The Curse of Sherlock Holmes
In a recent interview, Ben Cumberbatch said: “I’ll always do Sherlock — it’s something I’m not going to give up on. I love it too much. It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding and such a lovely bunch of people who do it. We love our fans and we love what it’s created. It’s an incredible thing to be part of; it doesn’t happen that often. Don’t worry; it’s not going to disappear.”
While millions of fans squealed with delight at this announcement, one can’t help but worry that Ben may eventually regret it.
Holmes casts a long shadow, and most of those who associate with him too long eventually find that shadow oppressive, rather than exhilarating.
Consider Holmes’ creator. There is no denying that the Great Detective made Conan Doyle a lot of money. But he eventually became so concerned that his popular creation would overshadow everything else he did that he tried to kill him off.
Riots, hate mail and even death threats were the result. Hard as he tried, Conan Doyle will always be primarily known as the man who created Sherlock Holmes.
It is no small irony that Cumberbatch has triumphed playing Victor Frankenstein and his monster, as well as Sherlock Holmes. Because by the end of his life, Doyle probably felt like he was Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes was the monster from whom he could never escape.
William Gillette, the actor and playwright who did much to shape the iconic image we recognize today, played Sherlock Holmes onstage 1,300 times. He is rumored to have stayed in character for days at a time, insisting that his servant staff and guests address him as Sherlock.
He became so absorbed in the role that the character began to edge out the man.
Basil Rathbone was an accomplished actor of stage and screen before he first took on the role of Holmes in 1939. As Holmes, he did scores of radio plays, 14 films and also stage performances.
To several generations, Rathbone WAS Holmes. No one had ever done it better. He was the figure from Doyle’s books. And, like Gillette, the character eventually overshadowed the man.
Forever typecast as Sherlock Holmes, other roles for Rathbone became few and far between until, by the end of a brilliant career, he was playing in such abominations as “The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini” and “Hillbillies in a Haunted House.”
Like Doyle and Gillette before him, he was overpowered and nudged aside by Holmes’ dominating personality.
Perhaps the most tragic example of “The Curse” is that of Jeremy Brett.
Brett may have had a premonition, because initially he was hesitant to take on the role at all. He felt it did not suit him. He was a singer and a romantic lead, not a brooding, bipolar sociopath.
Like Gillette, he became obsessed with Holmes. He carried Doyle’s books around on set and if the scripts did not match the text, he insisted they be changed. His perfectionism to do it right almost bordered on fanaticism.
Like Rathbone, Brett became Holmes for several more generations – including Cumberbatch, who knew him as a child and saw all of his performances as Holmes.
Brett played Holmes brilliantly for some years but finally – ill and grieving over his wife’s death – he had a nervous breakdown. At one point, he said that playing Sherlock Holmes was killing him – and perhaps it finally did, because he died before being able to complete the entire Holmes saga.
Now we have Ben – a new Sherlock for a new generation who claims he actually LIKES playing him. At least, so far. Playing Holmes has brought Ben worldwide fame, a flood of prestigious roles and the love of millions.
Will he be the first to break the “The Curse”? I sure hope so.
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