6 of the Best Sherlock Holmes Actors – Who’s Your Favorite?

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the “most portrayed literary human character in film and TV”.

Claire Burgess, an adjudicator for Guinness World Records, said,

Sherlock Holmes is a literary institution. This Guinness World Records title reflects his enduring appeal and demonstrates that his detective talents are as compelling today as they were 125 years ago.

Created in 1887 by Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes has been played by over 75 actors—besting even William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Which begs the question “who was the best?”

If we could ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that question, he would have said Eille Norwood:

He has that rare quality, which can only be described as glamour, which compels you to watch an actor eagerly even when he is doing nothing. He has the brooding eye which excites expectation and he has also a quite unrivaled power of disguise.

Sir Arthur said those words in the early 1920’s and there have been some truly remarkable performances since.

You’ll probably have your favorites in mind already, but just to help, we’ve shortlisted six of the best Holmes of all time in chronological order. Each actor has been critically acclaimed as Sherlock for their era, with multiple productions of film, stage or TV to their credit.

Then vote for your favorite below.

Eille Norwood (1923)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself admired Norwood’s portrayal, saying: “His wonderful impersonation of Holmes has amazed me.”

Norwood was obsessed with portraying Holmes true to the written stories. He re-read all the stories published up to that time and even learned to play the violin.

Norwood had a reputation as a very professional actor with an incredible ability with make-up and disguise.

There is a story that asked to do an impromptu screen test, Norwood excused himself to the dressing room and appeared a few minutes later “an entirely new person”.

He had done very little in the way of make-up, and he had no accessories, but the transformation was remarkable – it was Sherlock Holmes who came in that door.

Arthur Wontner (1935)

Allmovie wrote that Leslie S. Hiscott’s 1931 movie “Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour” got the Wontner Holmes series off to a rousing start.”

The New York Times wrote of Wontner in Leslie S. Hiscott’s 1935 film “The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes”, , “a mellow, evenly paced British film that renders to Holmes what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have rendered to him: Interest, respect and affection … Mr. Wontner decorates a calabash pipe with commendable skill, contributing a splendid portrait of fiction’s first detective.”

“The Sign of Four” 1932 Film.
“The Missing Rembrandt” 1932 Film.
“The Sleeping Cardinal” 1931 Film.

Basil Rathbone (1939)

Basil Rathbone is credited with creating the definitive screen interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, his only rival generally conceded to be Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of the fictional detective.

His expert fencing skills earned him a reputation as the greatest swordsman in Hollywood history.

“Sherlock Holmes” by Ouida Rathbone 1953 Stage Play.
“Dressed to Kill” 1946 Film.
“Terror by Night” 1946 Film.
“The House of Fear” 1945 Film.
“Pursuit to Algiers” 1945 Film.
“The Woman in Green” 1945 Film.
“The Pearl of Death” 1944 Film.
“The Scarlet Claw” 1944 Film.
“The Spider Woman” 1944 Film.
“Sherlock Holmes in Washington” 1943 Film.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon” 1943 Film.
“Sherlock Holmes Faces Death” 1943 Film.
“Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” 1942 Film.
“The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” 1939-1946 Radio (Blue Network & Mutual).
“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” 1939 Film.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” 1939 Film.

Jeremy Brett (1984)

Inheriting the mantle from the great Basil Rathbone was a tall order indeed, but Jeremy Brett pulls it off with a long-running TV series in the 80’s and again in the 90’s.

Considered to be the definitive Holmes of his era, Brett once said that “Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played — harder than Hamlet or Macbeth.”

“The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” 1994 TV series.
“The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes” 1991–1993 TV series.
“The Secret of Sherlock Holmes 1988–89” Stage (touring, British).
“The Return of Sherlock Holmes 1986–1988” TV series.
“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” 1984–1985 TV series.
41 episodes.

Robert Downey Jr (2009)

“Sherlock Holmes” 2009 Film.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” 2011 Film.

Robert Downey Jr reminds us that in addition to a suave and sophisticated Victorian gentleman, Sherlock Holmes is also, “a brawling, head-butting, fist-in-the-gut, knee-in-the-groin action hero.”

In additional to brawn, Downey brings his “characteristic twitchy wit and haggard insouciance, he has more intelligence than the movie knows what to do with.”

The London scene is given a makeover with “a smoky, greasy, steam-punk rendering of Victorian London, full of soot and guts and bad teeth and period clothes — shows some undeniable flair.”
Ref: NYTimes “Sherlock Holmes” 2009 Review.

Benedict Cumberbatch (2012)

“Sherlock” 2010–present TV series (BBC).
15 episodes.

Danny Bowes, writing for Indiewire thinks the greatest performance as Sherlock Holmes is that of Benedict Cumberbatch.

“… free the character from what they felt was a paralyzing traditionalism in adaptations. By setting the show in present-day London, they’ve found a way of getting at who Holmes is as a character, giving everyone from the writers to the designers to the actor playing the role the opportunity to focus on who Holmes is, rather than who he has been.”

“As for Cumberbatch’s performance, his physicality is a delight — he alternates between furious activity and catatonic stillness, seeming to be in motion even when still and to exist in a series of meticulously constructed tableaux when in motion.”