Pop Culture

The many faces of Sherlock Holmes

In a new movie, Will Ferrell joins the long line of actors who've played variations of the famous sleuth.

Johnny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr.  and Ian McKellen andin their roles as Sherlock HolmesJohnny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr.  and Ian McKellen andin their roles as Sherlock HolmesFrom left to right: Johnny Lee Miller, Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey, Jr., and Will Ferrell. (Photo: Courtesy: CBS, PBS, Warner Bros. and Getty)

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in the 1870s, he had no idea that the character would be around for almost 140 years. As long as filmmakers have been producing moving pictures, there has been some representation of Holmes on a screen somewhere.

What's interesting about Holmes is that there have been so many variations on the character, whether they were named Sherlock or something else. There are too many actors who have played Holmes or a Holmes-esque character to count, but here are some of the best examples:

Benedict Cumberbatch ('Sherlock')


Cumberbatch may make viewers swoon as a handsome modern-day Holmes in the BBC/PBS series written by Steven Moffat, but he also brings the right combination of dead-seriousness and light humor to the role. He plays Holmes' social awkwardness as more of a flaw than most actors do, which is one of the reasons the show has been such a hit.

Will Ferrell ('Holmes & Watson')

Actor Will Ferrell will become the famous detective in a movie due out next summer.Actor Will Ferrell will become the famous detective in a movie due out next summer.

"Saturday Night Live" alum Will Ferrell has made a name for himself starring in some of the most iconic comedies of the past 15 years ("Elf," "Anchorman," "Zoolander," "Old School," etc.). The California native is hoping to add to that cannon with his next film: "Holmes & Watson," Currently in production, with a release set for 2018, the movie will feature Ferrell as the 21B Baker Street sleuth, with his frequent co-star John C. Reilly playing Dr. Watson. The film is being helmed by Israeli director Etan Cohen, who previously worked with Ferrell on 2015's "Get Hard."

Sir Ian McKellen ('Mr. Holmes')


With the release of "Mr. Holmes" in 2015, British actor Sir Ian McKellen joined the ranks of on-screen Holmeses. In the movie, produced by Israeli native Avi Giladi, McKellen plays a 93-year-old Holmes who is losing his mental capacities but helps his maid's son solve one last mystery. "'Mr. Holmes' focuses on the man behind the mysteries," wrote Rotten Tomatoes, "and while it may lack Baker Street thrills, it more than compensates with tenderly wrought, well-acted drama." McKellan was nominated for several international acting awards for his performance.

Jonny Lee Miller ('Elementary')


People scoffed when the CBS version of Holmes premiered shortly after "Sherlock" came around. But Miller has made Holmes a vulnerable and sympathetic character. Miller's chemistry with Lucy Liu, who plays Joan Watson, has been a keystone for the show, as it goes into its fourth season.

Robert Downey Jr. ('Sherlock Holmes')


It's not much of a stretch to see Downey playing a haughty genius, but he still pulls off the role of a youngish, butt-kicking Holmes in the 2009 movie and its 2011 sequel, both directed by Guy Ritchie. A third movie is in the works, and Downey will be back as the "action sleuth" whenever it's ready to roll.

Jeremy Brett


To some, Brett's portrayal of Holmes is the best one ever. He played the detective in a number of different series on Grenada Television in the U.K., which were rebroadcast on PBS in the U.S., from 1984-94. A classically trained actor, he brought gravity to the part, mainly through stirring monologues like in the clip above.

Tony Shalhoub ('Monk')


Adrian Monk is one of those "Holmes-esque" characters who uses his special abilities – in this case, crippling OCD – to solve crimes. Creator David Hoberman has said that Holmes is one of the inspirations for Monk, with his "handler" (Sharona or Natalie, whichever you prefer) standing in for Watson. Shalhoub won a wagonfull of Emmys playing the role, so he might have Sir Conan Doyle to thank for those.

Basil Rathbone


One of the most well-known Holmeses, Rathbone played Sherlock in various movies and television series between 1939 and 1954. His version of Holmes is what many people think of as the gold standard, and many actors have done Rathbone impressions when they played the sleuth.

Hugh Laurie ('House M.D.')


Think Dr. Gregory House isn't a medical version of Sherlock Holmes? He's grumpy, dislikes people, uses deduction to solve problems, has a bit of a substance problem and has a sidekick named Watson (er, it's actually "Wilson," but you get the idea). Creator David Shore has openly said he's a fan of Holmes, so to see this tribute isn't a stretch. If that's how you view it, Laurie may have been the best Holmes ever over the show's eight seasons.

Nicholas Rowe ('Young Sherlock Holmes')


Rowe was 19 when he played the school-age version of Holmes in the 1985 film directed by Barry Levinson of "Rain Man" fame. But as young as he was, he still embodied the haughty genius quite well. As most movies Steven Spielberg produced in the 1980s, the film is full of action and special effects.

Barrie Ingham ('The Great Mouse Detective')


We never saw Barrie Ingham's face in this 1986 Disney movie, because he played a mouse named "Basil of Baker Street," a not-so-subtle nod to the street where Holmes lived. He sure as heck sounded like Holmes, and in this climactic scene, he pretty much solved problems like the human version of the detective.

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