Top 11 Greatest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals

Published: March 19, 2014

When Arthur Conan Doyle began his short stories about a detective using deductive reasoning and realistic forensics with his companion, a war-vetern doctor, he had no idea that it would be so popular that it would impede his medical career so greatly that in the first year of his practice as an optometrist the only people to come to the door were looking for not a doctor, but Sherlock Holmes! This caused resentment in the author that had him kill off his main character in an ambiguous way; however, a letter from Queen Victoria herself and a scalding message from his own mother demanding that the detective be revived caused Doyle to reconsider and soon he found joy once again in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson!


(A poster for the 1899 stage adaptation of 'The Speckled Band'; the very first portrayal of Sherlock Holmes ever!)

Years later, the first stage production appeared in Great Britain and Doyle was ecstatic! Had he been able to see the massive cultural following and fandoms related to Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watsn as well, he would've more enjoyed them all; however, audiences and my opinion probably would've been equal to Doyle's in loving the following performances and truly admiring the actors, writers and original stories with Doyle's elements, and the formats onscreen, on television, on radio, and still onstage!

(Newest portrayal of Holmes and Watson by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.)

Here are the Top 11 Greatest Sherlock Holmes Portrayals:

  1. Harry Arthur (H.A.) Saintsbury 'Sherlock Holmes and the Speckled Band', theatrical production

    In 1899 the very first stage adaptation of anykind was performed at the Gillette Theatre in New York City on November 6 and played over 1,000 times. The performer, H.A. (Harry Arthur) Saintsbury, introduced the iconic curved pipe and created the phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson." which never appeared in the books! With so many icons created by this performer and being the very first, it earns him the position at the top of this list!

    *in 1901 the same theatre would feature a Sherlock Holmes production with a 13-year old Charlie Chaplin as one of the Baker Street Irregulars named Billie.*

  2. Benedict Cumberbatch 'Sherlock' (television series, BBC)

    Tne newest and most edgy or controversial of the Holmes' portrals, this modern day adaptation with the incredible voice palpable arrogance that Cumberbatch puts into his performance has audiences all over the world 'Sherlocked'!

  3. Michael Caine 'Without A Clue' (film)

    This was actually my first introduction to an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes after having been read the stories! This comedy still has the facade of the caustic and naughty detective with a penchant for always being ahead of the game and being right! However, in this comedic adaptation, Caine actually portrays Reginald Kincaid, an actor hired by author Doctor John Watson to portray the detective since he has become so popular (ironically Watson here is portrayed by Ben Kingsley who would portray a similar role in Iron Man 3); however, when Watson tries to go solo as 'The Crime Doctor' his publisher refutes his work and Scotland Yard turns him away at every turn just as a high-profile case begins! With Kincaid back as Holmes, incident after incident unfolds with clues and comedy all along the way!

  4. Robert Downey Jr, 'Sherlock Holmes' and 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' (films)

    It is a daunting task for an American to portray a British character with a believable accent, but this portrayal not only has such an accent, but confident swagger and a most accurate portrayal on film to date! How was such a heavy burden accomplished? Elementary, my friend!

  5. Leonard Nimoy, 'Sherlock Holmes' (theatrical production)

    Shocked to see Nimoy as Holmes? So was I, but after seeing clippings and hearing soundbytes I was positively blown away! Nimoy performed with the Royal Shakespearean Company, a prestigious group, proving himself worthy of the coveted role with poise and intense focus!


  6. Nicholas Rowe, 'The Adventures of Young Sherlock Holmes' (film)

    The concept of a young Sherlock Holmes was quite original and surprisingly intense! Adding characters and elements of his character and attire that would later shape the character with the thrilling mystery and coming-of-age setting makes for one incredible film. Nicholas Rowe remains an amazing version of Holmes even as a child keeping many of the characters traits in canon and explaining through triumph and tragedy why his specific eccentricities developed as an adult. This film and its star were so incredible that it made me disappointed to not see a sequel in the years to come!

  7. Richard Roxburgh, 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (television movie)

    The first actor to explicity show the more negative aspects of Holmes' methods using drugs and hallucinations, Roxburgh proved to be an exciting and yet very proper version of the detective. This is accented by the fact that less than a few months later he would star in 'The Leage of Extraordinary Gentlemen' as Professor James Moriarty, Holmes' arch nemesis. In both roles, Roxburgh makes an amazingly intense character!?

  8. Jonathan Pryce, 'Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars' (television series, BBC)

    While I have not seen as much of the show as I would like to, this series brings out a little more of the kind-hearted and fatherly side of the childless detective in his interactions with the Irregulars who are street urchins that help act as Holmes' informants on the streets, though he manages to maintain his sardonic nature all the while! 

  9. Christopher Lee, 'The Incident at Victoria Falls' and 'Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady' (televsion movies, BBC) 'Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace' (film)

    Christopher Lee seems to have had the ultimate Holmes experience in roles and media. He portrayed Holmes in television movies, film, and then also portrayed Sir Henry Baskerville in Holmes' most famous case in the 1959 film as well as portraying Sherlock's brother, Mycroft Holmes, in 'The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes'. Lee is already a decorated and well-seasoned, talented British actor, but he clearly also has so much to offer the media in many ways from several angles of the Holmes' stories! 

  10. Peter O'Toole 'The Valley of Fear', 'A Study in Scarlet', 'The Sign of Four', and 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' *voice actor* (animated televsion mini-series)

    While it was merely his voice doing the acting, O'Toole brought his incredible talent and timeless class to the famous detective role in every frame!

  11. John Cleese, 'The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It' (film)

    It is difficult to describe this hilarious performance and it certainly warrants at least one viewing! While Cleese brings the confidence and swagger of Holmes, he also truly delivers as many laughs as 'The Ministry of Silly Walks' will pay for!

  12. !Honorable Mention: Gene Wilder! 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother' (film)

    Sigerson Holmes has had it to the limit with his 'perfect and popular hack of a brother' whom he calls 'Sheer Luck Holmes! This hilarious Gene Wilder comedy with Marty Feldman as an outrageous messenger and servant makes for a psuedo-Holmes portrayal that is as unforgettable as 'The Bunny Hop' done in the film!

It is unlikely that Doyle had any idea that his works would lead to such success then to a stage production and finally to a plethora of adaptations on radio, stage, film, and television both animated and live-action!

With so much potential in the future for the characters, story arcs and elements, and such a loyal and adoring following even to this day, it is likely that nothing on earth will ever kill Sherlock Holmes and its adaptations!