio dramas.
Appearing in his first Holmes film not long after Wortner, Rathbone starred in 1939’s adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. In fact, it was Rathbone’s success with the film in the United States that caused Wortner’s adaptation of the “Silver Blaze” to change its name to Murder at the Baskervilles for its American release in 1941 (despite having nothing to do with the Baskervilles). Rathbone has played Sherlock Holmes the most times in films with a total of fifteen from 1939 to 1946. He even made a posthumous cameo in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective as the voice of Holmes, whose 221B Baker Street address also housed the animated protagonist.
Besides Wilmer, Brett is considered by many to be one of the best television actors to play Holmes, having done so in four series running for more than a decade from 1983 to 1994. During that time, Brett also performed in a stage show titled The Secrets of Sherlock Holmes from 1988 to 1989. Brett described Holmes as “the hardest part I have ever played—harder than Hamlet or Macbeth”, and despite fears of typecasting, he appeared 41 times as the detective before ill health caused him to retire from acting, passing away only months after his final episode aired. Brett’s performance developed many personality ticks for the character from his laughter to his hand gestures as the actor wanted to bring more passion to what appeared to him to be an obsessive and depressive character. Cementing his reputation as Holmes, Brett won a poll in 2014 of the best Holmes actors, beating out the next three, more-recent, entries.
With Holmes back in film, it wasn’t long before the detective returned to television as well, this time with an adaptation brought into the present day courtesy of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Moffat was auditioning for Holmes and Doctor Who at the same time, and ended up casting two men who would become world-famous for their portrayals, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Matt Smith as the Doctor. Alongside Martin Freeman as John Watson, Cumberbatch’s performance is the opposite of Downey’s, embracing the character’s nature as a “high-functioning sociopath”. While Cumberbatch had been acting for some time before Sherlock, his portrayal has made him a household name and led to other projects such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Imitation Game, and this year’s Doctor Strange.