Sherlock Holmes: 25 Legendary Performances

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to get clued in on these portrayals of the famed violin playing, coke-sniffing detective.

Fans of the great detective are typically familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. They also know that those stories have been published, republished, and then published again. Sherlock Holmes is THE classic character who has found his place on the page, on the stage, on the big screen and the small. He has been repackaged, reformatted, revamped, reimagined, and rebooted. But when the writer’s work is done, who makes the man? Den of Geek takes a look back at the top 25 iconic actors who have breathed new life into irrepressible Sherlock Holmes for the past 113 years!

25. Actor UnknownGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes Baffled (Short Film 1900) 

This short, silent film was originally produced by Arthur Marvin for Mutoscope and features a 30 second running time. While the story has no real plot, with Holmes coming face to face with a thief who can make a bag of stolen goods appear and disappear, it was not meant to mimic Doyle’s stories so much as cameo a famous character for the arcade. Long thought lost, the film was rediscovered in 1968 (and is available online). Thus our unknown actor has the distinction of being the first Sherlock Holmes on film!

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24. Mack SennettGot a clue in: about a dozen Sherlock silent films (1911-1913) 

A clown, comedian, and peddler of fine (old timey) female flesh (the “Sennett Bathing Beauties”), Sennett was a definitely a man who liked to laugh. He got the chance to show off his acting chops as Holmes in eleven silent films. Sort of. While these films were still comedies, they gave their star the distinction of being one of the first identifiable actors to portray the iconic character on film.

23. William GilletteGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes (Silent Film, 1916) 

Gillette was the first actor to lend gravitas to the character while on screen. Although historians have observed that the mystery actor in “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” based his own performance on Gillette’s earlier stage representation of the great detective! In fact, Gillette was the first actor to put on the now iconic deerstalker hat and curved pipe. While Doyle never specifically said Holmes wore the deerstalker, Watson described him as wearing an ear-flap cap in some of the narrative.

22. John BarrymoreGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes (Film, 1922)    

Best known for being the grandfather of adorable modern day actress Drew Barrymore, John was also a bit of a tool. Sure he survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but then he went around reporting bogus stories in an effort to capitalize on the tragedy! Still, John brought some much needed sex appeal to Holmes, in this loosely adapted version of William Gillette’s play. Another silent film thought lost, the feature was rediscovered in the 1970s, restored, and re-released on blue ray in 2011!

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21. Raymond MasseyGot a clue in: The Speckled Band (Film, 1931) 

Raymond Massey; Canadian military veteran, stage actor (making his acting debut for the troops in Siberia), and director has the distinction of starring in the first Sherlock Holmes talkie. While not the first sound film (that was The Jazz Singer which opened in 1927), The Speckled Band was still on the cutting edge of technological advancement for its time. Especially when you consider that at the time, more than half of the films screened worldwide were still silent.

20. Basil RathboneGot a clue in: virtually every Sherlock film imaginable and TV series (1939-1953) 

This shocked me. When I think of Basil Rathbone, I think of the pointy-chinned pirate, Levasseur, fencing with Errol Flynn in the 1935 film Captain Blood. But as it turns out, Rathbone starred as Sherlock Holmes in 14 feature films and a television series. Rathbone pretty much defined the character during the mid-20th century. Only his was a Holmes for the modern audience, a man who fought Moriarty AND Nazis. This was one busy detective! Fun fact: Eve Titus named “The Great Mouse Detective” for this somewhat high strung incarnation of Holmes.

19. Alan NapierGot a clue in: The Speckled Band (TV, 1949) 

Best known for his role as Batman’s butler Alfred on the 1966 television series, Napier got his turn as the great detective long before. The half-hour long episode was part of a dramatic television series based on stories by famous authors (Doyle, Twain, Dickens, etc.). Unfortunately the series was short-lived and Napier, an Oxford educated actor, had to resign himself to sharing his dignified screen presence with a paunchy Adam West.

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18. Ronald HowardGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes (TV, 1954-1955) 

Another landmark in Holmes history, Ronald Howard has the distinction of being the first Sherlock in a made for syndication television series for the U.S. His version of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes was markedly different from that of his predecessors, and Howard went out of his way to set himself apart from the iconic performance of Basil Rathbone. His Holmes was less neurotic and much more deliberate. The series also deviated from Doyle’s stories, with my favorite example being “The Case of the Texas Cowgirl.”

17. Peter CushingGot a clue in: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Film, 1959), Sherlock Holmes (TV, 1965-1968) The Masks of Death (TV Film, 1984) 

The iconic Mr. Cushing, best known for his work in Hammer Horror films (and the Doctor Who Dalek films), helped bring classic Gothic horror to Holmes. Cushing, like Christopher Lee or Vincent Price, was practically an acting institution. He was a fan of Doyle’s work, and brought his knowledge of the text to bear on both the film and the later television series. Even though we are adrift on a sea of Sherlock films and series, Cushing’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is considered to be a cult classic.

16. Sir Christopher LeeGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (Film, 1962), Incident at Victoria Falls, Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (TV Film, 1992) 

Fun fact: Christopher Lee starred opposite Cushing in the above mentioned, 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles as Sir Henry Baskerville. Like Cushing, Lee was best known for his work in horror (and more recently for old man fighting with Yoda and, later, with Ian McKellan in LoTR). Unfortunately his first run as the great detective was a great disappointment. Neither Lee nor the director were pleased with the end result. Lee would go on to take the role of Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes before reprising his role as an aged and retired Holmes in 1992.

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15. John NevilleGot a clue in: A Study in Terror (Film, 1965) 

Another entirely original story line, which found Neville’s Holmes hot on the trail of Jack the Ripper. Considering how much the Ripper murders had enflamed the public during the late 1880s, it is surprising that Doyle did not employ such a case in his own writing. This film was also the inspiration for Manly Wade Wellson’s novel, Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds. For his efforts, Neville was praised for a Rathbone-esq performance. 

14. George C. ScottGot a clue in: They Might Be Giants (Film, 1971) 

It is hard to imagine General Patton doing comedy, much less playing a bumbling and quixotic character who imagines himself as a modern day Holmes. But it happened. Somewhat of an anomaly, this film still deserves a place on this list for no other reason than its cult classic gravitas. Plus it is too easy to picture Scott slapping his would be Watson for crying at a crime scene.

13. John CleeseGot a clue in: Elementary, My Dear Watson (TV, 1973), The Strange case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (Film, 1977) 

Ah the 70’s. A great time for comedy and a better time for spoofs of Sherlock Holmes. Cleese, of Monty Python fame, was an obvious choice to take on this particular version of the great detective. Both the television series and the film take aim at the formulaic plots, outrageous deductions by Holmes, and general buffoonery by Watson that had come to plague so many of the 20th century incarnations of Doyle’s iconic character.

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12. Roger MooreGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes in New York (TV Film, 1976)  Roger Moore made a name for himself playing characters who solved mysteries of one stripe or another. In The Saint he was a detective/thief, in The Pursuaders he was a playboy millionaire/detective, in James Bond” he was a spy/playboy, and in Sherlock Holmes in New York he was a detective and the father of Irene Adler’s illegitimate son. A Victorian film set in New York City and made notable by the presence of Roger Moore’s own son, Geoffrey Moore, who played the role of Adler’s son (who would no doubt require therapy later in life). 

11. Christopher PlummerGot a clue in: Silver Blaze (TV Film, 1977) Murder by Decree (Film, 1979) 

Captain Von Trapp made the notable decision to play up the great detective’s drug addiction when he played him in this adaption of Doyle’s work, which stayed true to the original. While Plummer would go on to reprise his role of Holmes, Silver Blaze also starred Thorley Walters, who had played Watson in four separate films.

10. Peter CookGot a clue in: The Hound of the Baskervilles (Film, 1978) 

Peter Cook was one half of a famous comedic double act, and Dudley Moore was the other. It is no surprise then, to discover that Moore played Watson to Cook’s Holmes. Not for the refined or stuffy fan of the great detective, this particular comedy relies heavily on low brow humor, employing Chihuahua pee and vomiting brought on by demonic possession.

9. Vasily LivanovGot a clue in: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Film Series 1979-1986) 

Yes, these are Russian adaptations, but it is worth noting that Livanov’s performances are considered the best representations of Sherlock Holmes – ever. Better than Rathbone, and that is saying something!

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8. Frank LangellaGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes (TV Film, 1981) 

Originally a Williamstown Theater Production, Langella’s stage version of Holmes was filmed as part of the HBO series Standing Room Only. And it was as riveting as you might imagine watching a play on television might be. The stage design and acting style which had worked so well for a theater with 600 seats did not hold up on the small screen. Fun fact: this was another adaption of William Gillette’s play and is available on YouTube if you care to judge Langella’s performance for yourself!

7. Tom BakerGot a clue in: The Hound of the Baskervilles (TV Mini Series, 1982)

Tom Baker is perhaps best known as the fourth Doctor from Doctor Who; and in one episode donned the deerstalker hat of our great detective. He picked up the reins on this BBC series from Peter Cushing, although the general consensus is that he should have left the role of Holmes to his predecessor.

6. Peter O’TooleGot a clue in: Sherlock Holmes and the Baskerville Curse, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, the Valley of Fear (Animated TV Films, 1983)

Lawrence of Arabia brings Sherlock Holmes to life, sort of. O’Toole leant his voice to this animated series. I scoured the web, but this appears to be the first time the great detective was animated. Challenge to all you Sherlock geeks: was there an animated series that predates this BBC production?

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5. Michael CaineGot a clue in: Without a Clue (Film, 1988)

Another comedy, this time pairing Michael Caine’s Holmes with Ben Kingsley’s Watson. Sort of. In this spoof the great detective is actually a fiction written by Dr. Watson and brought to life by Caine who plays an otherwise out of work stage actor. The best part of the work is the role reversal between Watson and Holmes in addition to the acknowledgement that even Doyle himself grew tired of his trademark character.

4. Charlton HestonGot a clue in: The Crucifer of Blood (Film, 1991)

Adapted by Paul Giovanni from Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, this theater production showed on Broadway and in L.A., where it starred Charlton Heston. Heston then went on to reprise his role in the film version, which was directed by his son Fraser Clarke Heston.

3. Robert Downey Jr.Got a clue in: Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Film, 2009, 2011)

Robert Downey Jr. has set himself apart from the previous actors to portray Sherlock Holmes by being scrappy. Ridiculously scrappy. Kick your ass in a dark alley scrappy. In real life, Downey has a reputation of being a nice guy, but he also drew heavily on personal experiences to bring his detective to life. Particularly, his practice of Wing Chun, a southern Chinese style of kung fu recently the popularized by Donnie Yen and his “Ip Man” series. Full disclosure, my husband has taught this style of martial arts for years. And according to him, Downey knows his stuff. Which added a nice air of authenticity to an otherwise over the top couple of films.

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2. Benedict CumberbatchGot a clue in: Sherlock (TV, 2010)

This short run BBC series that has fans clamoring for more embraces the modern audience’s love of the crime procedural drama, and focuses on Cumberbatch’s insufferable (yet somehow adorable) personality disorder riddled Holmes. He is like a British version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. The series pairs Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (who also star in Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit trilogy) to great effect. 

1. Jonny Lee MillerGot a clue in: Elementary (TV, 2012)

And finally the latest in our long line of detectives. Miller manages to put even more of a modern spin on Holmes than Cumberbatch. Scruffy and a bit unhinged, he reminds this viewer of an infinitely sexier Monk. Unfortunately, rabid fan trolling being what it is, the show has been overshadowed by the (completely objective) horror that some people felt upon learning that Watson would be played by Lucy Liu, who despite her talent as an actress, had committed the unforgivable sins of being both a WOMAN and NOT WHITE. Get a grip kids, Holmes has been alive and kicking for well over 100 years, and I expect we will see a great deal more in terms of innovative reimagining over the next 100 years of the character’s history!

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