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A Study in Error: The ten worst Sherlock Holmes


The premier Brit movie/TV role is not as elementary to pull off as it may seem...

Worst Sherlocks

With Robert Downey Junior's inspired reinventing of the role in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009) and the BBC effectively bringing Holmes to the 21st Century in the popular TV series Sherlock (2010) starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the crime-solving antics of the Great Detective and his loyal colleague Dr Watson seem in good hands, and remain as popular as ever. Among the screen actors who have effectively brought Holmes to life include Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Douglas Wilmer, Ian Richardson and Jeremy Brett. As an amazing and complex role to play, the right actor can add great depth to it.

But then there are others who turned out to be Not-So-Great-Detectives, either through miscasting or just being plain bad. One does not need the power of deductive reasoning to see why the following ten actors fell way off the mark...

Roger Moore - Sherlock Homes in New York (1976)

Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes in 'Sherlock Homes in New York' (1976)

"My name is Holmes, Sherlock Holmes!" Not 007! Sir Roger may have been great saving the world from foreign powers as Bond, but both his tongue-in-cheek persona and eyebrows look out of place as Holmes! He needed to have fully mastered his third facial expression before donning the famous deerstalker.

Stewart Granger - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)

Stewart Granger as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1972)

This pedestrian made-for-TV version of the famous story has an equally pedestrian Holmes in the shape of miscast Stewart Granger, whose handsome, silver-haired, square-jawed appearance looks totally wrong. The fact that he walks through the role with no enthusiasm makes his performance all the more painful to watch.

Charlton Heston - The Crucifer of Blood (1991)

Charlton Heston as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Crucifer of Blood' (1991)

After transferring his stage role of Thomas More to a TV movie (A Man For All Seasons (1988)), Chuck Heston did the same with his Broadway performance as Holmes. Perhaps both roles worked better on stage, because his small-screen interpretations are mannered. Heston may have the voice and the presence, but his performance is just plain dull.

Peter Cook - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

Peter Cook as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1978)

This is without doubt the worst ever film version of Holmes' most-filmed adventure, with Peter Cook's Jewish Holmes nothing short of terrible. Inept from start to finish, Cook's ham-slicing turn is not helped by his already strained relationship with Dudley Moore (as a Welsh Dr Watson) - who was doing this film under protest. With Terry-Thomas (looking ill), Hugh Griffiths (looking sloshed), Kenneth Williams (looking bored) and a decent comic cast all at sea, the movie is an exercise in embarrassment.

Tom Baker - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982)

Tom Baker as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1982)

Swapping the long scarf and floppy hat for a deerstalker and pipe for his first post Dr Who role, playing Holmes could not have been a better start for Baker. But despite the distinctive voice and stage presence, he's not very convincing, his stocky frame and short stature being more suited to playing Dr Watson or Inspector Lestrade. His performance is also strangely flat. Perhaps he never quite got the Time Lord out of his system.

Christopher Lee - Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991)

Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes in 'Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady' (1991)

After his bland Sir Henry in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Sir Christopher's first stab as the Great Detective in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) was marred by the fact that his voice was dubbed by another actor. Following his excellent Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), he played the more famous brother once again in this TV movie. Unfortunately Lee's portrayal is a tad too stiff. He fared no better in the sequel Incident at Victoria Falls (1992).

Richard Roxburgh - The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

Richard Roxburgh as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (2002)

Another actor more suited to playing Inspector Lestrade, Roxburgh's performance in yet another TV/cinema adaptation of the story (and a dull one at that) is best described as charisma-free. But his association with Holmes did not end there; he made an equally lacklustre Moriarty in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).

John Cleese - The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It (1977)

John Cleese as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It' (1977)

Another Holmes spoof, and one that is thankfully long-forgotten. In an attempt to distance himself early from Fawlty Towers, Cleese, who also wrote the rather lame script, plays the Great Detective's grandson Arthur Sherlock Holmes, but seems unsure whether to play the part straight or send himself up.

Nicol Williamson - The Seven Percent Solution (1976)

Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Seven Percent Solution' (1976)

This Holmes spoof has a brilliant idea, but sadly takes itself far too seriously to make it even mildly amusing. Holmes' increasing cocaine habit has made him so delusional that he's placed in the care of Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Looking suitably lost, Williamson's tired performance is unable to drum up any enthusiasm in the viewer.

Michael Caine - Without a Clue (1988)

Michael Caine as Sherlock Holmes in 'Without A Clue' (1988)

Another spoof, another good idea, another misfire, and another miscast actor! Holmes is really a washed-up alcoholic actor who is used as a front for the real detective Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley). The concept is original but the execution dismal despite solid work from the leads. Caine tries his best, but he simply cannot convince, either as the Holmes of folklore or as his real drunken self. Perhaps it might have worked better if he had swapped roles with Kingsley, who at least has a more Holmesian profile.

Elementary, my dear Shadowlocked readers!

See also:

The 10 worst Van Helsings - ever!

Lists at Shadowlocked


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#1 Another one... Scott Monty 2011-02-15 04:32
Great list! I'd also add two others. One from the distant past: Reginald Owen, who played a rather unenergetic and double-chinned Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1933). And even more egregious, Edward Hardwicke, who took the role in the 1990 "Hands of a Murderer" when he was 60 years of age.

Scott Monty, BSI
The Baker Street Blog
#2 Great list Caleb Leland 2011-02-15 05:52
I would have added Matt Frewer, who did a couple of Canadian-made Holmes adventures, but over all, brilliantly done.
#3 Only one problem.... David F. Morrill 2011-02-15 12:19
Excellent list. But I would place Robert Downey Jr. at the top of any list of the absolutely worst Sherlock Holmeses. The only problem is, he really wasn't playing Sherlock Holmes. He was playing little, dirty Wiggins, who has clearly killed the real Sherlock Holmes and taken his place. Watson, needing the income, pretends not to notice.
#4 Thanks Everyone Mark Iveson 2011-02-15 16:12
Hi Scott,

Yes I've seen the publicity stills for Reginald Owen as Holmes, and I certainly agree; he made a more memorable Dr Watson. But since I've never seen the film I did not want to judge his performance without seeing it myself.

Same with Matt Frewer Caleb. I've heard how bad he was but wanted to reserve judgement until I watched the movies.

As for Downey, Well David, I don't think his performance will ever satisfy a lot of Holmes fans!

Thanks guys for the comments
#5 Short Baker? PT 2011-02-16 01:30
Tom Baker's short stature? How is 6' 3" considered short?
#6 Frewer? Monica 2011-02-16 02:10
Of all the actors who deserve to be on this list, Matthew Frewer is the one you kept off. I found his take on Holmes to be like a train-wreck -- horrible to watch, yet strangely entrancing because of the morbidity of it all.

And Scott, that would be Edward Woodward in Hands of a Murderer. Hardwicke was the second Doctor Watson in the Jeremy Brett series. ;-)
#7 Height & Build Mark Iveson 2011-02-16 14:20
Yeah I'm aware of Mr Baker's towering presence, but the presentation of Holmes is as much to do with build as well as height.

Mr Baker's frame was a tad too stocky for the role & this did not emphasize his height at all; he looked a good deal shorter (in my opinion).

Peter Cushing was 2 inches shorter yet his slim build made him appear much taller as Holmes.

Monica, I've not seen Frewer as Holmes but now I'm curious!
#8 Short Baker? Taller Cushing?? L.C.Brand 2011-02-16 23:45
Much as I loved Cushing's (film) Holmes, his slim build made him appear SMALLER/TINIER. Say what you want about Baker's detective (I liked it), but the guy is HUGE, and a bigger frame makes a person look bigger ... ? Perhaps Mr. Iveson had enjoyed a bit too much of the ol' 7% solution when he was assessing these performances?
#9 Take Caine off list Henry Zecher 2011-02-17 21:41
Michael Caine had no business being on this list. Without a Clue is a comedy spoof, and very well done. Caine's performance was magnificent.
#10 RE: A Study in Error: the ten worst Sherlock Holmes Bill Keller 2011-02-21 14:48
On the whole a wonderfully accurate list.

I'm a huge Robert Downey fan, a truly gifted actor and one of my favorites but Iron(man)ically not a top notch Holmes. His acting was fine but he's just not Holmes whereas Jude Law made a tremendous Watson (and I can take him or leave him as an actor). I agree with you're not putting Downey on this list but he wouldn't make a top ten Best Holmes either.

Frewer was better than I thought he'd be. I really expected something dreadful so he gained through low expectations. I'm sure when you check him out you'll find he's near the top ten but not in it so your list is safe.

And 99 out of 100 doctors will agree with YOU. Thin makes a person look taller and fat makes them look shorter.

Well done Mr. Iveson.
#11 RE: A Study in Error: the ten worst Sherlock Holmes Meg 2011-04-01 12:12
Nicol Williamson's Holmes may have been a little lacking, but Robert Duvall may have been the best Watson ever....
#12 Egregiously Flawed Worst-Ten-List arspoetica 2011-04-11 01:54
While I agree with several on Mr. Iveson's list, he made a serious mistake in the very creating of it, for how can one make claim to such expertise as is required in these exercises without absolute familiarity with the ENTIRE catalog.

As several have noted, the exclusion of Matt Frewer from this list is laughable -- his whining, slurping, bug-eyed and bobble-headed rooster of an interpretation is (as Monica had observed above) "a train wreck" and should top any Worst list. (One has to wonder with whom he slept that he would appear in more than one such waste of film stock). A cursory glance through the Holmeses representated at IMDB (as well as its oft-televised and rather recent nature) would have indicated the necessity of familiarity with Frewer's outings (and others!) before taking on this task.

So far as the "spoof" versions [didn't the critic actually mean 'parody?] included in Mr. Iveson's evaluation: inherent in this variety of adaptation is the expectation that the audience will have more than passing familiarity with the canon and its original characters, which serve then not as a blueprint but as a springboard for comic speculation. Within this oevre is no requirement that a character be substantially the same; he could even be completely unlike, so long as such difference serves the requirements of the new story. So, in Without a Clue, when Ben Kingsley's Watson hires dipsomaniac actor Michael Caine to pretend to be the fictional Sherlock Holmes, what is it about this new story that requires that the actor be anything like Watson's fictional character? Without a Clue is witty, charming, slap-stick funny, and so is Michael Caine in it. Maybe, instead of Caine deserving to be on a Worst list, Mr. Iveson just doesn't get it?
Additionally, I believe that he misread the 2002 "Hound of the Baskervilles:"
I've seen all the IMDb-listed 'sound' versions of the Hound (but for the 1955 German and the '68 Italian -- I'd be amazed if anyone reading this has), including the Soviet, and this 2002 version is my favorite. (The '37 German Hound with its moody expressionist noir which seems to have been an influence for this adaptation, runs a close second with me, although its prosaic Holmes disappoints.) While Roxburgh may not be the very best Holmes, that wasn't the point, as Watson is the focus of this story. Hardly dull, this adaptation, to me, comes closest to approximating what Doyle's original readers might have experienced: its subtle changes seemed carefully designed for this purpose and here created a more urgent, more 'real' and more modern experience appropriate to our different time and tastes -- including the extraordinary (!?!) cgi hound (which I found excessive and obvious, but which terrified my 20-year-old niece). The alterations to Stapleton's character and Beryl's fate were certainly justified by the printed Holmes' own estimation of Stapleton, who had "for years been a desperate and dangerous man..;" a darker, less mannered, less exaggerated Holmes was suitable foil to this chilling Stapleton (Richard E. Grant), and, as well, the emboldened Watson of the PHENOMENAL Ian Hart. Incidentally, the BBC was so happy with the film that they commissioned a second with the same Holmes, Watson, et al; only Roxburgh's commitment to Van Helsing opened Holmes to Rupert Everett for Silk Stockings, NOT producer preference.
(Daniel Webb -- Lestrade in Hound -- was also tied up, Neil Dudgeon replacing him.)

The recent Holmes film? Now, THAT is a bore: a flimsy script; the always charming Robert Downey, Jr. wasted in a part he doesn't fit, in which he seems to be playing himself; flat and obvious cgi far less inspired than old scenery mattes and less effective -- in an unfinished-bridge scene designed for thrills, FAR less than thrilling and adding nothing to the story; and finally, the ridiculously juvenile MacAdams playing Irene Adler with nothing of the air of the larger-than-life woman in her later 30s who had dominated opera stages and high society for a decade, who "would have made an admirable queen" and of whom Holmes (certainly not given to flights of fancy) said "she was a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for."

Now, THAT, would have been inspired -- bucking the big money film industry dedicated to stuffing marketing-rife garbage into us to place the entire Guy-Ritchie-comic-book-Sherlock film on the worst ten list for its insults to Conan Doyle's immortal character and canon, as well as its insults to the viewing public.
#13 RE: A Study in Error: the ten worst Sherlock Holmes KevinAK 2011-06-01 19:26
Quoting Scott Monty:
Great list! I'd also add two others. One from the distant past: Reginald Owen, who played a rather unenergetic and double-chinned Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1933). And even more egregious, Edward Hardwicke, who took the role in the 1990 "Hands of a Murderer" when he was 60 years of age.

Scott Monty, BSI
The Baker Street Blog

Hands of a Murderer had Edward Woodward as Holmes. Edward Hardwicke succeeded David Burke as Watson opposite Jeremy Brett.

Add Ben Syder to the list for the straight to dvd release that tried to capitalize on the Robert Downey film.

Why are Jeremy Brett and David Burke superimposed into the photo of Charlton Heston?
#14 RE: A Study in Error: the ten worst Sherlock Holmes Craig D. 2011-10-07 22:49
Some random thoughts:

1. Like some others have said, Matt Frewer belongs on this list, perhaps at the top. He's beyond awful.

2. Why so much hate for Robert Downey in the comments? He isn't remotely the best Holmes, but he isn't bad at all. It seems strange to criticize him for not being faithful to Doyle's character. Basil Rathbone's proto James Bond take on Holmes was no more faithful, and nobody ever complains about that.

3. Reginald Owen was physically wrong for the part (he was about 50 pounds too heavy), but he was one of the better pre-Rathbone Sherlocks.

4. Richard Roxburgh is one of the least popular Sherlocks amongst hardcore fans, so imagine my surprise when I finally watched the film and found him to be quite good. I certainly wouldn't put him in my Top 5, but he's often spoken of as an embarrassment and an insult to Arthur Conan Doyle, which is utterly uncalled for. The only problem is that he's upstaged by Ian Hart, who may be my favorite Watson ever. My apologies to Nigel Bruce, David Burke, Edward Hardwicke, and Jude Law.
#15 WE ALL HAVE OUR FAVOURITES Cassandra Morrison 2011-11-26 06:06
I would disagree with some of the items on this list. But there would be no point...since neither the reviewer NOR any of those who have commented/added to it have been making their critiques on the only TRUE measurement. Sherlock Holmes as he is revealed in the 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Comparing one actor with another is just a popularity contest and rather pointless. One slight note...the author of this review comments about Tom Baker's short stature. Baker was 6'3" tall when he played Holmes (and the Doctor) he is now in his late 70s and has lost about an inch. This fact alone shows that the reviewer really had no interest in getting their facts correct.
#16 Carnacki the Crock Smeller Steve Taylor 2011-12-16 00:18
My main issue with Downey Jnr is that he's been giving that same performance since his comeback in Zodiac (his best outing with it), has carried it through two Iron Man films and then just sticks an incomprehensibl e English accent on it an calls the character Sherlock Holmes. The guys at Universal really should ask for their money back from the lazy sod.

Agree with other comments about Baker and Caine not belonging on the list for the reasons given. As for Roxburgh, he truly isn't that bad but was rather eclipsed by Rupert Everett in the follow-up film a couple of years later.
#17 RE: A Study in Error: the ten worst Sherlock Holmes Ben May 2011-12-20 23:13
I'd certainly put Matt Frewer on the list, though admittedly, I've only ever seen his version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which doesn't feature Holmes himself as much as most stories, so perhaps he's a lot better in the other stories he's done.

I thought Tom Baker was excellent as Holmes though. He may not quite have the look of the traditional depiction Holmes, but I think he acts the part really well. Shame he was paired with yet another version of Nigel Bruce.

I haven't seen The Seven Percent Solution, so I can't say what Nicole Williams was like in that, but I've got an audio dramatisation of The Hound of the Baskervilles from 1984 with Nicole Williamson, and I think he's excellent in it.
#18 seven per cent Charlotte 2012-01-23 16:24
I disagree with Nicol Williamson being on this list. I watched the 7% solution recently and loved it and found very amusing. Definately new favourite actor.
I would not say Williamson's performance was lacklustre especially not on the swordfight-on-top-of-the-train scene or when he starts on the case.

The film is derived from a pastiche story written by Meyer not ACD. It has Holmes dealing with a severely debilitating cocaine addiction so therefore it is not a typical Holmes story and it is filmed in a tongue-in-cheek way. But it works and I thought Williamson was great as Holmes.... unlike Robert Duvall's misconstrued English accent which was bemusing to say the least.
#19 The worst nonHolmes so far is, of course... Arty Morty 2012-04-15 19:00
...the atrocity excreted by the erythroxylaceae -addled "brain" of Guy "Swept Away" Ritchie, and its even worse sequel. The one good thing about them is the utter lack of Ritchie's geriatric wife.
#20 Let them have their chance Kenny 2012-10-19 22:47
I have nothing against each actor playing Holmes, I think Robert Downey Jr. has the psychology of Holmes down pat. Unlike Peter Cushing and Charlton Heston's intense and paranoid portrayals, Downey shows a more relaxed, focused, and calm Holmes, which is truer to the original creation. It's always possible that the interpretation of different Holmes could be based on Holmes himself not wanting his true appearance and manners being revealed to the world in Watson's writing's, so a 5 foot 8 inch Holmes with blonde curly hair might have asked Watson to write him as 6"1' with straight combed back hair. Bare in mind this quote about "The Three Students " : 'He (Miles McLaren) is taller than the Indian, not so tall as Gilchrist. I suppose five foot six would be about it' Gilchrist is described as a tall, as is Homes, conclusively Holmes was probably never pictured by Doyle to be taller than 5"9'. Ultimately there's been 100s of videotaped portrayal's of Holmes and time and technological advancements will affect the results, profits, and audience reaction of one unjustly over another, let them do it.
#21 A few points... M. Bihzor 2012-11-04 16:03
"THE ten WORST Sherlock Holmes" - you'd have to see every screen portrayal of Sherlock Holmes to create such a list, but you clearly have not.
The photo used for "Crucifer of Blood" does have Heston on one side, but it has Jeremy Brett and David Burke on the other!
Tom Baker's "short stature?!?" The man is 6'3" - one of the taller actors to portray Holmes onscreen, and just an inch shorter than the literary Holmes.
If I made this list, we'd only agree about two of these, but then again, the other eight that I'd put on the list are from productions you've probably never seen...
#22 Correction Howad 2013-05-11 10:57
Quoting Scott Monty:
Great list! I'd also add two others. One from the distant past: Reginald Owen, who played a rather unenergetic and double-chinned Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1933). And even more egregious, Edward Hardwicke, who took the role in the 1990 "Hands of a Murderer" when he was 60 years of age.

Scott Monty, BSI
The Baker Street Blog

It was Edward Woodward not Edward Hardwicke (the beloved Dr. Watson to Jeremy Brett) who played Holmes in "Hands of a Murderer". For my money "Hound of London" with Patrick Macnee has to be one of the ten worst, if not the worst. No way "Without A Clue" should be on this list, fun parody and Ben Kingsley was brilliant in it.
#23 RE: A Study in Error: The ten worst Sherlock Holmes Albert 2014-02-12 19:13
I thought Tom Baker's acting as Holmes was excellent. The only thing I disliked about his performance was that awful hairpiece he used.

Of all Holmes, Reginald Owen's is by far the worst. His lack of enthusiasm when he says, "Come, Watson. The game is afoot!" has to be heard to be believed. He is no better at being Holmes than he is as Scrooge.
#24 GET A LIFE Nathan Milne 2014-03-07 02:33
You know what: you're list is wrong, you are being unfair, and you clearly have no taste. Frankly, you can go and get *****ed!!
#25 mr. joseph pulizzotto 2014-05-24 18:33
no one mention christpher plummer who was very short but still very good in the role
also john neville in a study in terror
I also dislike Robert Downey and i look forward to downey leaving the role so another actor can portray Holmes
Also I look forward Ian Mckellen doing Holmes in the the "beekeepers apprentice"
I Also think That Christopher Lee is being unfairly criticized he was an excellent holmes in sub par films
#26 RE: A Study in Error: The ten worst Sherlock Holmes Nigel Walker 2014-07-31 21:45
Quoting PT:
Tom Baker's short stature? How is 6' 3" considered short?

I agree he is a very tall chap in fact I think he might even be 6' 4".
#27 RE: A Study in Error: The ten worst Sherlock Holmes Sara 2015-02-08 00:56
Richard Roxburgh and Michael Caine don't belong on this list. That Matt Frewer is not on here invalidates the whole thing.

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