Before Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr., the most famous faces of Sherlock Holmes in our time were Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone
But before these actors, there was someone considered to be the quintessential Holmes, actor Arthur Wontner, who played Sherlock in five films from 1931 to 1937. Many critics thought he perfectly captured Holmes’ intelligence and mannerisms.
The Sleeping Cardinal (1931) (US title: Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour)
The Missing Rembrandt (1932) thought to be lost for many years, a copy was found in the United States and can now be viewed.
The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes’ Greatest Case (1932)
The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)
Silver Blaze (1937) (US title: Murder at the Baskervilles, release 1941)
Of all the actors who have played the part, Wontner most closely resembles the image of Sherlock Holmes from illustrations in The Strand Magazine that accompanied the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories.
Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle did not envision Sherlock to be quite so handsome. In his autobiography, Doyle imagined Holmes this way: “a thin razor-like face, with a great hawk’s bill of a nose, and two small eyes, set close together on either side of it.” He says of illustrator Sidney Paget, who may have used his brother as inspiration, “The handsome Walter (Sidney’s brother) took the place of the more powerful but uglier Sherlock.”
As a side note, it was Paget who gifted Sherlock with his now famous deerstalker cap and Inverness cape. Neither item was ever mentioned in the stories.
At least 45 actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes either on film or television. Some of the least likely Sherlock Holmes were played by actors whose stardom may have overwhelmed the role.
Roger Moore and Charleton Heston – no matter how you dress them up, it’s hard not to see James Bond and Ben-Hur. Opinions on their performances varied wildly, but most found it hard to picture either as a credible Holmes. Rupert Everett also played Sherlock, and while his characteristic bored, languid persona might seem to fit the detective, it just didn’t hit the mark.
Roger Moore, Sherlock Holmes in New York, 1976
Charleton Heston The Crucifer of Blood, 19i1
Rupert Everett Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, 2004
And the next Sherlock? Johnny Lee Miller will play him in a series called “Elementary” which may air in the U.S. on CBS in the fall of 2012.
It remains to be seen how he will interpret the part.
For more Sherlock Holmes – Holmes Actors and the Star Wars / Star Trek Connection (on my other blog)