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William Gillette and the Holmes Holy Grail

This silent film star delivered the ultimate Sherlock Holmes performance. Sadly, all footage of his work was lost–until now.

william gillette sherlock holmes
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  • Photo Credit: Gillette/Stringer

For today’s fans of Sherlock Holmes, it is frequently taken as a fact that the best impersonation has been by Jeremy Brett, who played him for eleven years (1984-1994) in the Granada Series (though some younger fans would probably vote for Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played the title role in Sherlock since 2010). For an earlier generation, it was Basil Rathbone who personified him.

However, the first actor to be universally acclaimed as the ultimate Holmes was William Gillette, who appeared on the stage in Sherlock Holmes, a drama he wrote himself (though Arthur Conan Doyle also gets credit as the author).

Related: The 10 Best Sherlock Holmes Portrayals on Film and TV—Ranked  

Modern readers and aficionados of the character have had to depend on memories passed down from one generation to the next, as well as accounts by critics and others who saw the play. Frederic Dorr Steele, the greatest American illustrator of Holmes, based his drawings and paintings entirely on Gillette, convinced that he was the very essence of the great detective.

Photographs of Gillette in the role exist, of course, but few living people could have seen him on the stage or screen, since he stopped performing in 1923. Until now, that is.

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
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  • William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

    Photo Credit: Gillette/Stringer

A nearly 100-year-old silent film titled Sherlock Holmes starring Gillette has been discovered at the Cinémathèque Française. Even though the 1916 film isn’t the first Holmes film ever made, it is the only one starring Gilllette.

Related: David Stuart Davies: My Life with Sherlock   

Directed by Arthur Berthelet, the film had long been believed to have been lost. It was the only time he appeared before the camera, though he starred in the play 1,300 times in his lifetime. It is Gillette who was the first actor to wear the famous deerstalker hat, and he smoke a curved calabash pipe (which he substituted for the straight one that Holmes smoked in the stories).

The film is currently undergoing restoration by the Cinémathèque Française and San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It will have its American debut at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in May 2015.

Otto Penzler is the founder of the Mysterious Press (1975), a distinguished publisher of literary crime fiction whose imprint is now associated with Grove/Atlantic, Mysterious Press.com (2011), an electronic-book publishing company associated with Open Road Integrated Media, and New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop (1979). He has won two Edgars, for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1977) and The Lineup (2010). He has edited more than 50 anthologies and written extensively about mystery fiction.

Featured photo: Gillette/Stringer