The 10 best Sherlock Holmes performances, ranked
Here's a mystery: Has any literary character made more of a mark on film and TV than Sherlock Holmes? Ever since Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the great detective of Baker Street, he's dominated pop culture, reshaping the very fabric of the mystery genre. The cold, brilliant Holmes has been adapted literally hundreds of times and been played by more than 75 actors. As of 2012, he even holds the Guinness World Record for the most-portrayed literary human character in the history of film and television.
So, as part of EW's Whodunnit Week, we decided to comb through those countless performances and recognize a few of our favorites. To help narrow down the contenders, we limited our list to actors who actually play Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to Holmes-inspired characters (which meant that figures like Hugh Laurie's House were out of the running). Plus, our list only includes live-action performances. (Our apologies to The Great Mouse Detective and Sherlock Gnomes.)
Now that you know our methods, Watson, let us present EW's ranking of 10 of the best Sherlock Holmes actors of all time.
10. Henry Cavill in Enola Holmes
This 2020 Netflix film is all about Millie Bobby Brown's eponymous detective, the younger (and equally brilliant) sister of the famed Sherlock. But Henry Cavill puts his own spin on the sleuth, taking a smaller but no less important part as Sherlock. It's the rare project that actually takes advantage of Cavill's charm: Through no fault of the actor, his Superman was always written as more of a glowering god than a flesh-and-blood man, and in The Witcher, he mostly just gets to grunt and slice apart monsters. Here, he takes on an equally iconic role and gets to make it his own, beating up bad guys and showing off his deduction skills. Here's hoping we haven't seen the last of Cavill's crime-solver.
9. Nicholas Rowe in Young Sherlock Holmes
At some point, every iconic character gets an origin story. A teenage Nicholas Rowe tackled the role in this 1985 Amblin film, directed by Barry Levinson and written by Chris Columbus. The film follows Rowe's burgeoning crime-solver as he meets a young John Watson (Alan Cox) at boarding school. Together, the two teens embark on a twisty investigation of mysterious murders and hallucinatory drugs. In many ways, Rowe's performance is classic Sherlock: an aloof, violin-playing genius who's determined to prove his brilliance. But Rowe also brings a gangly teenage awkwardness to the role, resulting in a particularly memorable portrayal.
8. Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes
After Young Sherlock comes Old Sherlock! The legendary Ian McKellen took on the role with this 2015 film, directed by his longtime collaborator Bill Condon and based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. Now aged 93, McKellen's Holmes has long since retired from sleuthing, and as his memory slowly deteriorates, he finds himself dwelling on past cases. McKellen brings a warm gravitas to the role, as the film asks: What happens to the world's smartest detective once his mind starts to go?
7. Yuko Takeuchi in Miss Sherlock
Sherlock Holmes has taken all sorts of unusual forms — from a medical doctor (Hugh Laurie) to a washed-up actor (Michael Caine) to a literal dog (the Hayao Miyazaki-directed TV series Sherlock Hound). But Miss Sherlock made headlines for being the first adaptation to gender-swap both Holmes and Watson, with the late Japanese actress Yuko Takeuchi taking on the titular role. Set in present-day Tokyo, this HBO Asia/Hulu series was a clever delight, following the brilliant but abrasive Sherlock as she teams up with Wato Tachibana (Shihori Kanjiya) to solve crimes. Takeuchi's Sherlock is odd, arrogant, and endlessly watchable — a rare fresh take on a character who's been portrayed so many times.
6. Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes
Every Sherlock adaptation emphasizes the detective's mental abilities, but Guy Ritchie's film series highlights his physical abilities, too. Robert Downey Jr. plays the world's greatest detective as less bookish and more brawling, boxing with his opponents and cavorting around London like a bona fide action hero. Downey, of course, has played his fair share of eccentric geniuses, and there's a kind of roguish Tony Stark charm to his take on Holmes. Add in Jude Law as a devoted John Watson, and the result is an action-packed adaptation that's pure popcorn fun.
5. Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary
When CBS first announced the procedural Elementary, some fans were quick to dismiss it as an American rip-off of the BBC's popular Sherlock. But over the show's seven seasons, Elementary proved to have its own brilliance, a sharp, thoughtful take that relocated the detective to modern-day New York City. Jonny Lee Miller is endlessly watchable as the chaotic Sherlock, a recovering drug addict and consulting detective living with his sober companion Dr. Joan Watson (an excellent Lucy Liu).
4. Peter Cushing in Hound of the Baskervilles
With his sky-high cheekbones and piercing stare, Peter Cushing looked every part the aloof British detective. The British actor played Holmes multiple times over the years, but he was never better than in the 1959 film The Hound of the Baskervilles. The first Holmes film made in color, the '59 Baskervilles is pure atmospheric horror, following Cushing's hero as he stalks around the moors and tries to protect the wealthy Sir Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee, who would go on to play Holmes himself).
3. Basil Rathbone in multiple films
Basil Rathbone was far from the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes on screen, but he was certainly the first to turn Sherlock into a star. The British actor appeared in 14 films stretching between 1939 and 1946, with Nigel Bruce as his loyal Watson. Much of what we associate with the character stems from Rathbone's elegant performance, from his cool demeanor to that iconic deerstalker hat. Early in his tenure, Rathbone played a more traditional Holmes, set in Victorian London, but later films relocated him to the 1940s, where he even faced off against Nazis.
2. Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock
The BBC brought Baker Street into the 21st century with this ambitious miniseries, following an internet-savvy Holmes as he outwitted criminals in modern London. Benedict Cumberbatch's eccentric performance catapulted the actor to stardom, and despite the show's present-day setting, there's a certain timelessness to Cumberbatch's "high-functioning sociopath." His Holmes is odd, unsettling, and endlessly magnetic, and his chemistry with Martin Freeman's John Watson is unmatched. Sure, the quality of the show itself could vary wildly (the less said about those final episodes, the better), but Cumberbatch elevates even the most ridiculous moments. You'll never look at the scratches on your phone case the same way again.
1. Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Every generation has their preferred Sherlock, but for many, Jeremy Brett's sleuth remains the definitive version. Between 1984 and 1994, Brett dominated the airwaves with this hit British series, which also starred David Burke and Edward Hardwicke as Watson. Brett's iteration is Sherlock in his purest form, a peculiar and disarming genius obsessed with unraveling even the thorniest mystery. But there's also a lightness and a charm to Brett's performance, and he perfectly captured the detective's mercurial nature, making his Sherlock feel as if he leapt off of the page.
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