There have been over 150 actors who portrayed the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes since 1899, when the play Sherlock Holmes premiered, starring William Gillette. Each generation sees more actors tackling the role on television and on film. But only one actor can be the best Sherlock Holmes of all time.
For many, that actor was Jeremy Brett (1933 – 1955.) He portrayed Holmes from 1984 to 1994. After the first episode aired, critics and Sherlockians began crowning Brett as the best Holmes ever. All the other actors can just take their magnifying lenses and go home. Why was Brett the best? Glad you asked. Here are ten reasons why.
One: Just Look at Him
The public’s first visual interpretation of Holmes was done by illustrator Sidney Paget. Brett and the producers of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes studied the original Paget drawings. Take a look at this comparison of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes and the original Sidney Paget drawing of a key scene in “The Naval Treaty.” They’re nearly mirror-images of each other. Brett helped choose his wardrobe in order to keep them as authentic as possible.
Two: I Mean, Just LOOK at Him
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was amazed (and annoyed) by the huge piles of fan mail that came not for him, but for Sherlock Holmes. Many were from women. Although Doyle wrote that Holmes sneered at women, was a confirmed bachelor and celibate throughout his career, women were magnetically attracted to him. Brett was the first actor to capitalize on this sex appeal by adding a simmering volcanic intensity to his performance. For example, in “The Copper Beeches” his Holmes reaches out to stroke a governess’ hair – and then just as slowly withdraws his hand, like a snake sticking out its tongue to taste the air.
Three: Sense of Humor
Until Brett’s Holmes hit the small screen in 1984, Sherlock Holmes was considered a cold fish who rarely cracked a smile, let alone laughed. However, Doyle portrayed Holmes as often laughing. In “A Scandal in Bohemia” Holmes laughs so hard that he “was obliged to lie back, limp and helpless, in the chair.” Brett picked up on that. His Holmes was still intense and at times deadly serious, but he also was quick to laugh and even quicker to flash a wide smile. His series also added little comic touches not seen in the Doyle stories but keeping entirely in Holmes’ character.
Four: Hand Motions
Brett was trained as a stage actor. One of his mentors was none other than Sir Lawrence Olivier. Brett learned that hand motions can tell the audience as much about a character as dialogue or plot. Doyle also wrote that Holmes would throw his hands about or leaned on them in contemplation. Brett developed an entire dictionary of hand motions in order to show Holmes’ moods.
Five: Dealt With That Darn Cocaine Addiction
Up until The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the Great Detective’s cocaine addiction was mostly ignored by stage and screen. (The movie The Seven Percent Solution (1976) was a notable exception.) However, Doyle wrote that Holmes injected cocaine (then spelled “cocaine”) for most of his career. Brett showed his Holmes before and after injecting. When he realized that children were looking up to Holmes, he had his Holmes quit during the episode “The Devil’s Foot.”
Six: Worked With Doyle’s Daughter
Some scripts such as “The Devil’s Foot” were approved by Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Doyle’s daughter. One of Brett’s most prized possessions was a letter from her stating, “You are the Sherlock Holmes of my childhood.”
Seven: Micromanaged Most of the Series
When Grenada Studios hired Brett, they weren’t just hiring an actor. They were also hiring a scriptwriter, set designer, makeup artist, camera man, location spotter and fact finder. In other words, Brett wound up micromanaging the series from Day 1. When the money and accolades started coming in, Grenada let him. When his health became very bad in the early 1990s, he finally decided to let the other people on the set make some decisions.
Eight: Stayed in Character Outside of the Set
Stories abound about Brett finding it difficult to switch from being Holmes back to being Jeremy Brett. Some actors would actually be shocked when Brett would switch from himself to Holmes. Holmes was a stern taskmaster and never suffered fools gladly. Staff from the Manchester Hotel where the crew stayed during filming claimed that they loved waiting on Brett but dreaded having to wait on Holmes.
Nine: He Helped Write a Killer Sherlock Holmes Play
In honor of Holmes’ 100th anniversary, Brett hired scriptwriter Jeremy Paul to write a play about the relationship between Holmes and Watson. The first version of the play was written by Brett himself. It consisted of him talking into eight hours’ worth of cassette tapes. Paul then whittled the play down to two hours. The result, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, provides a startling yet somewhat affectionate portrait of Holmes himself.
Ten: Brett Never Thought He Did Any Good
Brett was never satisfied with his portrayal of Holmes, although he would lash very defensively at critics of his work or of the series in general. Brett would state in 1989 that Holmes was the hardest role he ever played, even harder than Macbeth. His Holmes evolved, unlike Doyle’s Holmes. Doyle’s Holmes was a marble statue and Brett was the cracks in the statue, making it even more precious than when it was in pristine condition.