Back in 2016 (remember back then? I know, it's been awhile), I did a series of posts detailing my Top 5 Actors Who Have Played Sherlock Holmes. At the time, the list was as follows:
No doubt about it...when I first saw Sherlock, I thought, "My God, they've finally gotten it right!" For me, the interest I have in the Sherlock Holmes stories has never been about the Victorian London setting. It's always been about the quickness of Holmes's intellect, and the relationship between Holmes and Watson. And Sherlock nailed those tow elements! Sure, Jeremy Brett may have looked more like Sidney Paget's illustrations, but I don't think any actor has ever captured the character like Cumberbatch has.
I was captivated by Cumberbatch's portrayal instantly, and as I continued to watch the program, I was even more impressed by how he and Martin Freeman captured the Holmes/Watson relationship. That's one area where Sherlock has never been matched. Even the best Watson actors have never been able to balance Holmes. Until Martin Freeman came along...
So that's it: my Top Five Holmes actors. Sorry it took me so long to finish. I've been busy with my Shakespeare blog and some other stuff. I'm sure some people will disagree with my list, but that's okay. Feel free to share your own list in the comments!
#2. Jeremy Brett
If I had come up with this Top Five several years ago, there is no doubt that Jeremy Brett would have been my number one choice. And I still think, as far as Victorian portrayals of the great detective, no one has ever matched Brett's version. When the BBC series starring Brett as Holmes began in the early 80s, I was a teenager, and though I was relatively new to the Sherlock Holmes canon, it was clear to me that no actor had ever really captured the true spirit and style of Sherlock Holmes. And then I saw Jeremy Brett...
It was as if Sidney Paget's drawings had come to life! Every little pose, every mannerism was just as I had imagined Holmes, based on the illustrations I had seen. For many years, then, to my way of thinking Jeremy Brett was the Sherlock Holmes. As I've read more about that BBC series, and its ups and downs, I've learned that the series consciously imitated Paget's drawings as closely as possible, and that Brett himself had an almost obsessive insistence on the most minute details. (He also smoked several packs of cigarettes a day, which contributed to his poor health in later installments of the series...)
As I've gone back and watched many of the episodes of this very successful BBC Sherlock Holmes series, I'm still immensely impressed by Brett's finely detailed portrayal of the detective. Sure, some of the adaptations of the stories tend towards slavish adulation, while other episodes add somewhat poorly rendered plot lines to flesh out the stories. And Brett's performances in several of the later episodes was negatively impacted by his failing health. But Jeremy Brett at his best inhabited the role as very few actors have managed to do.
As I said above, if I had written this several years ago, Brett would have easily been my favorite choice, but then along came a series called Sherlock...and my world changed. But more of that in my next article...
#3. Peter Cushing
If you've never seen Peter Cushing's portrayal of Holmes, go right now to the Sherls on Film page of this blog, and watch one of the videos of the TV series he did in 1968. Actually, Cushing's first Holmes was in the Hammer Films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1959 (which also starred the great Christopher Lee as Henry Baskerville). In my humble opinion, Cushing really nails the physicality and speech of the great detective, despite the cheesy horror movie atmosphere of the 1959 film, or the relatively low production values of the 1968 series.
Anther interesting thing about the TV series is that, even though they produced 16 episodes of the 1968 program, only six episodes are still available today, due to the BBC's policy at the time of taping over programs that had already aired a couple of times! (I should also mention that Cushing was the second actor to play Holmes for the BBC; Douglas Wilmer played him for the earlier black-and-white installments of the series from 1964-1965. Nigel Stock played Watson to Wilmer's and Cushing's Holmes.)
For your enjoyment, and because the full film is no longer available for free on YouTube, here is the trailer for the 1959 Hammer Films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles:
#4. Jonny Lee Miller
From one of the "modern" Sherlock Holmes TV shows, Elementary, I have chosen as my #4 spot Jonny Lee Miller's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, New York City setting and all. There are obvious parallels between Miller's portrayal of Holmes and Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of same (of which more later). Both have a frenzied sort of air about them much of the time, as they whip out their cell phones and search the internet. Both of them have a jaunty, contemporary fashion sense, as well as a knack for irritating pretty much everyone, including their respective Watsons. And yet, as much as I enjoy Miller's version of the great detective, it has never quite struck the same chord with me that Cumberbatch's version immediately did.
In fact, when I first watched Elementary, my initial response was "ho hum!" I thought we had already seen the definitive modern Holmes in Benedict Cumberbatch. Then I gave the American show another chance, and gradually became quite interested in Jonny Lee Miller's unique take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. As the show developed, I realized that Miller actually plays it quite differently from his counterpart across the pond. And certainly the dynamic between him and Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is radically different from the dynamic between John and Sherlock in the BBC series.
Jonny Lee Miller's Holmes strikes me as far less confident than Cumberbatch's portrayal; this is a man whose drug use has changed him. He seems more conflicted, less at home in his skin, than most versions of Holmes I've seen. He realized he's different from everyone else, and this knowledge causes him a great deal of pain and confusion. Also, as far as the overall story arc goes, the shorter weekly format of Elementary has enabled Miller to develop his character in a more complete fashion than most other actors who have played the character. So why doesn't Miller's Holmes rate higher in my esteem?
I think part of the problem is that, as the second season went on, I gradually became less interested in the series. Elementary became, as I saw it, a kind of typical procedural crime drama, with Conan Doyle's characters grafted onto it. I actually haven't watched an episode of the show since the middle of Season 2. So, my apologies if I've missed some major character developments that might have come later. Overall, I think Jonny Lee Miller has given us a very fine reading of the role; I just think there are a few actors who have done it even better.
For the next several days, I'm going to share my top five favorite actors who have played Sherlock Holmes over the past decades of film and TV adaptations. These are merely my personal opinions, and they have evolved over time. I imagine they may continue to evolve as time goes on...
#5. Basil Rathbone
For my late grandfather, who helped introduce me to the Canon many years ago, Rathbone quite simply was the Sherlock Holmes. When I discovered Jeremy Brett in the early 80s, I thought that claim was ridiculous. To my way of thinking, Rathbone was too dashing, too handsome, too much of a "leading man." Looking back, I realize that I had formed this opinion not from watching any of the Rathbone/Bruce films, but from seeing still pictures. Now that I have seen several of those films, my opinion has changed a bit.
While I still find Rathbone too handsome, there is something impressive about how comfortable he obviously felt in the role. His sense of humor is evident, his physicality is effortless, and the role seems to fit him like a comfortable pair of shoes. As a side note, Nigel Bruce isn't nearly as silly as I once thought. Together, I believe the pair caught the easy camaraderie that comes across in the stories. Sure, the stories in which these two actors found themselves began to be repetitive over the course of 14 films, and much of the dialogue is extremely corny. But I can see how they became the standard film versions of Holmes and Watson for an entire generation.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.