top of page

William Gillette As Sherlock Holmes

Gillete Theater Poster 1
Archive Image of William Gillette
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes Theater Advertisement
"Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow."

The pinnacle of Gillette's acting career...​

...began in 1899 when he took the stage as Sherlock Holmes. The original creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a London detective who solves exceptional mysteries in Victorian England. Doyle wrote many novels surrounding the character but by 1895 Doyle found himself in need of additional money and revived the series for the stage.

Adapting the larger-than-life personality of Sherlock Holmes proved difficult for the author though, and for assistance he turned to Charles Frohman, one of Gillette's employers. As luck would have it, Gillette was on tour in England at the time with his play Secret Service, and Forhman arranged a meeting between the two. With Gillette's help, Doyle was able to finally complete a play that he deemed "worthy" of Sherlock Holmes and Gillette was cast for the lead role.

The four-act play starring Gillette debuted on November 6, 1899 at the Garrick Theater on Broadway in New York City. Gillette's stage presence and portrayal of Holmes introduced a few things that we currently associate with the great Sherlock Holmes. Gillette swapped out a straight pipe for the curved pipe that Holmes is often now portrayed with. It is thought he made this change to reveal more of his face and make it easier to pronounce his lines. If he had kept the straight pipe, which needs to be clenched between the teeth, his lines would have not been audible in a theater without microphone technology. Two other props were also introduced by Gillette; the traveling long coat and the deestalker cap. The latter is perhaps the most well known depiction of Holmes, and the cap carries through to even today's portrayals.

Gillette is also known for contributing Sherlock Holmes's most memorable phrase. In his portrayal of Holmes, Gillette's straight-talking style lent an air of arrogance to the character beyond what Doyle depicted in the books. To lend a little more arrogance to the character, Gillette introduced the phrase "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow". The phrase was later adapted to become the well-known "Elementary, my dear Watson" that we know today.

Performances continued into the 20th century for Gillette, including a long-lost silent film that was recently rediscovered in 2014. The Friends of Gillette occasionally have screenings of this movie in the Visitor's Center, a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see William Gillette on the silver screen as the beloved Sherlock Holmes.

bottom of page