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The Men Behind The Pipe: The 5 Best Sherlock Holmes Portrayals In History

We celebrate the great detective’s literary debut 127 years ago today with an overview of some of the most riveting actors to ever claim it was "elementary."

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A roaring success since their literary debut 127 years ago today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson first appeared on film in a 1900 one-reel called Sherlock Holmes Baffled. He is undoubtedly the first thing that comes to mind when someone utters the word “detective.” Tall, lanky and cerebral, Holmes has thrilled the world with his daring exploits and his almost supernatural deductions since his first novel, A Study in Scarlet. Usually accompanied by his friend and biographer Dr. John Watson, Holmes embodies the eccentric efficiency of the British academic of the Victorian era. Currently, Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Holmes on BBC’s Sherlock) is the best Holmes in the world, but he’s hardly the best in history.

1. William Gillette

Few have done more to shape the popular perception of Holmes than Gillette, a Connecticut-born stage actor and playwright who first started portraying Holmes in 1899. Gillette’s debut as Sherlock Holmes was in the four-act production simply entitled Sherlock Holmes, which was co-written by Gillette and Doyle. Playing Holmes as the Yankee ideal, Gillette is credited with both introducing the curved calabash pipe to the character (in the original stories Holmes smokes straight pipes made out of briar, clay and cherry), as well as being the source of the famous quote “Elementary, my dear Watson.” In his time, Gillette was an international celebrity, and more than any other actor, his alterations and mannerisms helped to define the character of Holmes.

2. Basil Rathbone

While Gillette may have been the best all-around actor to ever portray Holmes, Rathbone, a South African by birth but an Englishman by parentage, was the most popular. Between 1939 and 1946, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (who did untold damage to the legacy of Dr. Watson by playing him as an old buffoon) starred in a staggering 14 films for 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios. For the most part, the Rathbone and Bruce films are set in contemporary London, and as such, their adversaries includefemme fatales, Nazis and a chameleon-like Professor Moriarty. While thoroughly campy and sometimes ridiculous, these films expertly capture the prewar, war and postwar attitudes of the Transatlantic public. The best one of the bunch — 1946’s Terror by Night — places Holmes and Watson in situation worthy of an Agatha Christie novel.

3. Peter Cushing

Best known today for his portrayal of Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV, Cushing was a veteran actor whose career lasted four decades. In the 1950s, Cushing first gained international fame for his ability to play both good and bad guys in productions such as 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein (where he played Baron Von Frankenstein) and 1958’sHorror of Dracula (where he played Dr. Abraham Van Helsing). In 1959, Cushing and his friend Christopher Lee teamed up in The Hound of the Baskervilles, with Cushing playing Holmes and Lee playing Sir Henry Baskerville. As the first adaptation to be filmed in color, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the very best Sherlock films, and much of this success is due to Cushing (a real-life aficionado of Holmes) and his gentlemanly posture.


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