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The 100 Best, Worst, and Strangest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked

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We’re ranking Sherlock Holmes performances. One hundred of them. Not Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but the representations within them of Sherlock Holmes himself. Now, you might think that you know the best Sherlock Holmes, but as the man himself has said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” I have just watched one hundred different portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. I have the data. And now it’s time to theorize. Even, to deduce.

There are so many excellent and varied takes on Sherlock Holmes. Please know that ranking them was very, very hard to do, and while I took lot of pleasure in researching and writing this piece, I took no pleasure in making any of the decisions. In fact, this was the hardest list I have ever had to put together. Hardly, if you’ll pardon the phrase, elementary.

Here are the rules:

There have been so many wonderful theatrical portrayals of our Man from Baker Street, but unfortunately, we can include almost none of them! We can only rank Sherlocks that everyone has access to, so only ones whose representations are on video of some kind, which sadly excludes performances by Alan Rickman, Alan Tudyk, and several other Alans, as well as men with other first names. (This also excludes any performance from the 1965 Broadway musical Baker Street, and I apologize, although not really.)

Excluded from this ranking, also, are radio portrayals of Holmes, which also sadly excludes performances by Orson Welles, John Gielgud, and Nigel Bruce (which is a cute twist, as he is famous for playing Watson in the Rathbone films).

Please note that we’re ranking Sherlock Holmes portrayals (characters who are literally supposed to be Sherlock Holmes), not portrayals of characters who are based on or inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Gregory House is not on this list. Repeat. Gregory House is not on this list. Neither is Owen Wilson’s “Sherlock Holmes” in Shanghai Knights. And neither is Douglas Fairbanks’s spoofy Sherlock character “Coke Ennyday.”

Moving right along! If a character does not have the same name as Holmes (such as Basil of Baker Street) it is because virtually everything else about him is the exact same. This might seem like splitting hairs (or fur, in Basil’s case) but it is important. Characters named after Sherlock Holmes, but not literally adapting Holmes, are not on this list. So this excludes, WITH MY SINCERE APOLOGIES THIS TIME, Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” I am, however, including performances of characters who falsely believe themselves to be Sherlock Holmes. So, yes, I AM including those episodes of Star Trek about how Data thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, yes, calm down, you nerds.

A final note. THE FOLLOWING TWENTY FIVE ACTORS played Holmes on film and/or TV, but their versions ARE NOT ACCESSIBLE (as they are in private/special collections in libraries I’m not able to visit, or international versions unavailable in the U.S., or, tragically, have been lost). But I wanted to nod to them somehow, anyway. So, here is the brief list of ones we had to cut out, not ranked. Deerstalkers off to you, gentlemen.

Not available but not forgotten:

Gilbert M. Anderson, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom (1905)

Ferdinand Bonn, Sherlock Holmes (1906) etc.

Viggo Larsen, Sherlock Holmes etc. (1908)

Mack Sennett, The $500 Reward (1911), etc.

Alwin Neuss, Den Stjaalne Millionobligation (1911), etc.

Harry Benham, The Sign of the Four (1913)

James Braginton, A Study in Scarlet, (1914)

Francis Ford, A Study in Scarlet (1914)

Harry Arthur Saintsbury, The Valley of Fear (1916)

Kurt Brenkendorf, Der Mord im Splendid Hotel (1918)

Li Pingqian, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1931)

Martin Frič, Lelíček in the Services of Sherlock Holmes (1932)

Robert Rendel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932)

Peter Voss, Der Hund von Baskerville (1936)

Louis Hector, The Three Garridebs (1937)

Hermann Speelmans, Sherlock Holmes: The Grey Lady (1937)

Andrew Osborn, The Mazarin Stone (1951)

Alan Wheatley, Sherlock Holmes (1951)

Wolf Ackva, Der Hund von Baskerville (1955)

Hillary Wontner, ‘Sherlock Holmes in the Singular Case of the Plural Green Moustache’ (1965)

Jacques François, Une aventure de Sherlock Holmes (1967)

Nikolai Volkov Jr., The Hound of the Baskervilles (1971)

Rolf Becker, “The Sign of Four”: Les Grands Détectives (1974)

Guy Rolfe, The Case of Marcel Duchamp (1984)

Juan Manuel Montesinos, Sherlock Holmes in Caracas (2009)

Right! Without any further ado, let’s get going! As our hero might say, “start reading at once if convenient. If inconvenient, read all the same.”

The game is on!

100. Henry Cavill, Enola Holmes (2020)


My apologies to the Man of Steel, but he’s at the very bottom of our list. Henry Cavill’s Holmes, a distant older brother to the plucky teenage protagonist Enola (Millie Bobby Brown), is brawny, stony, stiff, and altogether dull. In a performance that consists mostly of staring out from windows and filling out a navy double-breasted frock coat, nothing about Cavill’s performance suggests intelligence or even rumination of any kind. Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sued the film for making Holmes appear too sensitive, which is funny, because I’ve seen calabash pipes with greater depth.

99. Will Ferrell, Holmes & Watson (2018)


Holmes & Watson, which is such a dumb movie, features gung-ho performances by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as Holmes and Watson (respectively). If Will Ferrell, who is otherwise a talented man, gives a performance of a very idiotic Holmes (who somehow is thought of as a genius, though it is unclear HOW this came to be). Any meaningful parody is weighed down by poor screenwriting, particularly jokes that seem more invested in spoofing both the Victorian and modern eras than doing anything with the character. Ferrell is capable of better, and deserves it. Though I did kind of appreciate what appeared to be his impression of Robert Downey Jr’s full-mouthed, pretentious British accent, the few times it appeared.

98. Johnny Depp, Sherlock Gnomes (2018)


Most days I enjoy my job, and other days I have to watch Sherlock Gnomes, a film in which Johnny Depp does his Jack Sparrow voice to play an anthromorphized ceramic figurine.

97. Bernie Winters, 3-2-1, “Sherlock Holmes” (1983)


The incomprehensible English trivia game show 3-2-1 had a “Sherlock Holmes” episode which also featured a clip in which actors played Holmes and Watson. So it’s on here. Holmes is a large, wheezing man who owns a Saint Bernard and is bad at realizing Watson is talking instead of the dog. I’m sorry, did you expect better Holmesian content from a television show whose co-host is, and I’m not even joking, a robot garbage can?

96. Hans Albers, Der Mann, Der Sherlock Holmes War (1937)


The Germans made a lot of Sherlock Holmes movies in 1937, and a bunch of them involve guys with stereotypically English names who turn out to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise. This film is no different; the German (and eventually Nazi) movie star Hans Albers plays “Morris Flynn,” a guy who turns out to really be… Holmes. Albers has a very spooky, bright gaze, as if if his irises are somehow clear, and I don’t like it. The good news about the film, on the whole, is that Watson’s alter-ego is named “Macky McMacpherson” and I really enjoy that the Germans thought this would be a believable name for an Englishman. The bad news is, again, that Hans Albers was a Nazi.

95. Peter Cook, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)


Generally, I enjoy the comic team of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, and a Holmes and Watson comedy seems well-suited for their classic, very goofy give-and-take. Furthermore, this movie is a collection of my favorite character actors (Denholm Elliot, Hugh Griffith, *Terry-Thomas*). And I wish any of these features could even slightly elevate this lackadaisical, haphazard script. Cook (who millennial audiences might know best as the clergyman with the memorable speech impediment in The Princess Bride, “mawiage” etc.), gives a weirdly uninteresting performance of a straight-man Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t wear clothes under the silk robe he sits around in.

94. John Longden, The Man Who Disappeared (1951)


John Longden offers a dry, well-heeled Holmes who is pretty condescending (to everyone, but also to women simply reporting stuff to him) in this really boring unaired TV pilot. Look, no matter the take on Holmes, he has to have charisma, and Longden’s performance does not have it. Maybe it’s his loud voice or his general rudeness, but he reminds me of a really dull but kind of mean old-man substitute teacher I had in second grade, who told us long allegorical anecdotes about his early years on a farm as a horse-breaker instead of talking about literally anything else that would appeal to a seven-year-old.

93. Larry Hagman, The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective (1976)


Celebrity-I-met-once Larry Hagman (of I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas fame) is a cop named Sherman Holmes, whose recent head trauma causes the delusion that he’s the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. As one does when this happens, he dons a deerstalker hat and gets to solving crimes. He’s better at it now, even though he probably has a concussion, which is not how concussions work. (Fun fact, this TV movie, gave Holmes a lady sidekick named Dr. Joan Watson DECADES before Elementary.) Hagman’s “Sherman”/Sherlock Holmes is lighthearted and played for laughs, with verve and a dash of “pip pip cheerio” Englishness, much too much to make it a serious contender on this list.

92. Unknown Actor, Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)


The oldest Sherlock performance on this list, in this Mutoscope film which is fifty-eight seconds long, consists mostly of Holmes being “baffled” why people and things keep vanishing in the room. There is some very nice cigar puffing and silk-robe-swishing. It seems almost unfair to put this antique, completely governed by rules very different to latter-day Sherlock films, on this list, but my ambition for comprehensiveness outweighs my impulse for fairness. I mean, how can anything be compared against anything else when they are doing different things? I hate competition. Rankings are bunk. But you should watch this wonderful short which experiments with special effects. (It’s been suggested that this actor is Harry Arthur Saintsbury, who appears in the Honorable Mentions section above this list, but it’s unknown if this is the case.)

91. Peter Farley, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (1991)


Okay, this is a weird entrant, but I thought about it, and it does count. Peter Farley played Holmes for the Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective video game series, BUT he appears on-screen as Holmes in introductory sequences to the video game episodes. So, he counts. I’m counting him. This Holmes seems pretty confident and rational, warning against muddling one’s facts and one’s theories, but he also goes on a spiel about all the dangers and corruptions of various neighborhoods in London. What a NIMBY.

90. Clive Brook, Sherlock Holmes (1932)


I find Clive Brook’s Sherlock Holmes to be… unpleasant. He’s really quite boring and ordinary, even though he’s supposed to be a “mastermind.” Now, my issues with his portrayal are intertwined with my issues with the script, which is based on William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play (you’ll read about that down below). That play is a stultified drama in which Holmes falls in love with a milquetoast woman named Alice Faulkner. In this film, Holmes is happily engaged to Alice and going into retirement, but is called back for last showdown when his arch nemesis, Moriarty, breaks out of prison. This Holmes talks about how brilliant he is all the time, but nothing about Brook’s performance suggests astuteness or cleverness. He puffs on his pipe and warmly embraces his fiancee and and talks a lot and that’s it. Pompous and not at all interesting.

89. Roger Ostime, The Baker Street Boys (1983)


As they say, there’s no time like an Ostime. This 80s TV series took a “Wilson-the-neighbor-from-Home-Improvement” approach to Sherlock Holmes, in that he’s always blocked from full view. Which kind of makes sense, because this is a kids show about the Baker Street Irregulars, the young urchins who help Holmes surveil London, to which children he is a looming, lordly figure watching over them. Without much to go on, you see why we have to rank Ostime’s Holmes all the way down here. Since there are no images of him as Holmes, please accept in its stead, this photo of Roger Ostime in a completely different movie.

88. Keith McConnell, Murder by Death (1976)


There’s a deleted scene from the very end of Neil Simon’s murder mystery farce movie Murder By Death (the only film to star Truman Capote) in which Peter Sellers (who is in yellowface, playing a Charlie Chan-style character) bumps into some Holmes and Watson-style characters who have showed up late to the event at hand and so missed all the shenanigans that had been afoot. Keith McConnell is unfriendly and taciturn and the scene only lasts 58 seconds, so he’s going here.

87. Chuck Huber, The Empire of Corpses (2015)


Chuck Huber provides the dubbed voice of Sherlock Holmes in this Watson-central sci-fi anime film which has strong “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” tendencies (for its weaving together many Victorian novels, as well as 19th century historical figures, in a large epic narrative). Sherlock Holmes isn’t a huge part (he only appears at the end), and he seems like an okay guy. Not much to go on.

86. Charlton Heston, The Crucifer of Blood (1991)


You know who’s a weird Sherlock Holmes? Charlton Heston. Maybe it’s just hard for me, personally, to reconcile the late NRA president with the most rational character in literary history, but Heston’s Holmes is squinty and gravely and his officious English accent makes him sound like he thinks he’s playing a Roman senator or a British general supervising a bridge construction in Colonial India in a Cecil B. DeMille movie, and I’m not having it.

85. Guy Henry, Young Sherlock: The Mystery of the Manor House (1982)


In this short-lived (and pretty racist, there’s some actual brownface) adaptation, a young Guy Henry plays a smug, teenage Sherlock who returns from boarding school to find a sad domestic situation. Unlike Young Sherlock Holmes, which transplants the dynamic from the stories onto preteen avatars, this series is supposed to be an origin story for Young Holmes, and I have to say… it’s pretty unappealing. This Sherlock has a lot of contempt for everyone and a really high opinion of himself. Yes, he has a higher opinion of himself than the actual literary character who walked around saying stuff to Watson like “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but that you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.” So you can IMAGINE how unpleasant THIS guy is.

84. Reece Dinsdale, Science Fiction: “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Link” (1992)


This episode of the British series Science Fiction features Reece Dinsdale as a Weasley-haired Sherlock Holmes tasked with solving a totally new mystery. Dinsdale’s Holmes is first seen, Hamlet-style, complaining to the human skull in his outstretched hand about how bored he is. As you might expect from a Holmes prone to this position, this one is a little affected and pretentious.

83. Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy: “V is for Murder” (2018)


In this episode, Seth MacFarlane’s British baby Stewie is Sherlock Holmes, and it is moderately funny.

82. Joaquim de Almeida, O Xangô de Baker Street (2001)


Joaquim de Almeida plays a Holmes who suffers from lots of gastrointestinal distress while solving a string of gruesome murders in 1886 Rio de Janero in this bilingual film which is based on Jô Soares’ 1995 novel of the same name (published as A Samba for Sherlock in English). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Holmes portrayal that is so focused on the body of the great detective, as opposed to the mind. He gets high, has sex, eats a lot, and frequently has to run to the bathroom. And he also can’t solve the current case well! He’s distracted by the weather, women, and his frequent, panicked trips to the restroom. I’m stressing the bathroom thing because it’s just so nutty. De Almeida offers an incongruously dignified detective at the start, who has to retrograde in many ways over the course of the film. The movie isn’t amazing, but I appreciate something about de Almeida’s whole deal.

81. Igor Khristenko, Sherlock Holmes (2009)


This loony, psychedelic Russian Sherlock Holmes musical was broadcast on TV on TR Planet channel despite its being a stage show, so, unfortunately, it counts. Khristenko’s Sherlock is especially noteworthy for this impassioned solo and also for making me feel more flabbergasted than at any other point in my life. You, too, will not be able to get this song out of your head, and you, like I, will despise me for introducing it to you.

80. Jason Gray-Stanford, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, (1999-2001)


Jason Gray-Stanford (who you know as Randy Disher from Monk) voiced Sherlock Holmes in this meh millennium-era cartoon TV series in which Sherlock Holmes, who is real and apparently cryogenically frozen, is brought back to life in the 2100s to help fight Moriarity’s clone. He teams up with Inspector Beth Lestrade, and a Robot who thinks he’s Watson (Beth has programmed a robot with all of Watson’s diaries, so he’s Watson now, evidently, that’s how it works in this show’s Terminator-ass worldview). His accent is not amazing, but his intonation is good, if that makes sense.

79. Roger Moore, Sherlock Holmes in New York (1972)


Roger Moore is unfailingly cute, but he is such a weird choice to play Sherlock Holmes. He made this movie in between filming The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me (and a bunch of other movies, man, Roger Moore WORKED in the 70s). Anyway, he plays an energetic, jolly Holmes who squints a lot for no clear reason, in this TV movie set in New York City that also somehow features an Irish-accented John Huston as Moriarty. When he’s not sexily (?) growling at Irene Adler to give him information, Moore struts around, rolling his Rs, speaking very loudly and gesturing affectedly like he’s doing Shakespeare to an audience watching from space. The effect isn’t entirely unpleasant, but it’s definitely… surprising.

78. Einar Zangenberg, Hotel Thieves (1911)


I don’t know what it is about Denmark, but they have phenomenal, publicly-available online silent film archives. Thank you, thank you, Stumfilm.dk and its “Danish Silent Film” accessibility project, for making so many films from Denmark’s Golden Age of silents easily findable for researchers and fans. Sadly, all that remains of Elinar Zangenberg’s Sherlock portrayal is this fragment from Hotel Thieves, in which he walks down the side of a cliff with some people. But his expression is very determined-looking. And Danish. He looks very Danish. (If I might gush for a second, though, about the actual filming… I LOVE that the actors walk right up to and past the frame… you can see how the immovable actual camera was being used to experiment with the frame as more than a tableau. This must have been a GORGEOUS film.)

77. Otto Lagoni, Sherlock Holmes in Conman Claws (1910)


In yet another early Danish silent film, Otto Lagoni’s Holmes walks into a room, smokes a pipe for a while, looks at stuff on a table, and then evidently causes a bunch of conmen to be arrested. I have very little to say about his performance except that he has excellent posture.

76. José Baviera, Arsenio Lupin vs Sherlock Holmes (1947)


José Baviera wins the award for the Sherlock Holmes actor who looks the most like Orson Welles and the least like Sherlock Holmes.

75. Vyacheslav Grishechkin, Oba-Na! Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1994)


This slap-happy Russian adaptation about how Holmes and Watson want to get super drunk together on New Year’s Eve but can’t, given the strange visitors parading into their abode, seems to be spoofing the great Russian adaptation Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I think. I’m not sure. There are no subtitles. I can tell that Grishechkin’s Holmes is a little puffed up and a little slapsticky, which is fine. Points off for how he seems to always be making out with his pipe handle.

74. Edward Woodward, Hands of a Murderer (1990)


Equalizer Edward Woodward’s Holmes is an intense, authoritative detective in this super-colonialist film (thanks to a prominent plot point scapegoating the Thuggee, which, while it’s distastefully done via gross caricature, is also honestly depressingly period-appropriate) about how Moriarty escapes the gallows and disappears to unleash more mayhem in London, kidnapping Mycroft along the way. Woodward’s middle-aged Holmes is not afraid to shout and scold; his is an imperious energy. Nevertheless, Hands of a Murderer is notable for its showcasing the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s network of street urchins who aid him in surveillance, and Holmes is kind to them and pays them well, which reveals a nice dimension of his character, even if another aforementioned dimension stresses is his colonialism-informed racism. I’d like this performance, or this movie, more if it bothered to interrogate this element which is present in the original Holmes stories (as well as suffuses all of nineteenth and turn-of-the-century literature), rather than just use it for entertainment.

73. Michael Pennington, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987)


This film is chronologically the first of many films in which Sherlock Holmes gets cryogenically frozen or something in the Victorian era and thawed in modern day by a lady Watson figure. (Take note, evidently lady Watsons = modernity.) Pennington’s Holmes is very melodramatic and whispers gutterally and I don’t like it. (The only thing I kind of like about this whole movie, actually, is that James Moriarty is revealed to have an equally-evil brother ALSO named James Moriarty, and I like this plot point because it’s so stupid while being taken incredibly seriously.)

72. Anthony Higgins, Sherlock Holmes Returns (1993)


And here is the second of several adaptations that reanimate a frozen Holmes in the modern era. Higgins’s fish-out-of-time Sherlock, who looks like Moses when he wakes up from a century’s long sleep, is a bouncy gentleman with a John Corbett hair and an amorphously-old-timey vocabulary who is suspicious of women’s intellectual capabilities and, because he has not gotten his land legs back yet, literally has to lean on one. Plus, he figuratively has to lean on her too, when he walks out into modern day San Francisco and doesn’t know what the deuce is going on.

71. Ilya Oleynikov, “The Dancing Men,” Town – Lives of Outstanding People (1995)


Ilya Oleynikov’s Sherlock Holmes, from a sketch in this Russian comedy show, answers the popular and essential question, what would it look like if you cast Peter Falk to play Sherlock Holmes, but if Peter Falk were being played by Walter Matthau.

70. Kristof Szenasi, Sherlock Holmes Nevében (2011)


Kristof Szenasi is a cherubic-looking, deerstalker-wearing kid version of Holmes in this tale that purports to be a retelling of Doyle’s oeuvre but might actually be a sneaky, illegal retelling of Stephen King’s It. Or at least it borrows some stuff. Juveniles Holmes and Watson wind up having to solve the supernatural mystery of why children keep disappearing in the area, and there ARE clowns. Szenasi’s Holmes is more of a caricature of Doyle’s Holmes in the “Tiny Toons” school of character creation: shrinking our hero down to an unwieldy dilation of the adult character we know, a precocious, cigarette-smoking little boy in gingham.

69. Stefan Veronca, Sherlock (2002)


This kid plays the younger version of the Sherlock character played by James D’Arcy (a few slots below), and since he’s a different actor, he gets his own slot. Let the record show that he’s much less of an asshole than D’Arcy’s older version.

68. Brian Bedford, “My Dear Watson,” Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1989)


The great stage actor Brian Bedford played Holmes in this episode of AHP, and I have to say, this casting shocks me. Not only does Bedford look nothing like your average Holmes, but he also has a slow, gratuitously professorial comportment that makes him seem more suited to play a shrewd tortoise or bibliophilic snail than the witty detective we know and love.

67. Matt Frewer, The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000), etc.


I keep thinking this is David Hyde Pierce. Wouldn’t THAT have been some fun casting!? (It’s not David Hyde Pierce.)

66. Alex Vanderpor/Fan Ai Li, Sherlock Holmes in China (1994)


Please allow me to present the most complicated Sherlock Holmes performance on this list! Alex Vanderpor, also known as “Fan Ai Li”, is a young, white, and very operatic (he sings a lot) Sherlock Holmes in this Chinese film directed by Wang Chi, Liu Yun-Zhou, and Ma Yi, also called Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Heroine. Holmes and Watson (the latter of whom is Chinese, unlike his partner) travel to Qing Dynasty China, and there is a mystery that eventually involves Holmes facing off in an epic Kung-Fu battle against a skilled martial artist, using his violin as a surprising but effective weapon. Although he speaks Chinese fluently (well, the actor is dubbed), Holmes is pretty out of his element in this new location, and there is a scene where he disguises himself as a Chinese man and this is kind of a disaster in many ways. There are so many things at work here that need to be teased out in a longer evaluation, especially Vanderpor’s playing a Sherlock Holmes who speaks Chinese but also literally doesn’t!

65. Radovan Lukavský, Sherlock Holmes’ Desire (1972)

This droll Czech film, in which Holmes’s true ambition is revealed not to involve detective work at all, features a very charming performance by Radovan Lukavský. This Holmes wants to be a professional violinist, but he zero talent whatsoever in this department. How zany! The film requires some very cute misplaced-overconfidence and even naiveté from Lukavský, and he pulls it off quite well.

64. Peter Capaldi, Episode #1.6 of The All New Alexei Sayle Show (1994)


So, the point of this very cute sketch is to make fun of the common representation of Watson as an easily-astounded buffoon, and here, his mind is blown when Holmes notices things like how it’s getting dark outside, or does something as simple as turn on the lamp. Peter Capaldi’s Holmes is the chief set-piece for this gambit, so he doesn’t have to do much besides wear a smoking jacket, have a pointy nose, and be smarter than Watson. I will say, anachronistically, that, watching this, you want Capaldi to grow so irritated at Watson’s ever-increasing stupidity that he unleashes a torrent of innovative curse words at him, a la Malcolm Tucker, but he doesn’t. If he did, he’d rank much higher.

63. Pete Holmes, “Sherlock Holmes Sucks at Deduction,” The Pete Holmes Show (2014)


Okay, I’m not entirely sure what an obviously comical sketch such as this one OR the ones above and below it are even doing on this list because they’re not trying to capture Holmes in the same way as the bona-fide adaptations I’ve assembled, and all three of these sketches are actually very GOOD so WHY are they at the bottom of this list I DON’T KNOW but I PROMISED comprehensiveness dammit and I’m going to deliver so HERE WE ARE. Pete Holmes is very funny as a Cumberbatch-esque Holmes who can’t actually deduce anything correctly, but who still confidently makes wild assertions anyway.

62. Robert Webb, “Holmes and Watson,” That Mitchell and Webb Look (2010)


British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb have played Holmes and Watson a few times in their repertoire. Perhaps most well-known among CrimeReads readers is this sketch which cracks me up. Maybe their performances aren’t really takes on “Holmes,” since they are really just playing two actors who are competitive with another and wind up building tension as they switch roles from Holmes to Watson, but whatever, it’s great. The idea that Holmes and Watson might be looking to best one another isn’t played with enough. Webb is my favorite Holmes of the duo, with his confident striding and clear elocution. But Mitchell steals the show as Holmes in another sketch anyway, which is just below.

61. David Mitchell, “Old Holmes,” That Mitchell and Webb Look (2010)


I’m only including one Sherlock performance per actor, even if that actor played Sherlock a few times in different productions, so, yes David Mitchell also played Holmes in the above sketch. But his Holmes performance that I’d rather spotlight in this ranking is a strange, heartbreaking representation of an elderly Holmes, with dementia and no longer in possession of his faculties. David Mitchell’s senile Holmes is kind of, maybe, possibly played for laughs, but this too is in service of the tragic thesis undergirding it: the sad irony of the deterioration of the greatest mind of the age. This isn’t the first “old Holmes” take I’ve seen, but it’s the one that kicks me in the tear ducts the hardest.

60. Gary Piquer, Holmes & Watson: Madrid Days (2012)


In this Spanish-language film made by Academy Award winner José Luis Garci, Holmes and Watson wind up in Spain, investigating a Jack the Ripper copycat. Piquer’s Holmes is a salt-and-peppery dilettante mostly super worried about his girlfriend Irene Adler not being into him.

59. Ian Sinclair, Case File nº221 (2019)


Ian Sinclair provides a gravelly, monotonous English-Language VO to a Holmes with a glower and a beanie in this TV-MA anime series which pits a modern Holmes against a modern Jack the Ripper.

58. James D’Arcy, Sherlock (2002)


A young James D’Arcy (he’s actually 27, but he looks 19) plays a very youthful, cocky, and slightly full-of-it Holmes in this adaptation which introduces Holmes to Watson after Holmes seemingly kills the villainous Moriarty (who is played by Vincent D’Onofrio, WHAT IS THIS CASTING). I don’t love a cocksure Holmes, especially when, as D’Arcy does, he has the same aura as that guy in your literary theory seminar.

57. Andrew Gower, Murdoch Mysteries, “A Study in Scarlet” (2013)


Andrew Gower’s Sherlock Holmes makes a very cute cameo appearances in a few episodes of Canada’s beloved turn-of-the-century-set Murdoch Mysteries. He’s pretty, intense, with these giant, haunted-looking eyes and a delivery that would be monotonous if it weren’t so aggressive. Plus, he has this sulky, pouty resting face. Knocked a few points because the whole thing makes him seem a little postal.

56. Algimantas Masiulis, The Blue Carbuncle (1980)


This surprisingly-musical Soviet adaptation, produced by Belarusfilm, features a surprisingly mordant Holmes, played with grouchy stiffness by Algimantas Masiulis. Imagine Holmes being played by a less comical version of the dad on Everybody Loves Raymond. There, you’ve as good as watched it.

55.  John Neville, A Study in Terror (1965)


The sharp-faced John Neville is a quaint, gentlemanly Holmes in this adaptation which pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper (and stars a young Judi Dench). A lot of the time, Holmsian references like “elementary, my dear Watson” are follow-ups not to Holmes’s brilliant analytical work, but his deductions like “you’re sitting on my pipe, Watson.” When he IS doing the real deducing, his inferences are extremely simple and obvious, though still nonetheless impressive to everyone around him (the script’s fault, more than the actor’s). Relatedly, this version also features what I believe is the canon’s most slappable Watson.

54. Dean Fujioka, Sherlock (2019-)


This modern Japanese adaptation of Sherlock Holmes turns its Sherlock (Shishio Homare) into an emo genius in a long trench coat who, his psychologist friend explains, smiles whenever he encounters something evil. Dean Fujioka, a singer-songwriter as well as an actor, definitely gives us a very cool, bad-boy Holmes: arrogant, brilliant, and solving crimes possibly as an alternative to committing them.

53. Geoffrey Whitehead, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1979-1980)


Geoffrey Whitehead’s rail-thin Holmes, evidently out for a swim inside his Inverness cloak, doesn’t really do the rapid-fire analysis we’re so used to in Holmes adaptations. He’s slower to come to a conclusion, and thinks of lots of possible scenarios rather than speed-reads a crime scene. It’s… fine.

52. Tom Baker, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982)


Do you think Tom Baker, Doctor Who‘s famous Fourth Doctor who played Sherlock Holmes in this ’82 mini-series, thought he was going to play the role at a theater next to an airstrip? He’s so loud! And he pronounces every syllable with ferocity. By the end of each scene, I imagine the guy who played Watson was just drenched in spit.

51. Jean Clément, La Cycliste solitaire (1989)


This weird French educational film stops recounting the mystery to offer a biography of Conan Doyle instead, so IDK. Jean Clément’s Holmes is so French, he is almost unbearably French. What does that mean, exactly? I’m not sure, but I’m also very correct.

50. Patrick Macnee, The Hound of London (1993)


Woof, this adaptation is slow. Known Dr. Watson impersonator Patrkck Macnee (previously, he played the Good Doctor to both Roger Moore and Christopher Lee’s Holmeses) takes a turn as The Man Himself in this crawling Canadian adaptation, as an older, weary, high, and slightly suicidal Holmes. It’s a “King Lear” take we don’t see too often, that’s for sure, only not nearly as epic.

49. Alfred Müller, Sherlock Holmes and the Seven Dwarfs (1992)


This nonsense German TV series, in which a retired and elderly Sherlock Holmes searches for the missing princess Show White at the behest of several tiny men who live in a dollhouse-sized thatched cottage in the woods, has left me at a complete loss for words. I am pretty sure it’s a kid’s show, from the colorful bubble text in the credits. It features a combination of decent special effects and terrible fight choreography. TO HIS CREDIT, Alfred Müller, with his tweed suit, neatly-clipped mustache, and twinkly eyes, is a very lovable Holmes, even if he is a million times more huggable than the original person. The only sensible thought I have about this entire production is that he seems like the world’s most wonderful grandfather, the kind who takes you on walks in the woods to collect interesting leaves, and picks you up from school and gets you ice cream on the way home, and who gives you his magnifying glass to play with, occasionally. Grandfathers with magnifying glasses are the best grandfathers, I don’t make the rules. My grandfather, who was from New York City and never wore tweed, had a magnifying glass that I frequently asked to play with, and it always was impressive when he procured it.

48. Holger Rasmussen, The Count’s Double, (1910)


Holger Rasmussen’s Sherlock Holmes has very efficient deductive skills, and an alarmingly wide side-part in his hair. In this Danish silent film, he mostly stands around in a double-breasted suit and points at things, but hey, it seems to work!

47. John Barrymore, Sherlock Holmes (1922)


When we first see John Barrymore as Sherlock Holmes in this contemporary-set adaptation, he is sitting on the ground outdoors in a pastoral cobblestone alleyway, leaning up against a wall, smoking copiously and meditatively. From this vantage, he observes life around him and makes notes in his diary, writing down things such as “what is love?” Does all of this present a very surprising take on Sherlock Holmes? You bet. But it’s a fascinating concept… Sherlock Holmes’s positioned as a romantic Socrates of sorts, sitting on the ground, watching everybody, figuring them out. He’s also pretty awkward; he meets a beautiful woman and shyly follows her around until she hops in a cart and rides away. She is the sister of the woman due to marry Watson’s friend Prince Alexis (??), who has been framed for stealing money from the Athletic Club (??). And this tall, skinny, lovelorn Holmes is England’s (or some country’s, where is Prince Alexis from anyway) last hope.

46. Nando Gazzolo, L’ultimo dei Baskerville (1968), etc.


Nando Gazzolo‘s Sherlock Holmes is the kind of self-assured, venerabile Holmes who wanders slowly around the room with his hands behind his back when he’s breaking things down for clients, in this mediocre late 60s Italian adaptation that I could not find with subtitles, a research hitch which I found molto frustrante since it has been years since I barely passed my grad school Italian fluency certification. Gazzolo’s Holmes is very logical. He doesn’t seem like a genius, but ha molto sale in zucca, an expression which means “he has a lot of sense.” And literally translates to “he has a lot of salt in his gourd.”

45. Erich Schellow, Sherlock Holmes (1967-1968)


Erich Schellow brings us one of our blondest but definitely our most serious Holmes in this short German series. Makes you wonder if his Sherlock Holmes has a backstory in which he served as the unsmiling headmaster of a countryside all-boys school. Because it fits.

44. Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes (2009), etc.


Here’s a great idea. What if in the next installment of this Sherlock Holmes trilogy, they replace Robert Downey Jr. with Matt Berry? Maybe Berry’s ability to make every line comedy perfection will warp the desired tone of the film a bit, but does it really matter? How enjoyable would that be? Am I stalling in revealing my opinion of Downey’s performance? SURE AM. Okay, here goes… I think Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes is a sack of hot air. (Literally, his voice is very breathy.) Yes, I know it’s a performance that lots of people like, but I find a tad insufferable, mostly because Downey’s British accent is so grandiloquent, especially when he whispers or thinks-in-voiceover, which happens a lot. To be clear, I don’t have issues with the overall *take* on the character, which turns Holmes into an action hero (because I’m not made of stone, whatever, it’s fun). Maybe my main issue is that Downey always seems a bit bratty—his casting as Holmes rides the coattails of his leading role in the Iron Man/Marvel franchise, in which he plays a condescending tech genius, and I’m positive that if he hadn’t burst a comeback out of that, he would not have gotten this part. I submit to you once again… Matt Berry. How about we move forward with Matt Berry?

43. John Cleese, “Elementary, my Dear Watson,” Comedy Playhouse (1973)


In my mind, this is the best parody of Sherlock Holmes out there… not only does it make fun of the novels and adaptation legacies of Holmes and Watson in a very charming way, but it adds in entirely new elements that are flat-out hysterical, such as Holmes and Watson successfully hailing a horse-driven hansom cab in the middle of 1970s London. And John Cleese is so funny. He’s able to make even the most ordinary words funny.  He is the the reigning King of affected inflection. I would happily settle in for hours to listen to him read my Adobe Licensing Agreement (SOMEONE has to, or I’m going to keep making images for this site in MS Paint). He plays a certain kind of officious, puffed-up-ish-ness extremely well, and bringing that to a Holmes portrayal, even one which is meant to be a spoof, offers a clever take on the character. This is definitely the world’s best take on an idiot-Holmes-who-does-not-know-he’s-an-idiot.

42. Valentīns Skulme, Šerloks Holms (1979-1982)


This Latvian Sherlock Holmes play (filmed, so it’s on this list) features a Sherlock performance that I can’t understand but also kind of enjoy. Valentīns Skulme’s Holmes has the affect of someone’s pissed off but learned Eastern-European grandfather. I feel like if I saw him at a friend’s house for dinner, he’d tell me an anecdote from his career as a bookbinder or watchmaker and warn me about walking home alone at night and tell me it’s bad luck to whistle indoors.

41. Stewart Granger, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)


I wish the most interesting thing about this movie were Stewart Granger’s bushy-browed Sherlock Holmes, but that honor definitely goes to Mr. William Shatner, who is unexplainably in this film as Stapleton. I would love it, I mean LOVE it, if William Shatner had played Sherlock Holmes, even though I KNOW he’s more of a Watson, because that would REALLY be boldly going where no man has gone before… but alas. My only thought about Stewart Granger’s Holmes is that he has a lot of BBE, or “big Barrister energy.”

40. Brent Spiner, “Elementary, Dear Data,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988)


So, in the second season of Next Gen, Data the android winds up taking on the persona of Sherlock Holmes, and he and Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge (ideal future Jeopardy! host LeVar Burton) end up inside a VR-style game where they play as Holmes and Watson, solving a brand-new mystery. And you know what? Data’s actually a pretty good Holmes. He doesn’t provide one of the most emotional takes on the character, but that’s to be expected.

39. Leonard Nimoy, The Interior Motive (1976)


The third Star Trek cast member to appear somewhere on this list, Leonard Nimoy was a consummate Holmes, having played him on the stage as well as in this short educational film made to be broadcast on public television in Kentucky, of all places. Though he performs Holmes with an American accent, and the mystery he’s solving is actually an inquiry about the composition of the surface of the earth (it’s a science class video, after all), Nimoy “hmm”s and “aha”s and “elementary!”s his way through an extremely convincing performance. One can only imagine how good he would have been on stage, solving a puzzle whose answer didn’t live in a junior-high-school earth science textbook.

38. Barrie Ingram, The Great Mouse Detective (1986)


Barrie Ingram voices Basil of Baker Street, the murine protagonist of The Great Mouse Detective who lives in tiny apartment below the real Holmes’s flat, at 221 Baker Street. Basil is a chipper genius, definitely as eccentric as the literary Holmes, and Ingram’s perky voice-work heightens his jauntiness, a quality perfectly befitting a rodent detective. This film was the first Sherlock Holmes adaptation I had ever seen, but its opening jump scare, in which a little girl mouse named “Olivia” sees her father kidnapped by a toothy bat, terrified me to my core for the entire first chunk of my childhood. But now I appreciate it for other things, especially for its best voicework, which is done by the great Vincent Price, who plays Basil’s sinister nemesis, the debonair but diabolical Ratagan. That rat is the GOAT. No question.

37. Rupert Everett, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (2004)


Rupert Everett, whose whole existence is just VERY late Victorian to begin with, plays a neatly wry and witty Sherlock Holmes in this story that features a “reuniting” of Holmes and Watson following a rift. Maybe he’s little too lofty a Holmes to be one of my favorites, but as an actor he is capable of conveying bounteous savvy with only a few looks and an eyebrow raise, which does a lot for the character. I wish this script gave him more to do, or that he had a whole series to play around with. FIND me an actor who can seem more tortured by boredom, I DARE you. Also, it must be said, he does do a very good “aha!” face.

36. Taichirô Hirokawa and Larry Moss, Sherlock Hound (1984)


This very lovely, short-lived Japanese cartoon series (whose first six episodes were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, incredibly) adapts the cast of Sherlock Holmes as animals. Holmes is a skinny vulpine-looking hound dog (the internet tells me he’s a corgi, but HOW, he’s so TALL), Watson is a Scottish terrier, Mrs. Hudson is a labrador or a golden retriever, and Moriarty is a… wolf. I am unable to gauge the effectiveness of Taichirô Hirokawa’s voice acting, but Larry Moss’s work is really entertaining. Sherlock Hound is laconic and focused and his voice is deep and confident. Honestly, I could listen to it all day.

35. “Soccer” and Larry Brantley, “The Slobbery Hound,” Wishbone (1995)


Okay. Maybe I did rank this too high, but RIGHT NOW, IN THE MOMENT, I think it’s fair to say that Soccer the dog out-acts many of the human Sherlocks on this list. This is not a joke. I’m not kidding. Soccer takes direction perfectly. How many humans can you say that about? So what if my childhood dog was also a clever Jack Russell Terrier, I don’t understand what you are implying about my powers of objectivity. This famous episode of Wishbone (in which our canine protagonist is reminded of The Hound of the Baskervilles after an unknown neighborhood dog makes a mess around the block) is the second Sherlock Holmes adaptation I ever watched in my lifetime (the first being The Great Mouse Detective but more on that elsewhere). I think the whole Wishbone series is amazing in its economical, kid-friendly retellings of literature… but I found my adult self watching the whole episode unironically when drawing up this list. Something about the whole thing just really works and I think that Soccer and his voice-actor Larry Brantley are the reason why. Do not @ me. Don’t you dare.

34. Carlyle Blackwell, Der Hund von Baskerville (1929)

Carlyle Blackwell is a stony but captivating Holmes in this gorgeous silent film (the last silent Sherlock Holmes film ever made). A much subtler Holmes than his predecessors from the early silents, Blackwell wrenches so much determination out of his hard expression, it’s clear you’re watching an artist who knew exactly how to perform in the specific medium.

33. Henry Lloyd-Hughes, The Irregulars (2021)


Noted Killing Eve villain Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays a dirty, edgy-looking, drug-addicted, sort-of-impostor Holmes in this dark, cynical take on Holmes’s relationship with the Baker Street Irregulars.

32. Jonathan Pryce, Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars (2008)


Jonathan Pryce is a great actor, so it’s no surprising that he plays a convincing Holmes in this BBC film (about how he becomes a guardian for a bunch of targeted kids), even if his Holmes is a bit, well, irregular. Pryce’s expressive, thoughtful Holmes is worried he won’t succeed against the greatest criminal minds of London, a tad haunted by his responsibility and also concerned about his limitations. There’s a real “WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN” vibe about him which makes his performance feel quite Classical.

31. Raymond Massey, The Speckled Band, (1931)


One of the rare American-accented Holmeses (an accent which feels all the more singular because everyone else in the cast is English), Raymond Massey’s Sherlock feels quite genuine, nonetheless. He’s very calm, very smooth, a real lounge lizard in a very relaxing-looking robe. Look, I love Raymond Massey (especially when he’s dressed like Boris Karloff), but I mean this objectively when I say that I’ve never seen a Holmes actor do a better job of reclining on a couch.

30. Jeremy Irons, “Sherlock Holmes Surprise Party,” Saturday Night Live (1991)


In this extremely cute SNL sketch, about how Sherlock’s friends want to throw him a surprise party but can’t surprise him because he deduces everything from the hiding places of the guests, to the gifts before they’ve been unwrapped, to the fact that the cake is covered with trick candles before it’s been lit. Even though this is a comedy sketch, Jeremy Irons is a natural fit for the character. Tall, gaunt, hawkish, slightly sardonic… It really makes you wish he HAD played Holmes on screen, for real.

29. Bruno Güttner, Der Hund von Baskerville (1937)


The sharp-faced Bruno Güttner is a discerning, turtleneck-wearing Holmes in this oddly-paced early German adaptation. He is more soft-spoken and muttery than his scowl would suggest, which is rather intriguing. I like a quieter Holmes. They’re so much more interesting than the blustery ones. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it.

28. George Tréville, Sherlock Holmes (1912), etc.


George Tréville, one of the earliest actors to play Holmes, was determined, after several Sherlock Holmes films which had been made and which bear no resemblance to the original stories, to make films that captured the authentic essence of the character. With Conan Doyle’s blessing, he directed and starred in eight films from 1912-1913, produced by the English-French film company Éclair and based on actual Sherlock Holmes short stories. Tréville’s is my personal favorite of all the silent Holmeses: his pantomime of analysis is more measured than stylistic acting we often see in silent films.

27. Frank Langella, Sherlock Holmes (1981)


HBO filmed a production of a 1981 theatrical production of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play which starred Frank Langella, so ahoy, it’s on this list. Langella’s Holmes, whose superior brilliance to those around him is played for comedy, is a little haughty, a little unimpressed. He has the bearing of a sardonic CEO more than a great detective. His performance is intended for the stage rather than film, so it’s not exactly subtle in any way (though this is mostly the play’s fault). But it’s commanding, that’s for sure.

26. Michael Caine, Without a Clue (1988)


I swear, Michael Caine pops up on every single list I make. (Because Michael Caine is in every crimey genre movie ever made.) But yes, he played Sherlock Holmes, too, in this raunchy, Pro-Watson farce from the late eighties that posits that Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is a detective genius but needs a public face for his enterprise, and so hires a drunken actor named Reginald Kincaid (Caine) to play his frontman “Sherlock Holmes.” I am a Watson truther, so I really do appreciate this take. And Michael Caine is an excellent actor, and he goes about this spiel pretty convincingly. It’s nice to hear a cockney Sherlock every once and a while, even if “Sherlock” doesn’t really exist.

25. Richard E. Grant, The Other Side (1992)


Despite the fact that this movie, about how some occult magic allows Arthur Conan Doyle to meet his creation Sherlock Holmes, is wacko, Richard E. Grant is a superb Holmes. Maybe he’s a LITTLE gawky, but he’s everything you’d hope the character to be and it’s a shame he didn’t get to play him in a better movie.

24. George C. Scott, They Might Be Giants (1971)


George C. Scott is powerful in this comedy? rom-com? about a psychiatrist, Dr. Mildred Watson (Joanne Woodward), who becomes fascinated by a man who believes he is Sherlock Holmes (complicating this further is that he is very *good* at being Sherlock Holmes). A bit like Larry Hagman’s performance in The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective, Scott’s version is something of a caricature, though in a movie in which someone thinks they are a known fictional character, how can you really avoid this? Scott’s rendition owes much to the “harumph” conception of Britishness, but in such a way that we can tell that it is his real character, the non-actor Justin, who is interpreting Holmes in this manner.

23. Eille Norwood, The Yellow Face, (1921) etc.


Ellie Norwood’s Sherlock Holmes, from a series of films during the silent era, wins the award for “Most Interesting Smoking Jacket.” His Holmes is very imposing and assured. There’s a lot of brow-furrowing and arm-crossing. For what it’s worth, Arthur Conan Doyle LOVED Norwood’s portrayal, remarking “his wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me.” So there you have it! Talent recognizing genius, just like Holmes told us it does.

22. Reginald Owen, A Study in Scarlet (1933)


Reginald Owen (whom you might know best as the elderly Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins) is a self-assured Holmes in this b-film adaptation of A Study in Scarlet which is so loose it’s practically untied. But Owen is the film’s anchor, exuding a confidence and a lordliness that keeps it worth watching. (The other noteworthy thing about this film is that it features an appearance from Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star.)

21. Peter O’ Toole, Sherlock Holmes and the Baskerville Curse (1983)


This animated, Scooby-Doo-looking, mustard-colored TV movie from the early 80s teases us with the idea of Peter O’Toole as Sherlock Holmes (a character whom he played onstage, but never in a live-action movie or series). WHY DID NO ONE LET HIM PLAY HOLMES ON FILM? HOW DID THIS NEVER HAPPEN? Still, in this dull cartoon, he is a very good Holmes. His clever, velvety voice carries literally the whole production. But it is extraordinary capable of producing a gut-wrenching longing for the real O’Toole Holmes That Might Have Been.

20. Richard Roxburgh, The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)


I hope that one day, Richard Roxburgh, the consummate and transformative actor, and Alan Tudyk, another consummate and transformative actor, will play brothers in a film, because they look almost exactly the same, but anyway, Roxburgh (whom you probably know best as the Duke from Moulin Rouge) is a very, very solid Holmes in this very, very solid BBC adaptation that, frankly, I like. (You probably saw it if you watched PBS regularly in the early 2000s.) He’s not a deerstalker-wearing Holmes, which is always a breath of fresh air, and he’s sharp and growly and believable in his strategizing. I also like his blond side-part, because you really don’t see many of those on these lists. Proof again that Masterpiece Mystery always comes through.

19. Nicol Williamson, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, (1976)


Nicol Williamson, the tall and accomplished Shakespearean, plays Holmes in this breathless adaptation of Nicholas Mayer’s novel of the same name, in which a foggy but fast-talking Holmes is thought to be delusional, sent to Vienna for treatment, and winds up solving a phenomenal case with the assistance of Sigmund Freud (a nicely-bearded Alan Arkin). Williamson’s Holmes gets points for sounding very smart while speaking very quickly, and whipping out his magnifying glass and breathing on it like he’s blowing smoke off the muzzle of a pistol.

18. Alan Napier, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Your Show Time (1949)


Alan Napier, best-known for playing Alfred Pennyworth (Bruce Wayne’s butler) in the 1960s Batman series, had a turn as the great detective on television as part of the series Your Show Time. Probably the tallest Holmes on this list (standing at 6’6″), he is a dignified detective—but not so dignified as to pass up an opportunity to gently tease Watson. I quite like his gentle, knowing smiles (down) at his friend, and his pensive head-bowing.

17. Nicholas Rowe, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)


Nicholas Rowe! Okay, so, there are few adaptations as fun (if problematically Orientalist, it must be said) as Young Sherlock Holmes, in which nineteen-year old Nicholas Rowe takes up the old Inverness cloak. His young Holmes is game and brave‚ brilliant and confident but NOT nerdy (that’s reserved for Watson), but with a bouncy youthfulness that fits this adventure. Also, CrimeReads editor Molly Odintz adores this movie.

16. Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes (2015)


I am continually impressed by the wholeness of Ian McKellen’s performance in this sentimental character study of a film, because he is tasked with convincingly and recognizably playing Holmes while devoid of the usual props, settings, characters, and even mysteries, and doing so at a point in Holmes’s life we know nothing about. He is believable, and movingly so, as a frustrated, aged version of the venerable detective. Crusty rather than moody. A dash defensive instead of totally probing. Maybe the tiniest bit insecure. It’s a relatively new thing for the character, but it does work. (However, I DO have a question about how old this Holmes is supposed to be? Because canonically, Holmes was born in 1854, and this movie is set in 1947, so is he… NINETY THREE? IS HE NINETY THREE?)

15. Christopher Lee, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)


What’s not to love about Christopher Lee, the elegant, deep-voiced actor and possible-Charlemagne-descendant who has played an iconic role in every major twentieth century franchise or series? He played Sherlock Holmes twice. And not only that, but he also played Sir Henry Baskerville in an adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (starring his best friend Peter Cushing as Holmes) AND Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace  is pretty boring, and even Christopher Lee, who presents a Holmes who is urbane and erudite, can’t save it. He probably the most refined take on the character we have, and the most authoritative. So serious! In his second turn, Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (and its sequel, The Incident at Victoria Falls), Holmes is a silvery senior citizen, just as sharp as his younger self, but maybe a little bit wiser.

14. William Gillette, Sherlock Holmes (1911)


It’s also very difficult to appropriately rank William Gillette, the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes onscreen, because he did so in a silent-film adaptation of his popular turn-of-the-century Sherlock Holmes play. The necessary pantomime and histrionics of silent film acting styles makes the film hard to evaluate alongside talkies (which not only feature speech, but also by nature involve subtler physical performance styles). Gillette was a steely, stony actor, but he made his Sherlock Holmes quite brave and unreserved (even declaring his love for the female lead). Gillette’s Holmes is a fun, if very loose take on the character, but it was tremendously popular both onstage and screen. And his portrayal sets the precedent for more swashbuckling liberties in adaptations to come.

13. Peter Cushing, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)


Much like the American presidency of Grover Cleveland, who served two non-consecutive terms, I wanted to list Peter Cushing twice and not lump his legacy together in one rung, because he appeared as Holmes in two totally different projects. Actors who play Holmes in several installments that are part of a coherent series should get one spot, while actors who play Holmes in two totally different endeavors SHOULD get two separate spots. But there are only 100 spots on this list and we have to get everyone in. SO, I’m squishing the two Cushing’s together. Cushing first played Holmes in a Hammer Films production of The Hound of the Baskervilles that also starred studio go-to Christopher Lee. He then played Holmes for the BBC a decade later, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, a continuation of the 1965 TV series that had originally starred Douglas Wilmer. Cushing adored Sherlock Holmes, and was eager to play the part. He was committed to as authentic a portrayal of the character as possible. His Holmes is rather traditional: calculating, observant, focused. It’s probably just his face, but Peter Cushing always looks like he’s coming to a grave, startling realization every time he stares at something. It’s as if there are a bunch of lightbulbs flicking on in succession behind those cantilevered cheekbones.

12. Ian Richardson, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) etc.


One of the shorter Holmeses on our list (at 5’9″), the great Shakespearean actor Ian Richardson is the only man to ever play Sherlock Holmes AS WELL AS Dr. Joseph Bell, Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical school professor who provided the inspiration for the great detective. He’s a consummate Holmes, gentle, analytical, and maybe the tiny bit self-satisfied, but only when he gets the better of Dr. Watson, with whom he has a very genial friendship. But I’m especially impressed with how totally relaxed he is… there’s nothing frenetic, or even too excitable. He actually is so chill that he veritably has gags and inside jokes with Dr. Watson… such as the time when Watson pulls out his pistol to assure Holmes that he’ll be careful out in Dartmoor, and Holmes throws his hands up, and they burst out laughing. And then he dons a French accent to say goodbye to him, and they crack up again. So chummy! So cute!

11. Robert Stephens, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)


Billy Wilder’s charming, slightly whimsical take on the Great Detective (whose gambit is to finally present one of his cases too delicate for Watson to have published during his lifetime) features a witty, sensitive performance by the great Shakespearean actor Robert Stephens. This film is focused on Holmes’s personal life (if he’s a machine or a man with feelings), and its waggish notes are underpinned with a deep melancholy. The film reveals that Holmes injects cocaine not exclusively, as he says, to suppress the tremendous boredom he feels in between cases, but also, we learn, to numb his sadness and pain. Stephens conveys a lighthearted bemusement alongside a kind of secret weariness, in a complex and moving performance that keeps the film from swerving into silliness, particularly when the Loch Ness monster arrives. The film on the whole is one of my favorite Holmes takes because it deals with Watson’s editorial input, stressing how Watson co-creates a Holmsian image for the public (and, fun fact, it is also the favorite Holmes film of Sherlock-co-creator Mark Gatiss, who has acknowledged that the series owes an enormous debt to the film, which is REALLY does, good lord). It’s also one of the few adaptations that is not afraid to (nay, finds it essential to) reveal when Holmes does NOT actually solve the puzzle. There are a few times when he’s duped in the literary canon, and they often reveal more about him than the triumphs.

10. Jonny Lee Miller, Elementary (2012-2019)


Jonny Lee Miller is a patterned-sock-wearing, tattooed, recovering drug addict of a Sherlock Holmes in CBS’s modern television adaptation Elementary (a series which itself might get points on some other ranking for flipping familiar characters from male to female, hello there DOCTOR JOAN WATSON), and, although he looks more like a sensitive bohemian poet than the NYPD’s greatest consultant, he is a fresh, but nonetheless persuasive and recognizable Holmes. After all, Doyle’s Holmes is rather Bohemian himself, and this really doesn’t get tapped into enough. In this series, Holmes is an Englishman in New York City, and Miller’s thoughtful and measured performance hones the two most important takes on the character: that he is traumatized (which is interesting) and that is he *recovering* (which is much more interesting), a complex, emotional two-punch much more fruitful than simply rendering him dysfunctional or even simply fringy for both his genius and drug use, as other adaptations do. This Holmes adaptation makes up a lot of stuff (including this Sherlock’s compulsive memorization and need to know as much trivia as possible… which is the direct opposite of Doyle’s Holmes), but that’s good. It leaves Miller lots of room to make the character his very own. Miller’s Holmes is healing, and his performance calibrates the strains and pains of making emotional connections.

9. Christopher Plummer, Murder by Decree (1979)


Christopher Plummer never delivered a run-of-the-mill performance in his life, and it’s remarkable how, this dark film might have blended into the sea of Holmes adaptations were it not for several striking performances (including James Mason as the most elegant Watson we might ever see). But Plummer is incredible, bringing a fantastically new and memorable energy to the role. His eyes almost glow with ideas. This is another tale pitting Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and Plummer’s wry, determined Holmes has a HUNGER about him that is magnetic and arresting.

8. Ronald Howard, Sherlock Holmes (1954-1955)


Ronald Howard’s nuanced Holmes, whom he played in thirty nine episodes of an eponymous TV show, is a busy, pithy, competent guy who doesn’t forget his basic manners even when puttering around, doing a million things at once. This adaptation really stresses his bond with Watson, and his soliciting Watson’s help. This Watson, played by H. Marion Crawford, is genuinely interested in Holmes’s work, rather than simply perpetually bewildered by it, and Howard’s frequent glances and small smiles to Watson while they’re working suggests his genuine interest in collaboration. This always feels very authentic to me. It’s also one of the loveliest portrayals.

7. Yūko Takeuchi, Miss Sherlock (2018)


HBO Asia’s Miss Sherlock, which is one of the best Holmesian adaptations I’ve ever seen, is a modern, female, Japanese reboot of the famous detective partnership. But those more obvious reasons don’t solely account for why the show is so vanguard and engaging. It’s star, Yûko Takeuchi, is riveting as “Sherlock,” an elegant, if aloof and snide, young woman who uses her brilliant observational powers to solve crimes, mostly for her own amusement. She is bossy, self-directed, cranky, and whiny. But she is also glamorous! She loves designer clothes and always looks eminently cool hiking over to a crime scene in her long dusters and stilettos. It’s nice to see a Holmes who clearly loves being the center of attention, so much. Her relationship with Shihori Kanjiya’s Wato (the Watson character) is also compelling; she acts like the spoiled, rich-girl roommate archetype we’ve seen so often, a catty older sister-figure to she shy and sensitive Wato. Though a friendship does grow out of their incidental situationship, Sherlock still gives Wato an extremely hard time. The whole vibe just totally works, and you’ll be thinking about Yūko Takeuchi’s performance long after you’re done with the eight episodes.

6. Vasily Livanov, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1980-1987)


The great Russian actor Vasily Livanov played Holmes in many installments of the beloved series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, directed by Igor Maslennikov with extreme skill and care. The series itself is one of the most “authentic”-feeling adaptations, with Livanov’s crisp and hawkish performance blending the perfect amount of cleverness and feeling (when he reunites with Watson and Mrs. Hudson after being thought dead, he even cries a tiny bit at their welcome). Facially, he is also one of the pointiest.

5. Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock (2010-2017)


In this modern BBC version which adapted individual Holmes stories (until it paid too much fan service and thus went off the rails), Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a sturdy, compelling performance—abrupt, eccentric, calculating, and a tad sentimental, seemingly everyone’s favorite Sherlock in the early 2010s. Though less jovial than the literary Holmes, his buddy-buddy chemistry with Martin Freeman’s John Watson is the best and most sincere part of his magnetic presentation. Sherlock is a few steps ahead of John basically at all times, but he clearly adores him and always wants to impress him. (I think this is one of the key factors in a solid, traditional Holmes-Watson dynamic, Holmes wanting to show off specifically for Watson). Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is, though, a bit of an asshole, and although the show lifts the corners of this very frequently (most specifically and sentimentally with respect to Dr. Watson), the show drills this until it becomes a cliche, fetishishizing his hard exterior as much as his soft heart. His famous line, “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high functioning-sociopath” kind of speaks on the show’s behalf.

4. Douglas Wilmer, Sherlock Holmes (1964-1965)


Douglas Wilmer’s Sherlock Interpretation is one of the best, helped by the fact that he looks a lot like Sherlock Holmes in Sydney Paget’s original illustrations (so, a bit, do Basil Rathbone and Arthur Wontner). Wilmer’s Holmes is the first take on the detective that actually makes him a bit arrogant; he is tough, confident, and exacting. Wilmer’s obituary in The Guardian even went so far as to call his Sherlock a “steely antihero.” But he pulls this off without seeming off-putting; there’s no vainglory or pomposity. There’s focus and drive. In 1975, Wilmer made a cameo appearance as Sherlock in Gene Wilder’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. That film isn’t really about Sherlock, as the title suggests, so it might not even be worth critiquing Wilmer’s performance as Sherlock, since the point of it is the cameo (Wilmer had played Sherlock Holmes to great acclaim in a television series, a decade earlier. But he’s a slightly more exaggerated version than his Sherlock from the series.

3. Arthur Wontner, Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, (1931), etc.


In 1933, the critic Vincent Starett wrote, in his foundational collection of Sherlockian scholarship The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, that “No better ‘Sherlock Holmes’ than Arthur Wontner is likely to be seen and heard in pictures, in our time… The keen, worn, kindly face and quiet prescient smile are out of the very pages of the book.” I have to say, I quite agree. He’s a softer Holmes than those we normally see, but nonetheless shrewd. There’s a gentleness to him, even when at his most brusque, that feels very authentic. As I’ve said in my introduction, I’m not staunchly using ‘fidelity to the source material’ as a criterion to measure the quality of performance, but acknowledging that the literary Holmes is such a comprehensive, dynamic character. Adaptations that stray from his literary identity are tasked, then, with inventing qualities that are just as compelling as the original Holmes’ qualities. Wontner’s capturing these elements of the literary persona (even despite these films’ setting in the 20s-30s!) gives his performance a kind of wholeness and realness that isn’t often seen. (Furthermore, I think he’s more of a dead ringer for the Sydney Paget illustrations than Douglas Wilmer, but that might just be me.) For his countenance, he might be my personal favorite Holmes. I’m not sure. But he might be.

2. Basil Rathbone, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), etc.


The consummate actor Basil Rathbone, besides having my favorite name ever, is often considered to be the gold-standard for Holmes portrayals, having played Holmes in fourteen films in the 1930s and 40s. For many out there, he is *the* Holmes, and this is more than fair. Rathbone’s Holmes is an interesting take… very logical, though not wry, but also very vigorous. While he’s certainly very affable, there is little whimsy, nothing too nonconformist about him. It’s truly marvelous to behold (though more marvelous is how he never once turns around to scream at Nigel Bruce’s idiot Watson).

1. Jeremy Brett, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1985), etc.


It’s really, really hard to pick a #1 slot, but I think first place has to go to Jeremy Brett, whose long-running Holmes (from 1984 to 1994) is both serious and brilliantly diagnostic while also being a tiny bit absurd (Brett’s Holmes, though rather unsmiling, does lean into Holmes’s nutty penchant for disguise and performance). He might be a flash more arrogant than Doyle’s Holmes, but he’s never overweening; he’ll even occasionally burst out laughing or grin with excitement. He also says great things like: “You are the stormy petrel of crime, Watson.” A faultless performance. CASE. CLOSED.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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