Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous characters in modern history, and has appeared in film more often than any other character. No less than 78 different actors have taken their turn at portraying the enigmatic deduction machine in various mediums, and each has brought their own foibles to the role. Some of the names may even surprise you: Tom Baker, John Cleese, Peter Cushing, Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, and even Leonard Nimoy.
The "best" Sherlock Holmes actor is a pretty subjective rubric, as tastes will vary from person to person. It's sort of like asking which actor was the best Doctor from Doctor Who; generally folks like the first Doctor they were exposed to, as he embodies the character to them. Likewise, people may feel the same way about Sherlock Holmes.
However, unlike in Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes has a canon from which to judge the actors. That is, the stories themselves do a pretty good job of showing exactly the sort of man that Holmes is; how do the actors measure up?
Obviously I can't go through the entire catalog of 78 actors, so I'll stick to the more recent ones that have garnered some attention for the franchise. As a scholar who has studied Holmes, I feel that I'm in a pretty good position to judge.
Robert Downey, Jr. (or, RDJ as the internet knows him) has played perhaps the most high-profile version of Holmes in a long time in the recent big-budget, Hollywood Holmes films. His interpretation has engendered much discussion (and much swooning) on the internet, and many see him as too much of a rough-and-tumble sort to be a "true" Holmes.
However, even fans of the original literature sometimes forget exactly how active Holmes is in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Holmes is a skilled fighter, from hand-to-hand combat, to fencing, and has his share of derring-do. While 'action' never appears so strongly in the books as it does in the RDJ films, it's not unprecedented by any means.
To the contrary, what really stood out to me as disqualifying RDJ from being the "best" Holmes were his social skills. Holmes, in the books, is painted as a man who fundamentally doesn't understand the subtleties of social interaction, but can nonetheless ape them from time to time for his own benefit. RDJ was far too socially well-adapted to be a good Holmes. He was certainly entertaining, yes, but he felt out of place in the role.
Not many will recognize his name off the bat, but Mr. Miller plays Holmes in the ongoing CBS crime drama, Elementary.
While this show is clearly not meant to be a faithful adaptation, the character is still named Sherlock Holmes and is thus still subject to consideration in this article. I mean, the eponymous quote "Elementary, my dear Watson" never actually appeared in any of the Holmes stories, so how faithful could you expect this show to be?
I went into this show expecting to immediately dislike it, I'll be honest. However, it surprised me by actually being a pretty good show. So how does the acting stack up?
Pretty well, actually!
Miller does a rather excellent job of portraying Holmes, though is perhaps a little too empathic and well-adjusted socially to be fully accurate. Still, I was very impressed by what I saw. There are two main differences in character of Holmes in the show, though.
The first is that book-Holmes never discusses sex, ever. It is implied that Holmes is more or less asexual for the purposes of the books. To put a finer point on it, Holmes is a heterosexual male who hates women, and thus has no outlet for his sexual nature, which becomes thoroughly repressed. In Elementary, Holmes is depicted as something of a "ladies man" in that he is capable of getting the attraction of many women, and is willing to have purely sexual relations with them.
The second problem is the drugs. Book-Holmes used cocaine recreationally to stimulate his overactive brain between cases. Miller's Holmes is the opposite; he became addicted to drugs, and used them during cases to supposedly enhance his abilities. During the show, Holmes has given them up and is living entirely sober, which is a major premise of the show.
So while Miller puts on a strong performance as Holmes, these inconsistencies prevent him from being a "best" Holmes.
While his name might be odd, Mr. Cumberbatch took the world by storm in the recent BBC series Sherlock. Playing the eponymous detective, Cumberbatch does a fantastic job of capturing both the benefits and detriments that Holmes experiences as a result of his deductive gifts.
In fact, the entire show is excellent. It's a modern adaptation of the Holmes stories, but is more faithful than Elementary. It incorporates modern crime-solving methods, but still manages to give a Holmesian slant to them. John Watson, played by Martin Freeman, also deserves accolades for his impressive, nuanced performance.
Frankly, I have no real complaints about Cumberbatch's take on Holmes. I could nitpick about a few things, but overall it's a very solid adaptation of the character. I have a hard time imagining how Holmes could better be translated to modern times.
Still, the show had some issues when dealing with Irene Adler (who was reimagined as a dominatrix, problematically), and Moriarty (while a brilliant character and performance) was nearly the diametric opposite of his literary counterpart. We can't hold that against Cumberbatch, though; his performance has been mostly flawless.
In fact, were it not for one other actor who had nailed the role so definitively, Cumberbatch would stand a good shot at being one of the best Holmeses of all time.
Which leads us to our last Holmes...
Jeremy Brett is widely regarded as the quintessential Sherlock Holmes. While his work is neither current nor widely-known, he starred in a series of Sherlock Holmes films and episodes between 1984 and 1994. If you wish to see a physical manifestation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, look no further than Jeremy Brett.
These films and episodes weren't so much interpretations as much as adaptations. Each one is mostly true to the original stories, and Brett's acting is no exception.
Every single nuance of Holmes's character is writ large across Brett's face, from his engaged hyperactivity to his disengaged languor. Smoking his pipe to solve a problem, playing the violin (badly) to relieve stress... His social skills (or lack thereof) and sense of drama are all intact, and you can practically see the toll that human interaction takes on Holmes. It's such a good likeness that I'd go so far as to say that Brett is Holmes.
So if you're interested in seeing a spot-on interpretation of Holmes, go treat yourself to Brett's performance! The episodes themselves tend to drag a bit as they're based on the original stories; they don't take the sort of liberties that we see in the more popular shows, which are designed to be more exciting and fast-paced for a modern audience.
Still, the sheer force of Brett's acting can pull you through the episodes if all else fails. Go check him out, though stay away from the later stuff. Brett suffered from many health problems later in his life, and his acting suffered as a result. But if you're a fan of Sherlock Holmes and you haven't seen Brett's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you are missing out!