Under the Deerstalker: Sherlocks Past and Present

Mike Delaney
TV Movies
TV Movies

Sherlock Season 4 began filming this month, a move that will no doubt help Benedict Cumberbatch to cement his claim of appearing in nearly every fictional franchise ever. Created in 1887 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty companion Doctor John Watson have since been adapted for the screen, stage, and radio numerous times. There was even an animated series, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, and an Italian-Japanese animated series, Sherlock Hound, where all the characters were anthropomorphic dogs. The latter series had episodes directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki.

Dozens of actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes on the screen and stage for over a century, making him one of the most portrayed fictional characters of all time. He currently holds the Guinness World Record for the most portrayed literary human character in film and tv. He is only overshadowed by Dracula, who cannot claim the record of account of being dead and loving it. The key phrase is the record is “human.”

We take a look at some of the greatest actors to play the role of the Great Detective.

Basil Rathbone


Basil Rathbone (13 June 1892 – 21 July 1967) played Sherlock Holmes in fourteen films released between 1939 and 1946 with Nigel Bruce co-starring as Doctor Watson. The first two were produced by Fox and featured Holmes in the traditional Victorian-era setting. The remaining twelve were produced by Universal and updated the setting to the 1940s, with the first three episodes having Holmes face the threat of Nazi Germany. To many, Basil Rathbone is the quintessential Sherlock Holmes – a charming and gentlemanly detective and many of the later depictions of Holmes are derived from Rathbone’s portrayal. The role of Holmes typecast Rathbone, and he was never able to move out of the shadow of the Great Detective completely. Resenting the typecasting, Rathbone refused to renew his contract and returned to the stage. Almost twenty years after his death, Rathbone “reprised” his role of Holmes in the Walt Disney film The Great Mouse Detective. Audio recordings of Rathbone were used to voice Sherlock Holmes who lived above Basil, the eponymous hero of the film.


Jeremy Brett


Jeremy Brett (3 November 1933 – 12 September 1995) portrayed Sherlock Holmes from 1984 to 1994 in ITV’s Sherlock Holmes television series opposite first David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke, in the role of Doctor John Watson. Like Rathbone before him, Brett’s version of Holmes was seen as one of the definite portrayals of the Great Detective. A phenomenal actor, Brett became obsessed with the role and strove to be the best Sherlock Holmes ever. He brought a passion to the role, using  hand gestures and quick movements and affecting a short, violent laugh. Brett also conducted extensive research into the character and maintained a 77-page file containing all of his information on Holmes concerning his mannerisms and habits. Brett considered the role of Holmes to be the hardest he’d ever played, beating even Macbeth and Hamlet. His obsession with Holmes and his personality eventually led to recurring nightmares as he could not leave the character of Holmes behind on set. He would come to refer to Holmes simply as “You Know How” or “HIM” years before the character of Voldemort co-opted the nickname.


Nicholas Rowe


Nicholas Rowe was the star of Young Sherlock Holmes released in 1985 where a young Sherlock and John Watson meet at a boarding school and solve a mystery together. A brilliant but undisciplined student, young Sherlock is an emotional and impulsive troublemaker, and the events of film were designed to mold him into the more logical, cold and calculating version of Holmes that Conan Doyle envisaged. Young Sherlock Holmes was written by Chris Columbus who later directed the first two Harry Potter films. Friends meeting in a boarding school and solving a mystery? No similarities whatsoever. In a charming piece of casting, Nicholas Rowe would play Sherlock Holmes once more in Mr. Holmes – as a fictionalized version of Holmes in an adaptation of one of Doctor Watson’s stories that McKellen’s Holmes watches on the big screen.


Robert Downey, Jr.


Robert Downey, Jr. took on the role of Sherlock Holmes in two films directed by Guy Ritchie – 2009’s Sherlock Holmes and 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. A third film is reportedly in pre-production. Jude Law co-starred as Doctor John Watson. Initially Ritchie was reluctant to cast Downey in the role, wanting a young Holmes, but took the chance. Downey revealed that his wife commented that the description of Holmes fit Downey’s personality and that it could have been a description of the actor himself. Having previously starred in Chaplin, Downey was confident that he could affect an English accent for the role, with Ritchie describing it as “flawless.” Very much aware of the pressure involved in taking on the role, Downey researched the original texts upon bagging the role and was taken by the level of detail in Conan Doyle’s work. Downey’s version of Holmes played up the character’s bohemianism and made him a more physical character comfortable with hand to hand combat and bare knuckle boxing to fit the style of the film. Between his casting as Tony Stark in Marvel’s Iron Man and his role of Sherlock Holmes, Downey has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars.


Benedict Cumberbatch


Beginning with Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch is seemingly on a one-man mission to appear in as many fictional universes as possible (The Hobbit, Star Trek, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date). And if Martin Freeman, the Doctor Watson to his Sherlock, is along for the ride, all the better. Sherlock is a modern take on the Sherlock Holmes premise, updating the characters and stories for the modern era. Produced by the BBC and debuting in 2010, the series numbers a whopping 9 regular episodes and a Christmas Special. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is at times cold, arrogant, and rude and describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath.” He doesn’t see the point in social niceties and barely understand them anyway, and usually shows little regard for how his actions affect those around him. Cumberbatch joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year as Doctor Stephen Strange. Let’s hope there is a scene featuring him and Downey reacting to a Sherlock reference. Preferably along the lines of “no sh*t, Sherlock.”


Jonny Lee Miller


Jonny Lee Miller stars in the CBS television series Elementary as Sherlock Holmes alongside Doctor Joan Watson, played by Lucy Lui. Another modern take on the Holmes mythos, the series transplants the action to New York where Holmes has relocated to from England to enter a drug rehab program. Instead of consulting for Scotland Yard, Holmes becomes a consultant for the New York Police Department. Miller’s Holmes is socially awkward and brutally honest, and his nature as a recovering drug addict is one of the major driving forces behind his portrayal of the character. Miller originally turned down the role of Sherlock, fearing it would be too similar to the BBC’s Sherlock. After reading the script, he changed his mind and accepted the role. In 2011, he starred in a stage adaptation of Frankenstein at the Royal National Theatre where he played the role of Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster on alternate nights. The other actor in the play sharing the roles with him was none other than Benedict Cumberbatch.


Ian McKellen


Ian McKellen stars in the 2015 film Mr. Holmes where a 93-year old Sherlock Holmes struggles with the deterioration of his mind. Set in 1947, Holmes lives with his housekeeper and her young son and struggles with the task of remembering his last case which prompted him to retire from the role of a private detective. McKellen was critically praised for his performance of an aging Holmes, one who has to deal with the realization that his greatest asset, his mind, is slowly beginning to fail him. A far cry from the more recent takes on Holmes in the last few years, Mr. Holmes is a take on the classic formula that Sherlock was indeed a real person, and his exploits in The Strand magazine were fictionalized accounts written by Doctor Watson. And it is the difference between the fictional reality of his last published case and the reality of it that drives the plot.


Honorable mentions

Peter Cook – In 1978, Peter Cook took on the role of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, a comedic spoof film which also starred Dudley Moore as Doctor Watson.

Tom Baker – The Fourth Doctor himself starred in a BBC serial of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1982.

Peter Cushing – Cushing played the role of Sherlock Holmes several times. First in 1989 in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was the first adaptation of Holmes to be filmed in color. He played the role in sixteen episodes of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series, taking over the role from Douglas Wilmer.  Finally, he played an aging Holmes in 1984’s The Masks of Death.

Michael Caine – A decidedly different take on Holmes was the subject of Without a Clue, a comedy film released in 1988. Ben Kingsley stars as Doctor Watson, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories hire Reginald Kincaid, played by Caine, to play the role of Sherlock Holmes due to popular public demand. The pair investigate cases with Kincaid posing as Holmes while Watson is the true Great Detective.

Christopher Lee – Veteran actor Lee played first played Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, a West German-French-Italian co-production. He also played Holmes in Incident at Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady opposite Patrick Macnee as Doctor Watson. Lee also played Sherlock’s elder brother, Mycroft Holmes, in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970.

Mike Delaney
Star Wars fan and general pop culture addict. Only two beverages worth drinking are tea and whisky.
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