Sherlock Holmes and the actors who have played him

Sherlock is a literary phenomenon, as all Sherlockians know. There are few characters that are as compelling in the 21st century as when created 130 years ago.  His enduring appeal means that Sherlock has notched up a fair few portrayals on film and television, as one would expect in our entertainment-obsessed world.  

Since his creation in December 1887, Sherlock Holmes has been played by over 75 actors including Sir Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, Peter Cook, Roger Moore, John Cleese, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. In fact, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV, says Guinness World Records. 

As of 2012, Sherlock had appeared on screen 254 times, a figure that has risen since then. The world record was recognised as part of the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock

The first actor to portray Sherlock Holmes on TV was Louis Hector (USA) in an experimental NBC (USA) production in 1937. Of course, some actors are better remembered than others for their portrayal of the famous detective. 

 Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson

An older generation might favour Basil Rathbone who played Sherlock in a series of 14 films released between 1939 and 1946.  Another generation might cite Jeremy Brett who portrayed Sherlock in the TV series that ran between 1984 and 1994.

Today, the successful BBC TV series Sherlock has ensured Benedict Cumberbatch a place on that list. For many, he tops it.  Cumberbatch was named the greatest on-screen Sherlock Holmes in a poll conducted by Digital Spy six years ago.  More than 2,000 people voted in the poll with 58% of them naming Cumberbatch as the best Holmes.  Jeremy Brett came second with 19% of the vote and Robert Downey Jr scooping bronze position with 16%. 

 

Links to Sherlock Holmes Tartan

Cumberbatch’s success could be attributed to the fact that Sherlock is in his blood.  In a twist that is in keeping with the character and his world, ancestry researchers discovered that the actor is related to Sherlock creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.    The actor and author are 16th cousins, twice removed, according to Ancestry.com   

It says that Doyle and Cumberbatch's common ancestor was John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and the fourth son of King Edward III of England, who lived in the 14th century. John of Gaunt was Doyle's 15th great-grandfather and Cumberbatch's 17th great-grandfather.

In an interesting twist, there is also a connection between Sherlock Holmes Tartan and another actor – Nicholas Rowe - who has played Sherlock Holmes on-screen. Nicholas Rowe is related by marriage to Sherlock Holmes Tartan creator Tania Henzell and has played Sherlock Holmes more than once. 

Early in his career, he played Sherlock Holmes in Barry Levinson’s film Young Sherlock Holmes. Nicholas returned to the role of Sherlock Holmes 30 years later in the 2015 film Mr. Holmes in which he plays the part of Holmes in a black and white film that is viewed by the ‘real’ Sherlock, now in his 90s (played by Ian McKellen).