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No mystery why so many have played Sherlock Holmes

By Jo Piazza, Special to CNN
  • Sherlock Holmes has been played by 75 actors in 211 movies
  • Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law star in director Guy Ritchie's latest adaptation, opening on Christmas
  • The character was created by doctor-turned-author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887

(CNN) -- Maybe it's just elementary. There's something about the character of Sherlock Holmes that makes the pipe-smoking detective irresistible on the silver screen.

Holmes, the 19th-century creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the crime-solver who employs wit and deductive reasoning, has been the most portrayed fictional character in film history: 75 actors have played him in 211 movies.

Holmes and his loyal sidekick Dr. Watson will again be resurrected on the big screen this Christmas Day in director Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as his faithful companion, sidekick and lodger, Dr. John Watson.

Created by doctor-turned-author Conan Doyle in 1887, Sherlock Holmes originally appeared in four novels and 56 short stories. A chemistry and forensics expert, Holmes took seemingly trivial observations and used them to solve some of London's most dastardly crimes.

The character of Holmes has been in films since the industry was in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century. "Sherlock Holmes Solves the Sign of Four" was released as a black-and-white silent film in 1913, 17 years before Conan Doyle passed away.

The combination of the inquisitive detective and faithful sidekick lends itself to a variety of genres and circumstances. Holmes as a character is flexible enough that he can be dropped into any sort of plot and interact with both real and fictional characters.

iReport: Review of new 'Sherlock Holmes' movie.

British actor Basil Rathbone portrayed Holmes in 14 films, the first of which was "The Hound of the Baskervilles," which has inspired at least 24 screen adaptations alone. The first two films Rathbone made as Holmes were set in period in Victorian England, but because this was costly, subsequent adaptations were set in contemporary times, even indulging the audience's love of war films with Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis in "Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror."

"Holmes has been able to be all things to all people," explains Kirk Honeycutt, chief film critic for The Hollywood Reporter. "People keep making Sherlock Holmes into their own creation because he s a very malleable character. He is like Silly Putty and you can keep changing him around."

Holmes even lends himself well to animation. Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes took on the detective in 1956 with, "Deduce, You Say," starring Daffy Duck as Dorlock Holmes and Porky Pig as his loyal helper, Watkins.

In 1976 the character of Holmes again blurred the lines between fiction and reality in Nicholas Meyer's, "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution," in which Watson lures Holmes into treatment for his cocaine-induced delusions with real-life psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Meyer's cast was one of the most notable of any Holmes film, starring Alan Arkin as Freud, Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson, Nicol Williamson as Holmes and Sir Lawrence Olivier as Holmes' nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

Tony winner Christopher Plummer's Holmes also faced a nemesis rooted in real-life events in 1979's "Murder By Decree," in which the detective goes after 19th-century serial killer Jack the Ripper.

Director Barry Levinson and writer Chris Columbus teamed up in 1985 to turn back the clock and tell the tale of Holmes' pubescent years in "Young Sherlock Holmes." Holmes and Watson meet as boys at English boarding school Brompton Academy. The pair discover and foil a plot to murder a group of British businessmen.

Holmes' fans may have recognized Hugh Laurie's deductive doctor on the medical drama "House" as a modern incarnation of the Victorian detective. Laurie's Dr. Gregory House lives in a house with the number 221B, just as Holmes lived on 221B Baker Street in the Holmes canon.

"There is one view that Holmes is the Hamlet of the pop culture world. He is the test for actors. Many great actors have played him," says Susan Rice, self-designated Sherlockian and member of the Holmes-inspired invitation-only literary society, the Baker Street Irregulars.

Sherlockians are partial to British actor Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes in 41 television films produced by Granada TV between 1984 and 1994. Brett had previously played Watson on stage opposite Charlton Heston as Holmes in the 1980 Los Angeles production of "The Crucifer of Blood." He conducted extensive research on the great detective and on Conan Doyle himself, and was painstakingly attentive to detail when it came to differences between his scripts and Conan Doyle's original work.

"There are very few who have met with our approval. Jeremy Brett is one of them. There have been many incarnations of Holmes and it is part of what we study as Sherlockians. Opinions are high about what Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law going to do with our beloved characters," said Rice, who has plans to see the film on Christmas Day with some Sherlockian friends.

Expectations are high for the new movie all around, which features Downey's Holmes as more of a swashbuckling Indiana Jones type than a buttoned-up professorial detective content with the intellectual exercise of solving crimes.

If the current Holmes incarnation is a success, moviegoers can expect to see more of the detective quite soon. Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Jeff Robinov has said that if the Ritchie "Holmes" does well at the box office a sequel will be made. Sony Pictures is also in the process of developing a Holmesian comedy, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as Holmes and Will Ferrell as Watson.

"Even Conan Doyle tried to kill Holmes off and couldn't do it. At the end of the newest film, it says, 'case reopened,' " said Honeycutt. "In the current incarnation Holmes has become like Jason Bourne. So of course they will try to launch this into a series of movies."

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