William Gillette: The Original Sherlock Holmes


Today, a tribute to playwright-actor-director-producer William Gillette (William Hooker Gillette, 1853-1937). I am proud to say that I am distantly related to this important man of the American stage a couple of different ways, the most salient way through our mutual relative Rev. Thomas Hooker, the founder of Hartford, CT,  where Gillette was born.

Much like Joseph Jefferson (who made a career of playing Rip Van Winkle), Gillette is best known to theatre buffs for playing a single role from literature; he originated the first stage characterization of Sherlock Holmes. Prior to Basil Rathbone, Gillette’s name was synonymous with Holmes’. Now that there has been an explosion of film and television adaptations, the unthinkable has happened — the character is no longer automatically associated with Rathbone either! But Gillette was the first to play the character on stage, and performed as Holmes more than 1,300 times between 1899 and 1932, and also performed Holmes on film (his only movie as actor, 1916) and radio.  (Footnote:, the character of “Billy Buttons” was played by a young Charlie Chaplin during the hit London run of the play — that notable connection was one of the first places I ever heard about Gillette.) Here he is in that role:

Gillette would have been a notable figure in American theatrical history even if his career had not been associated with the galvanizing character of Holmes. In addition to his innate talent as an actor, which was legendary, he was fortunate in his birth. His father was the influential U.S. Senator and activist  Francis Gillette. William was helped in his early career by family friend Mark Twain, who secured a role for him in a Boston production of The Gilded Age in 1875. Against his father’s wishes, Gillette had been acting in stock companies since 1873; his father’s death in 1878 removed that element of tension from his life. I am VERY interested to learn that Gillette wrote an unproduced play called The Twins of Siam in 1879 — surely it is about the conjoined twins of Siam who worked for P.T. Barnum! Interestingly, Twain had also written a story inspired by these twins This must be looked into.

In 1879, he debuted his play The Professor in Columbus, Ohio. In 1881, Daniel and Gustave Frohman brought it to New York, where it was a moderate success and his career was assured. That year he also helped Frances Hodgson Burnett (Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden) adapt her story Esmerelda for the stage. In 1887 he wrote and starred in his Civil War drama Held by the Enemy, which was such a hit in New York that Charles Frohman helped him transfer it to London, where it was the first American show with an American author and star to gain widespread approval from the English public.

In 1887, Gillette adapted H. Rider Haggard’s science fiction novel She for the stage. (This is the same source for Merian C. Cooper’s eponymous 1935 film starring Helen Gahagan, made as a follow up to his King Kong pictures.) In 1893, he wrote a nine-scene patriotic pageant for the Barnum and Bailey Circus called The War of the American Revolution. In 1894, there was his farce Too Much Johnson, also legendary, for it was the source for Orson Welles’ first film, made in 1938 for a stage production and now lost). In 1895, his play Secret Service became another smash. The American production starred Maurice Barrymore; the London production starred Gillette and further cemented his reputation with the British public.

It was after this that he was hired to adapt Holmes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Charles Frohman as intermediary. You will note that Gillette had already been in the theatre for over a quarter of a century by this point. Holmes was a cash machine, and without a doubt it would dominate his life going forward. But it wasn’t all that Gillette did, even in his remaining decades. In 1903 he starred as the title character in the American premiere of J.M. Barrie’s The Admiral Crichton. There were countless other premieres and revivals of his own plays on Broadway over the next three decades. Starting in 1915, silent films began to be made of his plays: Esmerelda (1915), starring Mary PickfordSherlock Holmes (1916) starring Gillette himself, Secret Service (1919), Too Much Johnson (1919), and Held by the Enemy (1920). A talkie version of Secret Service starring Richard Dix was released in 1931.


We haven’t even touched on Gillette the actor. Contemporary descriptions of him remind me of my feelings about Patrick McGoohan. He was said to be mesmerizing, that he could compel your attention with the tiniest and most minimal of gestures. But it was also said that he was also somewhat affectless, that it wasn’t about “romance” or “heart”. I was thrilled to see the recent screening of his 1916 screen version on TCM. That event was nothing short of miraculous. Not only had the long-lost film been discovered, but it had been discovered (in a French archive) in 2014 — just in time for the film’s centennial! While it was thrilling to watch the actual Gillette in action, something I had assumed I’d never get to do, the crudity of the production made it difficult to properly make any sort of fair assessment. 1916 was still early in film history. The Birth of a Nation had been released only a few months before, and the director of this version of Sherlock Holmes was no D.W. Griffith. Most of the film is shot from wide angles, making it hard to see actors faces, at least on TV — it would be much better to see it screened in a theatre (here’s hoping!). And Gillette was 63 at this stage, although he would continue to play the part for almost another two decades. Gillette’s adaptation is also not QUITE what fans of the Holmes’ fiction and movies are expecting. It’s very “drawing room”…it contains much less of Holmes the intellect, sniffing the universe like a bloodhound perceiving what the rest of us poor mortals can’t. He is much more the conventional “inspector”. STILL! Gillette is the first guy to wear the deerstalker and cape, the first to smoke the Meerschaum, and abstractly scrape his violin while he thinks. And, as I think we’ve amply demonstrated, he is significant for so much more besides.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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