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Which Actor Is the Best Sherlock Holmes?

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.

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.

Jonny Lee Miller

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.

Benedict Cumberbatch

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

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!

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27 Comments

Each actor brings some different and new to the lore of the detective. But my favorite still is Jeremy Brett he was amazing and the period piece and costumes of the time just makes it come alive.

For a twist on moder style then Benedict Cumberbatch was a love made in heaven for us who like the detective and his off the wall obsessions. The movies are a whole different ball game and there is more emphasis on actions than dialog or detective work, still all of them do bring something to the table when it comes to Sherlock Homes. To think people still today love this character so much.

Yeah, it's amazing how so many actors can portray the same character so differently!

Personally, I love seeing all the new interpretations. When the BBC Sherlock series came out, I was well-prepared to hate it due to its modernity. However, it blew me away within the first five minutes, and I was totally hooked.

Cumberbatch did a magnificent job, and I'm anxiously awaiting the next episode!

Robert Downey, Jr. is by far my favorite.
However, I have not seen Jeremy Brett as Holmes.

Like I said in the beginning, it's often a question of taste. I'm a big fan of RDJ as an actor (see Iron Man and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but I couldn't help but feel that he was out of place as Holmes.

If you aren't a big fan of Cumberbatch, you likely won't enjoy Brett's Holmes, either. They're much closer to the book-Holmes than RDJ's and Miller's. =)

Even though he is not Holmes... House is the best modern personification, I loved the show so much! I even like it more than Elementary and Sherlock.

I agree with Brett, though. Definitely the best "real" Holmes.

Haha, I wouldn't exactly consider House to be "canon", but he's a pretty strong Holmes-like character.

That's probably because he takes after Doctor Joseph Bell, the man who was Doyle's inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. =)

How about Vasily Livanov? He became a "Member of the Order of the British Empire" for his role as a Sherlock Holmes.

Image via luga.ru

Regretfully, I haven't seen any of Livanov's performances! I intend to, though, as I've heard good things about him. Do you know if they're available on DVD?

Without doubt it is Jeremy Brett. Do yourself a favour and read Conon Doyle's canon then watch the Granada series. Brett is Holmes. As the series progressed so did Brett's heart disease. The medications he was taking caused him to look bloated and his appearance was ghastly.

Whilst the newer movies are entertaining RDJs version seems to have to be a bit too manic otherwise it would be quite flat. I have not watched Elementary and have not found myself wanting for it. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent in his portrayal. Like Brett he captures the eccentricities of the character and that touch of disdain for those who do not follow his logic. My favourite scene shows him speaking to a client who smokes but is hesitant to light up in front of him. Cumberbatch yells at him; Smoke! Just so he can get a bit of second hand since he has allegedly quit smoking himself. Brilliant acting.

I'm glad you agree!

Honestly, you should give Elementary a try. Don't go into it expecting an accurate representation of Holmes, and you may find yourself enjoying the show! The writing and acting are actually pretty good. =)

Austin, I may do just that. I've a friend who watches the show and he says the same. Great world you created here.

Please let me know what you think if you do end up watching it! We can talk about it. =)

Sorry, but in my opinion "Elementary'" is just another run of the mill CBS procedural. The actors are good, but they simply use the monikers to sell the show. The writers of the show love throwing in names from the Canon, but as the good Doctor might put it, "Their knowledge of the Canon is nil." I'm not feeling this show at all. I have a collection of several hundred Holmes related DVDs, but this series will not be a part of it.

Basil Rathbone was the actor who brought me to The Canon. His image stayed with me as the personification of the character. Though I loved Nigel Bruce, his Watson could not have been further from the mark.

This image of Holmes lasted until Jeremy Brett.

Having known him as the befuddled Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady, I had my doubts. But he nailed it. The Watsons changed in mid stream but both were better than Bruce.

Even though the actors in both modern homages are brilliant in their takes on the character, Brett is still my Holmes.

Stephen Fry is my Mycroft, however.

Basil Rathbone was the first Holmes that many people experienced, and he's certainly the most iconic. That said, there were of course some issues with his performance from a canonical perspective, and as you said, his Watson was, well... Yeah, no more needs to be said of that farce.

Also, Stephen Fry did, indeed, do an excellent Mycroft! I was surprised! =)

He replied to my tweet sending kudos for his performance, ending with in the future he would try to keep his clothes on.

LOL!

Stephen Fry actually responded to your tweet?? That's amazing!

Dr. Watson was often not used in earlier films because it was tough to fit a narrator role into the action. Nigel Bruce should receive his due for breaking that mold, and making Watson a key player. He wasn't quite the buffoon in the first two efforts prior to WWII, however with the high tension of the war, the writer's made him one to lighten things up a bit. Bruce still though always has the most important element down pat, the importance of the friendship between Holmes & Watson. With the emerging trend of Watson being of equal status to Holmes, i.e. Jude Law & Martin Freeman, I find our friend Nigel Bruce's efforts being undeservedly bashed all too often.

I didnt any of them at all really until Robert played his. I have no idea if thats because I'm an Iron Man fan but still........he did an awesome job

RDJ was a fine actor, and portrayed a good character; however, that character wasn't the same character as the one that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of.

Similarly, Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock series is absolutely enthralling, and is an amazing performance. However, he's radically different than how he was portrayed in the books. =)

Why was it "problematic" that Irene Adler was a Dominatrix?

It makes Cumberbatch having OCD or bipolar... But he is the best modern adaption of Sherlock.

Benedict Cumberbatch. In fact I only saw BBC's Sherlock and Robert Downey, Jr. I prefer Cumberbatch.

Livanov was brilliant, his performance as Holmes was simply amazing (with respect to the gentlemen mentioned above), so was the performance of Solomin (who portrayed Dr. Watson). It is known when Connan Doyle's daughter had seen this series she said "If my father saw this Russian Sherlock Holmes he would be happy." Anyway, from the actors mentioned in this article I prefer Brett by far.

An entire series of essays about Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson in the media can be found in the Diogenes Library at:

http://www.nplh.co.uk/original-essays.html

I highly recommend it, you will thoroughly enjoying reading them all. There are many pictures and links in them.

Sir John Gielgud (Sherlock Holmes) and Sir Ralph Richardson (Dr. Watson) were wonderful in the radio versions. As far as screenplay goes, I was reared on John Barrymore as Holmes when very young but the first incarnation of Holmes I experienced in in serial format which really grabbed me was the iconic Basil Rathbone whom I adored and most especially in Dressed To Kill with the demure femme fatale, Patricia Morison playing Mrs Hilda Courtney. This was Holmes with both adventurousness and a sense of humour not again seen until Christopher Lee played the role alongside Patrick McNee as Watson. Vasily Livanov reinvented the character but retain so very much to endear one to the otherwise difficult Holmes.

It's easy to say whom I believe the worst Holmes-without a dount Benedict Cumberbatch; the ladies may swoon over him but he utterly killed the character and is in every way wrong as Holmes. However if I had to pick an all-time favourite it would undoubtedly be Jeremy Brett. I could not abide him in this role at first as he was utterly snide and pompous. But then such a great criminologist mind would be. Now I realise he nailed it; sauve, sophisticated, pristine, an undercurrent of wit but utterly infuriating.....because he is invariably right.

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