Christopher Peruzzi has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for over 35 years. He writes about Sherlock, zombies, comics, and philosophy.
It’s More Than a Pipe, Deerstalker, and a Hypodermic Needle
Welcome to the second part of Rating Ten Actors Who Played Sherlock Holmes. In part one, I gave my assessment of Basil Rathbone, Christopher Plummer, Nicole Williamson, Ian McKellen, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Today, I’m going to do the remaining five.
I’m sure many of you are wondering how I’m making this assessment. Well, partly, I’m going by an ideal version of Holmes as based on the canonical writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then I’m adapting the rating by story or circumstances the character is in. For example, in part one, I spoke of Ian McKellen’s performance. I thought it was excellent for what it was. He played Holmes at age ninety and without the romantic eye of Doctor Watson. He played Holmes as a man who had dedicated his life to the science of deduction and was now fighting against dementia. He played Holmes as a man, not as a myth. In that assessment, I really had to use my imagination and think whether or not he was still the character – and he was. In actuality, he was more Holmes than any other person who had played the part, because the story extracted the man from trivialities.
If you ever get a chance to see Mr. Holmes, McKellen’s performance is astounding and truly remarkable.
Is it the best?
If you were around from 1985 to 1987, it was hard to avoid Matt Frewer’s face.
Frewer came to stardom as the heavily made-up Max Headroom virtual personality and mascot for New Coke. Max Headroom was the electronically generated talk show host of the science fiction show of the same name.
Years after ABC pulled the plug on Max Headroom, Matt Frewer was signed on to play Sherlock Holmes for Hallmark. He portrayed Holmes in four television movies including the Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four.
Now, I like Matt Frewer. I thought his portrayal of Trashcan Man in The Stand was fantastic and his comedic chops in the short-lived Doctor, Doctor were respectably good. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
It’s… well… it’s just terrible. It’s over the top on Shatneresque levels. There’s enough ham in his performance to make three barbecue luaus. I recently reviewed much of the footage to see whether or not it was as bad as I remembered and it was worse.
And it’s a shame. Frewer certainly has the right build and under the right direction, he could have been a decent Holmes. In the four television movies Frewer made, not one of them was even close to a serious portrayal of Holmes.
Rating: One pipe and a ham sandwich.
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One of the very best portrayals of Holmes ever came during the eighties. Many people, including myself, feel that Jeremy Brett truly embodied everything that Sherlock Holmes was as written by Conan Doyle.
Early in Brett’s career, his claim to fame was an appearance in the 1956 movie War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn. Then in 1964, he played opposite Hepburn again in My Fair Lady as Freddie Eynsford-Hill. The Shakespearian trained actor was part of National Theatre Company from 1967 to 1970.
Brett is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. From 1984 to 1994, Jeremy Brett played him in forty-one Granada television productions. Brett took great pains to be the best actor to ever play the part. He kept a seventy-seven-page “Bakers Street File” on everything about Holmes, his mannerisms to his eating and drinking habits. He absorbed Holmes’ personality like a sponge to the point where he began to dream of Holmes and felt unable to leave that personality behind. The outbursts of passionate energy to the horrible lethargy crept into Brett’s life much like it had within the great detective himself.
It became such a problem, that for a while, he could not mention the character’s name and only referred to Holmes as “you know who”.
This obsession and dedication to the role made Brett the best… period.
If you are, by any stretch of the imagination, a Sherlock Holmes fan, you need to watch his early Holmes works where he covers much of the canon. Ironically, one of the few episodes he had not done was A Study in Scarlet. Brett’s Holmes combined the passion, energy, and intensity that no one has ever done – and made it believable.
Brett’s excellence in this role cannot be understated and until Benedict Cumberbatch took the role, no one had even come close to how he played the part.
Rating: Six pipes out of five with a needle, a cigarette, and a full disguise kit.
There are several of the old-timey actors that made a good reputation during the fifties and sixties. Counted amongst the ranks of Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee is Peter Cushing. In his heyday, Cushing was known for his monster movies where he played Victor Frankenstein or Doctor Van Helsing, Dracula slayer. However, the best role that modern audiences know him for is Governor Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.
Cushing back in 1968 did sixteen episodes of a Sherlock Holmes TV series. Unlike the Matt Frewer ones for Hallmark Theatre, these were actually pretty decent. Cushing gives Holmes an easy familiar air of a man who is a professional at his business. His familiarity with Doctor Watson is believable as a man who shares rooms with another man.
He is a good physical fit for the part as well. The drawn face, the aquiline nose, and the receding hairline could have come directly from Strand illustrator Sydney Paget himself.
Regarding the intensity of his performance, it wasn’t half bad. Cushing combines both cool detachment with the proper amount of energy from the chase. Unlike Frewer, this did not come off as over the top, rather it came off as “business as usual”. When clues are discovered, he certainly shows a realistic reaction and a convincing show of deductive reasoning.
Rating: Three pipes out of five with a blue carbuncle.
Johnny Lee Miller
Not to be outdone by the BBC, CBS produced a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes as well in the form or Elementary.
Elementary stars Trainspotting’s Johnny Lee Miller and also went with the unconventional choice of Lucy Liu as Doctor Watson. The show is an Americanized version of the modern-day Sherlock Holmes that takes place in New York rather than London.
Miller’s version of Sherlock Holmes has had a substance abuse problem (not cocaine) and must answer to his father regarding a drinking problem where he must attend NA and AA meetings. This Holmes is quirky and obsessed with solving crimes. At the same time, he is socially abnormal. While he has trouble working with many in the police force, he will work with Inspector Gregson (a New Yorker as opposed to his Conan Doyle counterpart) and also participates with solicited sex from prostitutes.
While it could be argued this version of Holmes is unconventional and not to type, that is more an issue with the show’s writers. These elements are certainly made for American audiences that could not possibly condone a protagonist with a cocaine addiction. Elementary must play for a G-rating. Within those parameters, Miller’s performance is interesting. What we are able to glean from the character is his dedication to his craft and his demons that come from substance abuse.
Of the positive things that can be seen within Miller’s Holmes, one is that he does do the unusual for gathering evidence. Tasting clues, jumping up and down at crime scenes and shows an intensity that is Holmes-ish. Some would call him a good Sherlock, but to me, he’s just some whacky English guy who is solving crimes while providing some amount of comic relief.
I’m not saying he isn’t amusing because he certainly is. He just isn’t Holmes.
I’m not fond of his take on Holmes, but I also recognize that it isn’t entirely his fault. His performance comes from unconventional direction and an effort to be progressive where there is no need to be.
Rating: Three pipes out of five and an AA meeting.
Robert Downey, Jr.
Guy Richie of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels decided it was time for Sherlock Holmes to come back to the big screen for a good old fashioned Victorian bloodbath.
In Victorian England during a time where there seemed to be grime on everything, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are getting ready to go their separate ways. Watson is engaged and Holmes is not happy about it.
In the two movies Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law play Holmes and Watson, respectively.
Let me tell you what I love about this movie. It is the first time ever that I saw the dynamic between the two characters portrayed realistically. Anyone who’s ever had a roommate knows what this is about. Having a roommate either works or it doesn’t. There is no real middle ground. The best living situations happen when roommates are good friends and adjust to the other’s eccentricities. We see this dynamic in Sherlock and in Richie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. Almost every other version of the dynamic comes off as Watson having some kind of hero worship of Holmes and he never complains. Richie’s version is the best for this. Jude Law’s Watson complains about everything we could imagine him complaining about. Downey, Jr.’s Holmes is the worst tenant in London.
The thing most writers don’t understand about Holmes is he never gets high during a case. The case is the drug. Everything in his life is a means of distraction from boredom. Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss understood this when they wrote BBC’s, Sherlock. We see this again in the Guy Richie films. When the case is over, Holmes is high on everything from alcohol to whatever Watson had to use as embalming fluid.
As a reasoner, Downey demonstrates a well-focused chain of reasoning monolog with Watson’s fiancé. You can see how he reflects inwardly to everything he observes and how he makes his logical deductions. With him, everything is a game of logic or strategy. Even his fighting style is based on probability and outcome. He is also one of the few Holmeses that actually demonstrates his fighting prowess with the oriental art of Baritsu.
Downey’s Holmes is pretty good and very believable. While he strays away from much of the classic trifles of other Holmes actors, what he does do is reinvent the character. Throw away the pipe and the deerstalker hat that came from William Gillette (a Sherlock Holmes actor from the early 20th Century that gave the character many of his trappings for the stage and screen) and Downey will show an audience a Holmes that should’ve existed in the grimy streets of London.
We have to remember that despite his stardom and celebrity status, Downey is a fantastic actor. There’s a reason why he commands the salary he does – he’s that good. He’s certainly one of the top three actors I love in this role.
Rating: Five pipes out of five with a few stolen clothes for a disguise.
What the Role Requires for Future Actors
Sherlock Holmes is a complex character.
Not a lot is known about his past from Conan Doyle’s canon. We know he has a brother who is smarter than he is and that Sherlock apparently has all the energy in the family. We know he’s descended from country squires (The Priory School) and that an ancestor of his is the artist, Vernet (The Greek Interpreter). He blames his flair for the dramatic on that last fact.
Other than that, that’s really all we know about Holmes from the canon. Other authors have expanded on his backstory where he had a troubled childhood and that his mother had an affair with Sherlock’s mathematics professor (The Seven Percent Solution).
The foundation of his personality is laid out within the first few pages of A Study in Scarlet. Watson documents them within the second chapter.
SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits
- Knowledge of Literature.— Nil.
- Philosophy.— Nil.
- Astronomy.— Nil.
- Politics.— Feeble.
- Botany.— Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- Geology.— Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers and told me by their colour and consistency in what part of London he had received them.
- Chemistry.— Profound.
- Anatomy.— Accurate, but unsystematic.
- Sensational Literature.— Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well.
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Holmes’s knowledge of astronomy is so bad that he’s unaware the Earth rotates around the sun. Once he heard that, he told Watson he’d do his best to forget that fact. The reason why was because he believed that the brain’s capacity for knowledge was limited and he chose to pick and choose each one of the facts that would be part of his knowledge base. The Earth’s rotation around the sun had nothing to do with his criminal investigation skillset.
While Holmes has an aversion for women, it is largely agreed upon that he is not a homosexual. He was quite taken with the adventuress, Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) and refers to her as “the woman” – as if she was the entirety of what the sex should aspire to. When it comes to women, he leaves such matters to Watson saying that “the fairer sex is his department.”
As I mentioned before, Holmes has a drug issue. We find this fact out early on in The Sign of Four. His preferred drug is cocaine, but he’s been known to use opium, specifically if a case requires it. Other than that, it is important to know that regardless of his need for drug addiction, he never uses during a case.
Conan Doyle would drop bits of information regarding Holmes throughout the short stories like bricks or pieces of a much larger puzzle. Largely, what we discover about Holmes and who he is more comes from how he reacts in a case rather than what we learn about who he was growing up.
There is a bit of physical cast typing for the role. As Watson described him, he is tall, just over six feet, and thin. He has gray, piercing eyes surrounding a sharp aquiline nose and compared it to a hawk. Holmes has a prominent square chin which gave him an air of determination.
And he smokes… a lot. Those viewers who think of Sherlock Holmes as a pipe smoking recluse only have part of the picture. He smokes cigarettes, too. He keeps his strong shag tobacco in the toe of a Persian slipper near the fireplace.
Actors should read the canon prior to attempting the role. It is not necessary to read all of it. The thing to be cognizant of in almost all of the stories is that the character in the book is filtered through the romantic eye of Doctor Watson. Of the canon, there are two stories narrated or written by Holmes himself. The first is The Gloria Scott and the second is The Lion’s Mane. They must read A Study in Scarlet and as well as The Sign of Four. Outside of that, there are only a few critical short stories that should be read. I recommend the Red-Headed League, The Greek Interpreter, A Scandal in Bohemia, and The Final Problem for starters. After that, the actor can read selected works from the short stories to get a better flavor.
Obviously, the more the actor reads, the better his performance will be. The caveat for such intense study is left with the life of Jeremy Brett. The character of Holmes through Doyle’s writing only gave him more dimension with each book. The danger is that he is so fascinating, the essence of his personality could swallow the actor’s.
Sherlock Holmes Actors
Luis G Asuncion from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 29, 2019:
I never know then except Robert Downey Jr. because I didn't get a chance to watch them. Only the version of Robert Downey, Jr., I repeatedly watched for about 5 times already. Thanks for sharing.
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on January 23, 2018:
Brett has always been my favorite. The amount of times I've rewatched his episodes is epic.
Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on January 23, 2018:
I knew this was going to happen. When I originally wrote this for Echoba.se (no longer live), I wrote it in two parts. The first part at this URL - https://reelrundown.com/celebrities/Rating-Five-Ac... - has Cumberbatch.
I encourage you to read it.
Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on January 23, 2018:
Jeremy Brett is, in my opinion as a decades-long Sherlockian, the quintessential Holmes. Whenever I re-read a Holmes story, my mind calls up Brett to "be" the character.
Jake Mason from Wales on January 23, 2018:
Your forgetting Benerdict Cumberbatch simply my Favourite Sherlock Holmes.