Rating Five Actors Who Have Played Sherlock Holmes

Updated on January 22, 2018
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Christopher Peruzzi has been a fan of Sherlock Holmes for over 35 years. He writes about Sherlock, zombies, comics, and philosophy.

The Game is Afoot

Of all the literary figures I’ve read throughout my lifetime, hands down, my favorite has been the great detective, Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I was lucky enough to get into Holmes early in life when my eighth-grade literature teacher decided he was going to spend a few weeks of the year going over many of Holmes’ short stories. At first, I didn’t know what to think. To me at that time, Holmes was a caricature of Looney Tunes cartoons. I hadn’t realized there were stories to read outside of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

My teacher was no fool and realized that kids our age might need a push start in order to get into the character. He assigned all of us three stories that we could choose from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of twelve short stories in the Holmes canon. The entirety of the Sherlock Holmes canon include the four novels – A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear, plus the fifty-six short stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes as drawn in The Strand Magazine by Sydney Paget
Sherlock Holmes as drawn in The Strand Magazine by Sydney Paget

However, before we started reading any of the stories, he read the first half of A Study in Scarlet. It was the first story introducing the detective and his dear friend and biographer Doctor John Watson. The story was wonderfully eccentric and for the first time made me really think.

Oh, it was like magic. The stories were instantly addicting. After hearing about the eccentric detective, I went and read A Scandal in Bohemia and then The Red-Headed League. Lastly, I read one of Holmes’ best tales The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Every adventure was another opportunity to learn more and more about Holmes and every story was great to read.

However, the thing about reading Holmes is once you start, it’s hard to stop. After finishing the first book of stories, I began to read the others on my own – which was amazing because I really wasn’t a big reader.

Since then, I’ve been a lifelong fan. The best gift was meeting another hardcore fan and then marrying her.

So now, I read other Holmes books by other authors. When I don’t do that I watch movies and television shows about the character. What you’re about to read is my assessment of five actors who have portrayed Holmes in the movies and on television. These are five that are popular picks. In all, around a hundred actors have played him in one form or another. Some have been serious and some have been comical, ranging from John Cleese and Michael Caine to Basil Rathbone and John Barrymore. I will do five more in another article.

These five are listed in no particular order and because I’ve got a lot to say about their performances, this article will be the first of two parts. I know you have better things to do with your time.

Let’s start with…

Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone with Ida Lupida and Nigel Bruce (as Watson)
Basil Rathbone with Ida Lupida and Nigel Bruce (as Watson)

Basil Rathbone was one of the first actors to bring Holmes to life on the silver screen. He was a product of those movies and made fifteen films as Holmes with his co-star Nigel Bruce as Watson. In fairness, he was the first movie actor I’d seen play Holmes.

Rathbone was famous for not only playing Holmes but for also playing great villains and being an expert fencer. I’m pretty sure I’m dating myself on this, but I can remember at least three incredible fencing duels he’s had on screen. Notable performances of Rathbone fencing were in The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power, Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, and The Court Jester with Danny Kaye. Ironically, he never fenced as Holmes who was an expert swordsman.

There were a few things that made Rathbone a good Holmes. He certainly looked and sounded the part. His smoker's baritone highlighted a proper British accent combined with a prominent nose and an intense stare. Rathbone was what any forties producer could want in a leading man who played the great detective.

In my mind, he was the first bar to judge others. Was he a good Holmes? Yes and no.

What Rathbone’s version was, was Holmes as done by 1940s Hollywood. There were big sets. People talked fast and actors were larger than life. There was no subtlety to Rathbone’s Holmes. His version was a toned down character for the audiences at that time. The decent law abiding people of that time would never follow a drug addict hero. While it could be inferred through most of Rathbone’s acting that he had a cocaine problem, it was only really brought to light once when at the end of one of the movies when Holmes yells to Watson, “Watson, the needle!”

And then that was it.

If you’re a fan of cinema noir and like the old classics, Basil Rathbone’s Holmes is definitely for you. However, times change and audiences evolve to different tastes.

Rating: Three and a half pipes out of five.

Christopher Plummer

Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree with James Mason as Watson
Christopher Plummer in Murder by Decree with James Mason as Watson

I have a soft spot for Plummer’s Holmes. It really wasn’t terrible.

In 1979, Plummer co-starred with James Mason (as Watson) in Murder by Decree. This movie was highly underrated as it placed the character of Sherlock Holmes to unravel the real-life Jack the Ripper case. If you get a chance, I recommend a good view of it. It was much like From Hell starring Johnny Depp.

Plummer’s Holmes had some depth. He showed unusual compassion within the character. Many actors play Holmes as a semi cold calculating machine, however, his character was never quite limited by his reasoning skills or cold hard logic. Plummer competently displays his detective and disguise skills combined with the good humor he has for his friend Watson.

What we see with Plummer’s Holmes is the character we meet within The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He’s still at the peak of his powers and can innocently say that he can’t be bothered for a few hours as he feels the situation might be a “three pipe problem”.

While a lot of his portrayal could be attributed to good writing and directing, I felt that in some measure, he did capture Holmes’ essence in his early years.

Rating: Three pipes out of five and a violin solo.

Nicole Williamson

Nicole Williamson in The Seven Percent Solution with Robert Duvall as Watson
Nicole Williamson in The Seven Percent Solution with Robert Duvall as Watson

Nicole Williamson is a real actor’s actor. If you don’t know him from anything, I suggest you get to Netflix or Youtube and get a good dose of John Boorman’s Excalibur where Williamson plays Merlin.

As Sherlock Holmes, though, Williamson plays in the near-canonical story of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicolas Meyers. The acting chops and dimension he displays in the role come from the severity of the story itself. The story is about Holmes’ fight to free himself from cocaine addiction. He plays opposite Robert DuVall as Watson and Alan Arkin as Sigmund Freud – Lawrence Olivier even makes an appearance as Professor Moriarty, the math teacher.

Williamson’s performance in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is quite good. It shows Holmes in both his manic drug induced state, in his withdrawal, and in his recovery. We see how the detective is transformed through his trials and how he has to recover without his stimulants. In addition to that, he also does what I like to call the “chain of reasoning” where he makes a statement of deduction and explains to a layman how he arrived at the conclusion. In this, we watch him do it while he’s jonesing for his next fix.

It is a complex role that only had a few speed bumps in it. My only complaint about the movie was the concept of killer Lipizzaner stallions used to attack Holmes and company. It was creative, but it was also incredibly lame.

Rating: Three pipes out of five and a line of coke.

Ian McKellen

Ian McKellan in Mr. Holmes
Ian McKellan in Mr. Holmes

Anyone who has sat through Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit knows who Ian McKellen is. This veteran actor has given us the definitive Gandalf as well as many years of “Patrick Stewartness” in his roles.

Okay, I’m joking. This man’s acting talent makes me dizzy when I think about it. If you really want to see some serious acting, watch McKellen in his MacBeth. His “Tomorrow, Tomorrow” soliloquy is one of the best performed.

In 2015, McKellen took on a new chapter of Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes. In my opinion, this story is filled with the wonderful extremes of truth versus illusion. Holmes, in his nineties, is battling the degeneration of his own mind. In a desperate attempt to set one of his cases right, he begins his account of what really happened in a romanticized case written by Doctor Watson. At the same time, he is working on a case, while on the surface seems quite mundane, yet has all the potential dangers that came from The Hound of the Baskervilles. The case of “The Dying Bees” proves to be one of the most significant at the end of his life.

The reason why I love McKellen’s performance in this is he portrays Holmes during two periods of his life – the last professional case of his career and probably the last case of his life. His depiction of Holmes is what the real man might have been. He is not the romanticized version that came from Watson’s stories, he is the version of a man who has made “observation and deduction” his legitimate career and has all of the failings a man has who isn’t larger than life.

We see the man, not the myth.

The triumph comes not in the solving of either of his cases, but his ability to conquer the natural degeneration of his mind probably for the last time. To date, this tale of Holmes is the only one to hit me square in the heart and bring true dimension to the character.

Rating: Four pipes out of five and a dead bee.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock

Who doesn’t like Benedict Cumberbatch in anything he does? He’s one part dramatic actor, one part movie star, and one part Smaug the Dragon.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the Holmes for the twenty-first century. Purists will argue that Cumberbatch is not Holmes but an insane sociopath who is highly observant with uncanny reasoning skills. My argument is – that’s what Holmes would be in this technological age of social media, texting, and information at his fingertips.

Cumberbatch plays the role as a social misfit. Viewers of the Sherlock series would see a high functioning sociopath who needs to fake ever emotional reaction he needs to function in the normal world. What’s more, this character is deeply wounded and has a troubling past. We see that Cumberbatch’s Holmes lives for each of his cases like it’s an addiction – much like his 19th Century counterpart. He needs the thrill of the chase as much as he needs his nicotine patches and whatever narcotic substances he can get his hands on.

Is he any good? Hell, yeah.

What other show can get fans clamoring for three episodes a season and yet keep their interest when each season has a one to two-year gap between them. Holmes fans went crazy and found a new Sherlock that brought justice to the role.

Rating: Five nicotine patches out of five with a dismembered eyeball in a cup of tea.

Not Everyone Can Do This

Star Trek's Elementary My Dear Data with Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton
Star Trek's Elementary My Dear Data with Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton

I’m going to take a break here because I have five more actors who have played this role recently. Some did the part quite well and other just didn’t.

Not every actor is right for this role.

The amazing thing is over one hundred actors have played this part. Granted, some have played Holmes comically. For example, Michael Caine’s portrayal of Holmes in Without A Clue was meant to be as an actor playing Holmes. Watson was supposed to be the genius and recruited an actor to be a distraction while he solved the cases. Some played parts of people who only thought they were Holmes. In the little-known film, They Might Be Giants, George C. Scott plays a Don Quixote-like role of a man who loses his mind after his wife dies and decides to be like Sherlock Holmes. Others, like Brent Spiner, play Sherlock Holmes in the Holodeck as a distraction in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Elementary My Dear Data.

What we need to remember is that actors who play the detective seriously need to understand the part by researching the character. It’s not enough to put on a deerstalker and smoke a comically large pipe. When an actor plays Holmes, he has to be ready for it.

Over the top actors who tackle this role, like Roger Moore in Sherlock Holmes in New York, do more to distort the part rather than entertain anyone who’s looking to see a good Holmesian mystery. It’s also a crime that many writers who want to use the character get him completely wrong. Many portray him as an arrogant genius who merely waits until someone can be astounded by his deductive skills. Others have gone in the other direction as a drug-addicted wreck of a man who has little control over his impulses and only manages to solve his cases so long as his drug supply is steady.

In the next part, I will show you five more actors, in that part I’ll tell you why one of them is the best who’s played the character.

Five Sherlock Actors

Who did you like best of the five?

See results

Questions & Answers

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      • Deborah Minter profile image

        Deborah Minter 

        5 months ago from U.S, California

        Good picks! Love Sherlock Holmes.

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