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Q & A : Sean Wright: Why Holmes? Elementary

May 13, 1990|SUSAN KING

The game's afoot again. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's supersleuth Sherlock Holmes andhis associate, Dr. Watson, are doggedly pursuing their archenemy, Prof.Moriarty, in the new CBS thriller, "Hands of a Murderer," which airs Wednesdayat 9 p.m. on KCBS.

Edward Woodward of "The Equalizer" fame stars as Holmes and John Hillerman of"Magnum P.I." is Watson. Anthony Andrews of "Brideshead Revisited" playsMoriarty.

Ever since the first Sherlock Holmes mystery appeared in the Strand magazinemore than 100 years ago, readers around the world have been fascinated with theBritish detective. So have movie audiences. Holmes has been the subject ofnearly 200 films--the most of any one character--beginning with a one-reel mysteryproduced in America in 1903. Everyone from John Barrymore to Basil Rathbone toMichael Caine to Roger Moore to Peter Cook have played the unflappable Holmesthrough the decades. Several TV series have been produced based on Conan Doyle'sstories--the most recent TV Holmes being Jeremy Brett, star of the acclaimed PBS"Mystery!" series.

Susan King recently discussed the cinematic history of Holmes and Watson withHolmes expert Sean Wright, president and founder of Los Angeles' Non-CanonicalCalabashes, a scion society (branch) of the Baker Street Irregulars club.

What makes Sherlock Holmes such a fascinating character?

I think that Sherlock Holmes was the most brilliant and the first of thebrilliant problem-solvers to come along.

Things that Holmes did from his very first case, no one else had ever thoughtabout. If you see footprints in the soft dirt, it is now common to get plasterof Paris to put in the footprint and get an exact duplicate of the footprint.Sherlock Holmes thought that up in a story called, "A Study in Scarlet." InParis, one wing of the police building is named after Sherlock Holmes.

Which actors are the best-known Sherlock Holmes?

William Gillette, who had done the stage play ("Sherlock Holmes") was known upuntil the end of his life as Sherlock Holmes. From 1899, when he first did theplay, until he died in 1937, when you said the words, "Sherlock Holmes," WilliamGillette came to mind.

Basil Rathbone did "The Hound of the Baskervilles" in 1939, and it was verypopular. Twentieth Century Fox had no idea it would be so popular, so six monthslater they released "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" to capitalize on thepublicity, and they let it go at that. They didn't want to do a series.

But Universal did.

Yes. A year-and-a-half later, Universal put out the first of the updatedSherlock Holmes movies. With the new updated Sherlock Holmes fighting the Nazis,reviewers said, "Hey, wait a minute. Sherlock Holmes is Victorian. What's hedoing fighting the Nazis?" Up until Basil Rathbone in 1939, there had been 150Sherlock Holmes movies made, both silent and sound. They were all contemporary.The Germans did "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and they loved it so much thatthey did six sequels. The funny thing is reviewers never mentioned that (thatthey were contemporary).

Rathbone enjoyed the first two very much. He was very pleased with them. But hewas ambivalent to the Universal movies. The Universal movies were not even RBSmovies, they were programmers. They made three in six weeks. They made all 12 bythe end of 1944.

What do you think of the Universal mysteries?

Oddly, they hold up very well. The one I like best is "Terror by Night," the oneon the train. It's a very exciting mystery. Rathbone was a consummate actor. Ifyou look at "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," where he does a bit as asong-and-dance man, he's having a great time doing it.

In the Conan Doyle stories, Holmes smokes a straight pipe. But in the Holmesfilms and TV series, he smokes a curved pipe. Did Rathbone introduce the curvedpipe?

Watson wrote that Holmes smoked straight pipes--a clay pipe, a briar-wood pipeand a long cherry-wood pipe. In 1899, when William Gillette was doing the play,the pipe would wiggle in his teeth (when he spoke). So somebody suggested he usea curving pipe, and that's why Sherlock Holmes smokes a curving pipe today.

Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley played Holmes and Watson in the 1988 comedy,"Without a Clue." Did you enjoy it?

Yeah, it's a good spoof. There was a great affection for the characters.Like Rathbone, Jeremy Brett seems like he was born to play the detective.There are those in the Baker Street Irregulars who say he's overdone andovermelodramtic, but then so is Sherlock Holmes. I like Jeremy Brett.

Texas-born John Hillerman is an interesting choice to play Watson in "Hands of aMurderer."

Well, John Hillerman had a kind of a genesis with his role as Watson in "Magnum,P.I." Patrick Macnee played a secret agent who had gone off the deep end andthought he was Sherlock Holmes. John Hillerman was a Watson figure to him.

Edward Woodward is a good actor, but his hair is white. (Holmes had dark hair).I don't know whether they dyed his hair or not for the movie. And AnthonyAndrews as Moriarty? It seems it would work better with Anthony Andrews asHolmes and Edward Woodward as Moriarty.

What was the strangest Sherlock Holmes film you ever saw?

Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in "The Hound of the Baskervilles." It was an hourand 15 minutes of unmitigated blather. I don't know how it is they got the moneyto finance the film--it's putrid.

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