In 2012, Guinness World Records dubbed Sherlock Holmes “the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV,” with a whopping 254 on-screen depictions. Seeing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary detective brought to life is always exciting. Among the many interpretations of the master sleuth, ten stand out as being particularly important within the Sherlock Holmes cannon. Here’s our list of the most iconic Sherlock Holmes portrayals.
10. Robert Downey Jr.
Downey Jr.’s Holmes, directed by Guy Richie, is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially for Sherlock purists. However, his willingness to break the mold and take a major chance on a beloved character establishes his performance as one of the most important ones in the cannon. This Sherlock, alongside a dashing Watson played by Jude Law, is a gritty action hero, with a penchant for getting into physical fights. That Downey Jr. keeps the inherently Sherlock-ian qualities of mania and irreverence firmly within his unusual portrayal of the detective is an impressive feat.
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9. Douglas Wilmer
Before the iconic Peter Cushing took over the role of Sherlock in the BBC’s TV series Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Wilmer played the famous detective with “just the right measure of forensic analysis and detached composure,” as written by Den of Geek. Wilmer’s performance, furthermore, was highly influenced by Basil Rathbone, and would itself become a major source of inspiration for Peter Cushing.
8. Robert Stephens
Billy Wilder’s 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes features a zany and comedic Robert Stephens in the title role. Mark Gatiss, writer for the Cumberbatch-starring Sherlock, has credited Private Life as one of his major influences. This lighter take on Sherlock is a welcome reprieve from some of the heavier portrayals.
7. Christopher Plummer
The most emotional Sherlock portrayal belongs to Christopher Plummer, who played the detective in the 1977 film Silver Blaze and the 1979 film Murder by Decree. If you’ve ever wanted to see a more human Holmes, who sheds a tear or two, and actually seems to care about the people involved in the cases he’s solving, Plummer’s atypical yet intriguing performance is not to be missed.
6. Nicol Williamson
Williamson played Sherlock in the bizarrely underrated 1976 film, The-Seven Per-Cent Solution. The story imagines a cocaine-addicted Holmes trying to break his addiction with help from none other than Doctor Freud, played by Alan Arkin. The movie additionally features Robert Duvall, Lawrence Olivier, and Vanessa Redgrave. The film was, furthermore, nominated for two Academy Awards. Though it seems to have fallen by the wayside, Williamson’s jittery, wired performance sets him aside as one of the more unique Sherlocks.
5. Vasily Livanov
The Russian Vasily Livanov, who portrayed Sherlock in the 1979 show The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, was so beloved by British viewers that he was made an Honorary Member of the British Empire in 2006. In 2007, the city of Moscow erected a statue of Livanov as Sherlock, alongside actor Vitaly Solomins as Watson. The chemistry between Livanov and Solomins, as well as Livanov’s demeanor and body language make this portrayal of Holmes one of the most loved and respected ones of all time. Conan Doyle’s daughter Jean even claimed that Sir Arthur himself would approve of Livanov’s performance.
4. Benedict Cumberbatch
The Sherlock of the modern age, Benedict Cumberbatch has played the sleuth on BBC’s Sherlock since 2010. This Sherlock texts, hacks, and cyber-stalks in addition to more classic Sherlock traits: swinging back and forth from depression to mania, abusing drugs, thinking at 100 miles-per-hour, and shocking clients with his bluntness. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a tortured soul: arrogant and selfish on one hand, and deeply sad and isolated on the other. His excellent rapport with Watson, played by Martin Freeman, has launched this Sherlock portrayal into the realm of the iconic.
3. Peter Cushing
Cushing’s Sherlock is a powerful and important addition to the cannon. The actor, perhaps better known today as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, first played Sherlock in the 1959 film The Hound of the Baskervilles. He went on to portray the detective in the 1968 BBC series Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, replacing Douglas Wilmer. Cushing’s high cheekbones and gaunt appearance were uniquely Sherlock-ian, and, per Screen Rant, he played on the character’s “arrogance and impulse” in his memorable performance.
2. Basil Rathbone
Rathbone is the quintessential Sherlock: the Sherlock that immediately comes to mind when one pictures the famous detective. Rathbone made 14 Sherlock Holmes movies, starting with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939. It was Rathbone who first established Sherlock’s iconic look, with the deerstalker cap. His famous, pipe-smoking silhouette immediately conjures the character. In many ways, Rathbone set the Sherlock portrayal precedent for all who followed.
1. Jeremy Brett
The incomparable Jeremy Brett is generally considered to have given the best Sherlock Holmes portrayal to date. Brett played Holmes in the British TV series, Sherlock Holmes, which ran from 1984 to 1994, ending with Brett’s tragic death in 1995. Brett’s obsessive method acting allowed him to embody the character of Sherlock Holmes with a degree of skill and nuance that most agree simply cannot be topped. Brett, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was also personally familiar with some of the mania present in Sherlock’s character, lending his portrayal extra resonance.