Remembering Jeremy Brett - Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Interpreter

The Los Angeles Times
June 9, 1996
Author: Kristine McKenna

When British actor Jeremy Brett was offered the part of Sherlock Holmes in 1981 he was reluctant to take it, fearing he'd be unable to do justice to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's venerable character. At the time of his death of heart disease nine months ago, however, the consensus among Holmes aficionados was that Brett's blazing characterization, hammered out in 40 episodes filmed over 14 years, will stand as the one to top for decades to come.

Fans who mourned Brett's passing should make a point of seeing Moll Flanders, which opens Friday, as it features his final performance. Based on the Daniel Defoe novel, directed by Pen Densham and shot four months prior to Brett's death, the film finds the 59-year-old actor cast as an effete aristocrat who opposes his son's marriage to a reformed prostitute. Though he appears in just one scene, Brett is, as always, incandescent.

"I was a huge fan of Jeremy's work as Holmes and figured it was a long shot he'd be interested in the small part I was offering him," Densham recalls. "Needless to say, I was thrilled when he said yes and though he only worked for a day, it's a day I'll always remember--he approached his scene with such intelligence.

"Despite the fact that he worked with great vitality, we all suspected he wasn't well. He was quite pale and was perspiring profusely, but he never said a word about his health and insisted on not wearing makeup for his scene. I knew he was fragile but I certainly wasn't prepared for his death--it was a devastating loss for me, as I'm sure it was for anyone who knew him."

Born in Berkswell, England, in 1935, Brett was the son of a World War I hero and an Irish Quaker. His childhood ambitions to be a singer, a jockey or a dancer had been discarded by the time he enrolled at Eton, and he completed his studies at the Central School of Drama in London. He spent most of the '60s and '70s doing theater in England, making occasional forays into film (he played Audrey Hepburn's ardent suitor in George Cukor's 1964 film adaptation of My Fair Lady). Married in 1958 to actress Anna Massey, whom he divorced in 1962 following the birth of a son, Brett married again in 1978, to Joan Wilson, the Boston-based producer of Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre.

Brett's relationship with Doyle began in Los Angeles in 1981, when he played Watson opposite Charlton Heston's Holmes in a stage production of The Crucifer of Blood, loosely based on Doyle's novel The Sign of the Four. Claiming to have based his reading of Watson on Winnie the Pooh, Brett was nonetheless offered the part of Holmes the following year, by the British production company, Granada.

The first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and the series has maintained a steady readership ever since. By the time Brett stepped up to the plate, more than 100 actors had already taken a crack at Holmes, including Richard Burton, Orson Welles (on radio), James Mason, John Barrymore, Michael Caine, Raymond Massey and, of course, Basil Rathbone--who Brett said would always be Holmes to him, as "he was the Holmes of my childhood."

It was Brett's intention to be the first actor to perform the entire Holmes canon, which comprises 56 short stories and four novels. He was also the first actor who insisted on being rigorously faithful to Doyle's text. This meant dispensing with several signature Holmes items--the calabash pipe, Inverness cape and deerstalker hat--none of which were Doyle's inventions, but were brought to the part by various actors.

More compelling than Brett's fidelity to Doyle's writing, perhaps, was his capacity to telegraph how deeply strange Holmes was. Here is a man who received his first kiss at the age of 37 (that momentous occurrence took place in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton), was fond of cocaine and took no real moral position on the crimes he solved. Indeed, Holmes seemed almost grateful to encounter anything, regardless of its legality, of adequate complexity to engage his voracious mind.

Distracted, impatient and isolated by the fact that he was invariably light-years ahead of those around him, Holmes seemed completely mad at times. Speaking in terse fits and starts with a mannered cadence evocative of William F. Buckley Jr., his smile a fleeting muscle contraction that looked more like a twitch, Holmes as performed by Brett exuded all the warmth of William Burroughs. It was a baroque, brilliantly nuanced characterization that flirted with parody without ever violating the integrity of Doyle's work.

Mystery!'s first Holmes episode, The Solitary Cyclist, aired in 1982 and was such a success that the die was cast for Brett; he went on to shoot 39 more. While filming The Final Solution two years later, Brett learned that his wife was diagnosed with cancer.

Her death in 1985 devastated the actor, who began experiencing crippling bouts of depression. He soon suffered a nervous breakdown, began having heart trouble in 1993 while filming his last appearance as Holmes and was hospitalized again in 1994 for depression. Seeing Brett again in Moll Flanders, one is reminded of how much we lost with his passing and how much he left us with his performance as Holmes.

(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1996 all Rights reserved)


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