Sherlock Holmes, the vastly intelligent “consulting detective” character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has been popular in print, on stage, on radio, in films and on television ever since his first appearance in print in 1887. With his friend and sidekick, Dr. Watson, at his side, Sherlock can solve any mystery with his amazing ability to notice the tiniest detail and interpret it properly.
Sherlock Holmes in a 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget
One of the early portrayers of Sherlock Holmes on stage was William Gillette. Gillette was a popular stage actor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He wrote a play based on Doyle’s character, “Sherlock Holmes, or the Strange Case of Miss Faulkner,” in 1899, and it formed the basis of a silent film he wrote in 1916, “Sherlock Holmes.” While keeping in touch with Doyle as he wrote the play, Gillette asked Doyle, “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle was tired of Holmes by this time, after writing four novels and fifty-six short stories about him, so he replied, "You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him."
Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
Gillette is credited with creating some of the things usually associated with Holmes, such as his curved briar pipe and deerstalker cap, and gave Holmes the phrase, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow,” which eventually was changed to “Elementary, my dear Watson.” When Gillette was finally able to meet Doyle, he stepped off the train and strode straight to Doyle not dressed as himself, but as Sherlock Holmes. Naturally, this delighted Doyle and they became lifelong friends.
Gillette portrayed Holmes approximately 1300 times throughout his life, and illustrations of the fictional character often showed Gillette in the role. In 1923, he retired to his estate in Hadlyme, Connecticut. There, on top of a hill overlooking the Connecticut River, Gillette built what is now known as Gillette Castle. Now owned by the State of Connecticut, it’s open to visitors, and I highly recommend you visit it if you can! There is much Holmes memorabilia inside, but it’s gorgeous just as…well…a castle. If i could, I’d kick out the tourists and live there myself. ;-)
Gillette Castle, Hadlyme, Connecticut
As you may have noticed, my topic of Sherlock Holmes has morphed into a post about William Gillette. So let me just say that although I have much interest in and respect for Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes and the fame it earned him, and the other famous actors who portrayed him, my favorite portrayer of Sherlock Holmes is:
Jeremy Brett, who played Holmes on PBS. Oh my gosh, no one can beat him for a spot-on portrayal of the famous fictional character. I have no doubt that were he still alive, Brett would still be delighting audiences with his unique Sherlock Holmes.