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Top 5 Sherlock Holmes Actors

Colin has been reading as long as he can remember, and the works of Conan Doyle were some of the early works that kept him reading.

Over the last 100 years the character of Sherlock Holmes has been portrayed by in excess of 70 different actors; and a debate is often undertaken about which is the best Sherlock Holmes actor.

Listed below are 5 Sherlock Holmes actors, but of course it is a subjective choice. One person might like originality, one might like characters and stories keeping to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle storylines, one person might like pure deduction, whilst another might like action. There is no right or wrong, it is just opinion.

Jeremy Brett

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

For many, Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes. Brett was chosen by Granada TV to portray the detective, Brett being well known for stage and screen, and it was a role that the British actor would play from 1984 through to 1994. This decade of programmes saw Brett appear in 9 series and 41 episodes on ITV.

Granada TV wanted to make faithful adaptations of the original Conan Doyle stories, whilst Brett wanted to be the best Holmes he could be. Brett took it upon himself to undertake extensive research about Sherlock Holmes and so learnt every mannerism and characteristic of the literary character.

Brett was helped with the details put into the sets, and also by the actors who played Watson opposite him. Watson was played by David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, actors who played Watson in keeping with the original Conan Doyle character.

Forty-Two out of the original 60 stories were dramatised, but Brett was very ill by the ninth series, and died after it had ended.

Jeremy Brett Filmography -

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Brett Granada Intro

Basil Rathbone

PD US no notice

PD US no notice

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Arguably more famous than Jeremy Brett for playing Sherlock Holmes was Basil Rathbone. Rathbone appeared on the big screen at a time when the cinema was the most widespread form of communication on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rathbone would play Sherlock Holmes in 14 black and white films, and one TV special, as the great detective. The first film was The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), a story that kept close to the original plot, subsequent films though, were far removed from the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

War in Europe meant the next few films had a certain propagandist slant to them, with patriotic speeches spoken by Rathbone. These films also helped to shape the modern idea of Holmes and Watson; with Holmes depicted in deerstalker and Watson (Nigel Bruce) a bumbling sidekick.

After making the films Rathbone was typecast as Holmes, something which irked him for years, and even today, despite being a Broadway performer of some renowned, Rathbone is remembered either as Sherlock Holmes, or as a film villain.

Basil Rathbone Filmography -

  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
  • Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)
  • Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
  • The Spider Woman (1944)
  • The Scarlet Claw (1944)
  • The Pearl of Death (1944)
  • The Woman in Green (1945)
  • Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
  • The House of Fear (1945)
  • Terror By Night (1946)
  • Dressed to Kill (1946)
  • Suspense – The Adventure of the Black Baronet (1953)

Benedict Cumberbatch

Fat Les (bellaphon) from London (original) CC-BY-2.0

Fat Les (bellaphon) from London (original) CC-BY-2.0

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

In 2010 broadcast the first episode of Sherlock, an eagerly awaited series from Steven Moffat, the man who had re-launched Dr Who, and Mark Gatiss. For both men, there was only one actor to play their re-imagined Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberbatch had played Paul Marshall in Atonement (2007), and was ideally suited for an oddball character. Rather than revert to a Victorian setting, this new Sherlock Holmes TV series was to be set in the modern day, with modern technology, aiding Holmes. Original story titles have been used and amended, but the storylines are all new.

Cumberbatch, as Holmes, is obviously highly intelligent, but not beyond making minor mistakes, which is a canonical characteristic; and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock observes the police with a level of disdain, even if Lestrade is a “friend”, again a theme from the original books.

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High approval ratings and viewing figures from the general public, were matched with similar levels of critical acclaim.

As of 2014 three series of three episodes (nine episodes in total) have been produced.

Benedict Cumberbatch Filmography -

  • Sherlock (2010-present)

Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes

At the same time as the BBC was developing a new take on Sherlock, CBS in America was doing likewise; and briefly there was thought of too much competition. This though has proved baseless, and Elementary has proved as successful as Sherlock.

CBS chose a British actor, Jonny Lee Miller, to star as Sherlock, whilst Lucy Liu was cast as Dr Joan Watson. Miller had made his name with films like Hackers (1995) and Trainspotting (1996) and had briefly been considered for James Bond.

Like Sherlock, Elementary is set in the modern day but this time the English detective has been transposed to New York. Having previously worked for Scotland Yard, Holmes is a recovering drug addict, helped by his sober companion, Watson, and provided work by Captain Watson.

In Elementary original story titles are sometimes used but, storylines are new, and the series has been commended for its writing, as well as the acting of Miller and Liu. The faults of Miller’s Sherlock are perhaps more obvious than Cumberbatch’s, and is at the same time more fragile and in need of the “help” of those around him.

Jonny Lee Miller Filmography -

  • Elementary (2012-present)

Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary

Robert Downey Jr

sybiriya CC-BY-SA-3.0

sybiriya CC-BY-SA-3.0

Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes

There was some scepticism in the British press when Guy Ritchie decided to cast the American actor, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. Ritchie had a relatively large budget for the film, and a great deal of time and money was put into the CGI effects, but the casting of Downey would help with getting people into the cinema.

The casting of Downey was inspired though, and the actor managed to pull off a great take on the actor, although Ritchie’s, and Downey’s, take on Holmes was far removed from that of most portrayals.

The two Downey Holmes films were set in the time period of the original Holmes, but had new stories. Holmes also was changed into a Holmes of action, action mixed with the cerebral elements expected of the detective.

Robert Downey Jr. Filmography -

  • Sherlock Holmes (2009)
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Arthur Wontner

Public Domain

Public Domain

Those That Missed Out

Ronald Howard –

Arguably the most obvious omission from my top five Sherlock Holmes actors is Ronald Howard. Howard would play Holmes in 39 30 minute episodes shot in France and syndicated in America; these episodes were shown weekly from the autumn of 1954 through to 1955.

Howard is often talked of as being one of the best Sherlock Holmes, and certainly there is some excellent acting from him, and also Howard Marion Crawford (Watson)

So why doesn’t Howard appear in the top 5? To be honest I can’t really put my finger on it. Are the episodes too short? Storylines too simplistic? Or Howard’s interpretation of Holmes out of kilter with my own?

Arthur Wontner & Vasily Livanov -

Arthur Wontner was an English actor who played Sherlock Holmes in five films in the 1930s; including a 1932 adaptation of The Sign of Four. Wonter is often classed as the critics choice of Holmes, with an image and portrayal in keeping with the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle canon.

Vaily Livanov appeared as Holmes in a Soviet produced series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the 1970s and 1980s. Commended for being faithful reproductions of the original storylines, the series has proven to be popular outside of Russia.

Wontner and Livanov both appear regularly on lists of the best portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, but there is very good reason for them not to appear on my list – I regret to say that as of yet I haven’t seen them.

John Barrymore Lobby Card

Lobby Card Public Domain

Lobby Card Public Domain

The Best Sherlock Holmes

Honourable Mentions

Many great actors have played Sherlock Holmes over the years, including many stalwarts of the acting industry. Few actors have ever been panned for the portrayals and most productions have resulted in perfectly entertaining films and series

Two Hammer Horror legends took up the challenge of playing Sherlock Holmes, with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee both playing the detective. Cushing in particular is noted for a fine adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), as well as a 1960s TV series.

A James Bond and a Dr Who have also given it a go, although performances are not as memorable as Peter Cushing’s. Roger Moore appeared in Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976) and Tom Baker appeared in the 1982 TV series The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Other famous British actors have also made appearances as Sherlock Holmes, including Stewart Granger, Ian Richardson, Edward Woodward, Rupert Everett and Michael Caine. Michael Caine’s performance in Without a Clue (1988) is certainly memorable, although of course the story takes the concept of Sherlock Holmes at right-angle to the original stories.

Across the Atlantic and American actors John Barrymore and Charlton Heston, as well as the Canadian Christopher Plummer, have also tried their hand at playing Conan Doyle’s creation.


Colin Quartermain (author) on February 07, 2015:

I do certainly like the BBC Cumberbatch version - I dislike having to wait for more episodes, but I would equally hate it if they did so many episodes to spoil the feel of the series.

Elisabeth Ellis from Nashville, TN. on February 07, 2015:

I remember my dad, a very cerebral man, watching the old Sherlock Holmes series on PBS. I couldn't see the draw as it seemed dated even back then. Funny, I adore the new Sherlock Holmes with Cumberbatch and I imagine my dad would absolutely hate it.

Colin Quartermain (author) on January 16, 2015:

Thanks for commenting - whilst I think Jeremy Brett is best because it kept to the original storylines - but then again, I can't think of an adaptation which I haven't liked.

Just History from England on January 16, 2015:

For me it has to be Jeremy Brett-like you say at the end of the series he was very ill and I think it sometimes showed. Looking back on the series as an adult I realise how very dark it is sometimes- a thing I did not notice when I was younger when I was just keen to watch the story unfold

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