Holmes

To write an introduction for Sherlock Holmes is a daunting task, it’s akin to writing an introduction to Shakespeare. The influence of Holmes is everywhere and in every culture on the globe. In the literature of Western Civilization, it’d be reasonable to state that Homes’ influence pales only in comparison to the Bible and Shakespeare. Holmes is quoted in productions as diverse as Star Trek VI and the Glenn Beck program.

The basic facts of Holmes are well-known to nearly every literate person on the globe. He was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and made appearances in fifty-six short stories and four novels. He solved cases from 221B Baker Street in London with the assistance of his faithful companion, Dr. Watson. Holmes became so popular that Doyle couldn’t get away with killing him.

Holmes is one of the few true timeless characters in literature. His canonical adventures may have been set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but in the hands of a competent author, with a few modifications, Holmes could show up at a medieval castle or on a starship and still be a powerful character.

Every detective story that enjoyed any success in the past century, even if written as the antithesis of Holmes (such as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade), owes something of its success to Doyle’s great detective for getting the public interested in the genre. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin may have been the first true detective in literature and an inspiration for Holmes, but even Dupin owes something to Holmes, as few people outside the academic world would care that Dupin existed without the wild success of Holmes.

Holmes has been recreated too many times to count, and each actor brings his own spin. The radio recreations of Holmes began October 20, 1930 when William Gillette, perhaps the great popularizer of Holmes, took the role to a new medium. It has continued off and on since them on a variety of networks including, NBC (1930-33) (1934-36) (1955), Blue Network (1939-42), Mutual Network (1943-46), (1947-49), ABC (1946-47) (1949-50) (1956), BBC (1954, and many more years.), BBC-WFMT Chicago (1959-69). Countless many others have featured Holmes, even after the official end of Old Time Radio in 1962. However, for the purpose of this series, we will focus exclusively on those renditions of Holmes believed to be in the public domain. Below is a profile of the actors to play Holmes in Old Time Radio. We will add new Holmes’ actors to our list as the podcast begins to share episodes featuring them.

William Gillette (1853-1937): Gillette only made two radio appearances as Holmes. The first, the 1930 pilot for the Original Sherlock Holmes radio series, and in 1935 on Lux Radio Theater. However, Gillette may have done more than anyone other than perhaps Doyle himself to popularize Sherlock Holmes. Gillette was tasked with writing the first theater adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, and then he took Holmes on the road. Gillette would perform the role of Sherlock Holmes more than 1300 times in theaters in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia among other countries. Doyle created the greatest detective in literature, Gillette’s touches turned him into a character that would stand the test of time. Gillette gave Holmes the bent briar pipe, a magnifying glass, the violin, and the syringe. From his writings, rather than Doyle’s, springs the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette also portayed Holmes in a lost 1916 silent film. Orson Welles paid tribute to Gillette on an episode of Mercury Theater on the Air saying, “It is too little to say William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”

Richard Gordon (Unknown): I could find little about Gordon other than that he was a veteran stage actor who played Holmes on the stage and lived in Connecticut. Gordon played Holmes from 1930-33, with two episodes from his tenure suviving (Thanks to the Cobalt Club.)

Louis Hector (1883-?): Louis Hector, often spelled Luis Hector, was the third radio voice of Sherlock Holmes and the first to portray him on television, appearing in a 1937 adaptation of The Three Garidebs. In the later Nigel Rathbone series, Hector would portray Moriarity. Hector was a Broadway veteran, playing his first role in a Broadway play in “Unwritten Chapter” and his last in “Inherit the Wind.” As with Gordon, biographical information is scarce. The date of his birth can be ascertained, but not the date of his death, leading me to wonder if there was more than fiction to his appearance on a “Tales of Tomorrow” episode where a doctor discovers a serum that would allow people to live forever.

Orson Welles Orson Welles (1915-85) I’m not even going to attempt to write a fitting biography to Orson Welles in this space. Welles was a pioneering star of radio and film, beginning with his role of the Shadow at age 22. His numerous credits include “The Mercury Theater on the Air” and its famous “War of the World” special. He also hosted “The Black Museum” and starred in “The Lives of Harry Lime” which was based on the infamous character from the movie, “The Third Man” for Towers of London Productions, which was a worldwide syndicator of radio drama. Welles played Holmes in a Mercury Theater adaptation of a William Gillette play. For “Towers of London” he took on the role of Professor Moriarity in The Final Problem. Thus, he joined Louis Hector in having the distinction of playing both Holmes and his arch-nemesis.

Basil Rathbone (1892-1967): More than 40 years after his death and more than 60 years after he last played Sherlock Holmes, Rathbone is viewed as the definitive Holmes by viewers around the world. However, Rathbone was more than just the movie face of Sherlock Holmes for 14 movies and his voice for more than 200 radio adventures, co-starring with his friend Nigel Bruce.

Rathbone was a talented actor in stage, screen, and radio, a two-time Academy Award Nominee and Tony Award Winner, a man with three seperate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and most importantly a decorated war hero. Much more is available on his remarkable career at basilrathbone.net.

Tom ConwayTom Conway (1904-67): The Russia-born Conway was best known for replacing his brother, George Sanders and taking on the role of the Falcon on screen, as well as starring in two Bulldog Drummond movies. In addition to this, in the 1950s he starrred in the Mark Saber TV series. Conway is well-remembered as the narrator in Peter Pan. He also succeeded Simon Vincent Price in the Saint.

Taking over for Basil Rathbone in Sherlock Holmes was a daunting task. Conway’s Holmes was quite similar to Rathbone’s, albeit some listener’s see Conway’s portrayal as too sarcastic and caustic.

Conway’s life while successful in showbiz was marked by personal tragedy and alcoholism that led him to losing his wife and his brother cutting off contact with him in his later years.

John Stanley (?-?): Little is known of Stanley, other than that he was the child of two Americans born in England and grew up half a mile away from Baker Street. He came to America and began to work on radio in Rhode Island as a singer and later an announcer.

Ben WrightBen Wright (1915-89) Wright’s career was marked by a couple starring roles. Perhaps, his most noteworthy was starring as Sherlock Holmes in the final season of the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He also took on the role of Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Black in CBS’ Pursuit. However, he was known far better for his character roles. He was an indispensable man, particularly if the role called for a British accent.  However, Wright could do quite a few dialects as evidenced by his 2 years playing the Chinese hotel clerk Hey-Boy on Have Gun Will Travel.  Beyond recurring roles, he was used frequently on countless dramas. He made his first appearances on Yours Truly Dollar in 1949 and his last appearance eleven years later making him one of radio’s most indispensable people.

John GielgudSir John Gielgud (1904-2000): Gielgud was a famous actor and director known for his Shakespearean performances as well as his association with Sherlock Holmes co-star Ralph Richardson. Gielgud is one of only eleven people to have won an Emmy (1991), a Grammy (1979), an Oscar (1981), and a Tony (1961). His first film appearance was in 1924 and his last was in 2000.

Sherlock Holmes Episodes

Louis Hector:

Orson Welles:

Basil Rathbone:

Tom Conway Episodes:

John Stanley Episodes:

Ben Wright:

John Gielgud:

Christmas and New Years Episodes (Played Out of Order):

Video Theater Episodes:

 Log information from OTRSite 

*Episode Played Out of Order

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