- Basil Rathbone
True, some of the films were, at best, loosely based on the short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dr. John Watson was played by Nigel Bruce who turned the good doctor into a bumbling idiot, and some of the films were set in the ’40s. But, a lot of those pitfalls were compensated by the stunning black-and-white cinematography; the voice and acting of Rathbone who had a command and authority that made you feel he was Holmes; and though Watson was an idiot, he was charming and added some comic relief. Also, Henry Daniel, with his dead eyes and steely voice, made a great Professor Moriarty.
- Jeremy Brett
At times, Jeremy Brett was guilty of overacting and could be a ham, but the stories, production values, and supporting cast were loyal to the spirit of Doyle more than any other production before or since. And “The Final Problem” with two giants, Moriarty and Holmes, meeting at Baker Street ranks as a great moment in Sherlockian television history.
- Christopher Plummer
This Canadian actor will forever be associated with The Sound of Music but his wide and varied career in film and stage deserves a lot of credit. Among his best roles was that of Sherlock in Murder by Decree—no, this film was not based on anything Doyle wrote. Instead, Holmes and Watson (played by James Mason who was a great sidekick) tackle the Jack the Ripper case. Plummer took the edge off of Holmes and instead showed a Zen-like calm while chasing the Ripper. He did play Holmes in Canadian TV production of Silver Blaze, unfortunately the drug theme was exaggerated in the film and it never reached the heights of Murder by Decree.
- Peter Cushing
The Hammer star portrayed Holmes on several occasions. The first was in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), which was followed by a series that had a poor production value, and finally in The Masks of Death opposite Sir John Mills and Anne Baxter. Cushing was able to pull off Holmes despite some weak writing in the last film; physically, despite the fact that he was slight, his sharp chiseled face matched that of Doyle’s Holmes. Of the three, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a must-see: who can forget the tarantula scene, which also included Christopher Lee.
- Benedict Cumberbatch
I know purists will bristle at having an actor in his thirties portray Holmes in modern London with longish hair and a mobile phone—but for those dorky enough to ask the question about what a modern-day Holmes would be like, you need to put Cumberbatch high on the list. The scripts are polished, inventive, and fun, and the setting of London with its fine architecture was a big shout-out to the foggy city.
- Robert Downey, Jr.
Okay, don’t yell—another modern-day Holmes, and this time instead of the cerebral, we have brawn. In these Guy Ritchie films, Holmes always manages to use his fists to get out of sticky situations, and he has that detached boredom in his eyes that several of the above actors lacked. Also, a big nod to Jude Law who, despite being younger than Downey, makes a great Watson. And the chemistry between both actors is worth the price of admission.
- Robert Stephens
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is not everyone’s cup of tea. The story is bittersweet, comedic, and borders on a spoof, but you had Billie Wilder directing—a genius with the talent to leave you with all sorts of mixed feelings after seeing one of his films. Stephens and Colin Blakely had great chemistry but, despite the strength of the writing, at times the plot felt contrived. Christopher Lee made a cameo as Mycroft Holmes in this often overlooked little gem.
- Ian Richardson
The great Ian Richardson was similar to Christopher Plummer in that you had a Holmes you could imagine having a beer with without having him recite the ratio of hops to grain! Richardson played the great detective in two films: The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles. At times the production appeared slightly threadbare, but Richardson was the type of stage actor who could fill a screen without stealing every scene.
- Christopher Lee
Christopher Lee played Holmes in two films in the early ’90s—Incident at Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady—when he was in his late sixties, and the stories were not based on Doyle’s books. But you need to give a nod to an actor who was a big fan of Conan Doyle, physically resembled Doyle’s Holmes, and had that authoritative voice that could stop even most audacious criminal! I won’t mention Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, since I doubt many fans are interested in a production where Lee had to wear a false nose and his voice was dubbed by American actors for the English version of the film!
- Nicol Williamson
I’ve never been a fan of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, partly due to the fact it’s a tad awkward to see your literary hero suffering from drug withdrawal and whining in a Viennese café because he’s come to rely on Dr. Sigmund Freud’s treatment of his addiction. Williamson was able to pull off the role of Holmes despite at times his performance felt strained, but the supporting cast helped to cover some of the issues of the plot. And you have to give a nod to Sir Laurence Olivier playing Moriarty and, of course, hearing the “The Madame’s Song” written by Stephen Sondheim was a highlight!