Jeremy Brett

(1933 – 1995)

Jeremy Brett as HolmesBiographical Sketch

Jeremy Brett (born Peter Jeremy William Huggins; Berkswell, Warwickshire, England, November 3, 1933 – London, England, September 12, 1995), was an English actor, probably best known for playing fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in four Granada TV series from 1984 to 1994 in all 41 episodes. His career spanned from stage to television and film, to Shakespeare and musical theatre. He is also remembered for playing the besotted Freddie Eynsford-Hill in the Warner Bros. 1964 production of My Fair Lady.

Trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, from which he graduated in 1954, Brett made his professional acting debut in rep at the Library Theatre in Manchester the same year, and his London stage debut with the Old Vic company in Troilus and Cressida in 1956. He made his first appearance in a major film with War and Peace (also released 1956), which starred Audrey Hepburn.  Still likewise in 1956, he appeared on Broadway as the Duke of Aumerle in Richard II. – In 1959, Brett had a singing role as the romantic lead of Archie Forsyth in the West End musical Marigold. Also in 1959 (and 1960-61), he played the title part of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, however on reflection, in the BBC2 television documentary Playing the Dane, Brett later said that “I don’t think I was very good as Hamlet. I think I was too young. I was too young intellectually. I was too young philosophically. I was Byronic. I was very handsome. I had qualities, but I’d much rather see other people’s [version]. I wasn’t convinced by me”. The respected theatre critic Harold Hobson wrote of Brett’s portrayal that “the incestuous bed was the centre of his performance”. He played many classical roles on stage, including about a dozen Shakespearean parts at the Old Vic, in New York, and four while Brett was a member of the National Theatre Company from 1967 to 1970.

From the early 1960s, Brett was often on British television. He starred in several serials, including as D’Artagnan in an adaptation of The Three Musketeers (1966). His highest profile film appearance was as Freddie Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady (1964), again with Audrey Hepburn. Although Brett could still sing, as he later demonstrated when he played Danilo in a BBC Television broadcast of The Merry Widow (Christmas Day 1968), his singing in the film was dubbed by Bill Shirley. – Some of his appearances were in classical comedic roles, such as Captain Absolute in a television version of The Rivals (1970) and Bassanio in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1970) in a National Theatre Company production directed by Jonathan Miller, which also featured Laurence Olivier (as Shylock) and Joan Plowright (as Portia). This was adapted for television in 1973 with the same three leads. Somewhat overstating the matter, Brett would joke that, as an actor, he was rarely allowed into the 20th century and never into the present day.

Although Brett appeared in many different roles during his 40-year career, he is best remembered for his performance as Sherlock Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a series of Granada Television films made between 1984 and 1994 expressly aiming to make an authentic and faithful adaptation of the character’s best cases. Even though he reportedly feared being typecast, Brett appeared in 41 episodes of the Granada series, alongside David Burke and, latterly, Edward Hardwicke as Dr Watson.  After taking on the demanding role (“Holmes is the hardest part I have ever played – harder than Hamlet or Macbeth,” he is quoted as having said in his 2001 biography, The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes: The Tortured Mind of Jeremy Brett by Terry Manners), Brett made few other acting appearances. He had previously played Doctor Watson on stage opposite Charlton Heston as Holmes in the 1980 Los Angeles production of The Crucifer of Blood, making him one of only four actors to play both Holmes and Watson professionally.

Brett wanted to be the best Sherlock Holmes the world had ever seen. He conducted extensive research on the great detective and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, and was very attentive to discrepancies between the scripts he had been given and Conan Doyle’s original stories. One of Brett’s dearest possessions on the set was his 77-page “Baker Street File” on everything from Holmes’ mannerisms to his eating and drinking habits. Brett once explained that “some actors are becomers — they try to become their characters. When it works, the actor is like a sponge, squeezing himself dry to remove his own personality, then absorbing the character’s like a liquid”.  He was obsessed with bringing more passion to the role of Holmes, introducing Holmes’ rather eccentric hand gestures and short violent laughter. He would hurl himself on the ground just to look for a footprint, “he would leap over the furniture or jump onto the parapet of a bridge with no regard for his personal safety.”  Holmes’ obsessive and depressive personality both fascinated and frightened Brett. In many ways Holmes’ personality resembled the actor’s own, with outbursts of passionate energy followed by periods of lethargy. It eventually became increasingly difficult for him to let go of Holmes after work, and the character even began to haunt his dreams. Brett began to refer to Holmes as “You Know Who” or simply “HIM”: “Watson describes You Know Who as a mind without a heart, which is hard to play. Hard to become. So what I have done is invent an inner life”. He invented an imaginary life of Holmes to fill the hollowness of Holmes’ “missing heart”, his empty emotional life, imagining, for example, “…what You Know Who’s nanny looked like. She was covered in starch. I don’t think he saw his mother until he was about eight years old…” – While the other actors disappeared to the canteen for lunch, Brett would sit alone on the set reading the script, looking at every nuance, reading Holmes in the weekends and on his holidays.

A theatrical adaptation, The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, by Brett’s friend, the playwright Jeremy Paul (who had also written the screenplays for some of the Granada TV episodes), and directed by Patrick Garland, ran at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End with Brett and Edward Hardwicke during 1988 and 1989. The production subsequently also toured.

“Some actors fear if they play Sherlock Holmes for a very long run the character will steal their soul, leave no corner for the original inhabitant”, Brett once said, but: “Holmes has become the dark side of the moon for me. He is moody and solitary and underneath I am really sociable and gregarious. It has all got too dangerous”.

A sufferer of manic depression during the last years of his life, Brett died of cardiomyopathy on September 12, 1995.He is now widely considered to be the definitive Holmes of his era, if not (at least according to recent online polls) ever.

Read more about Jeremy Brett on Wikipedia.

 

Filmography

Movies
  • Svengali (1954)
    Role: Pierre (uncredited).
  • War and Peace (1956)
    Role: Nikolai Rostov
  • The Wild and the Willing (1962)
    Role: Andrew Gilby
  • The Very Edge (1963)
    Role: Mullen (The Intruder)
  • Girl in the Headlines (1963)
    Role: Jordan Barker
  • My Fair Lady (1964)
    Role: Freddie Eynsford-Hill
  • Act of Reprisal (1964)
    Role: Harvey Freeman
  • Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)
    (Uncredited.)
  • The Medusa Touch (1978)
    Role: Parrish
  • Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1995)
    Role: Tony Vernon-Smith
  • Moll Flanders (1996)
    Role: Artist’s father
Notable Television Appearancees
  • The Ghost Sonata (1962)
    Role: The Student
  • Dinner with the Family  (1962)
  • Chopin and George Sand The Creative Years  (1966)
    Role: Chopin
  • The Three Musketeers (1966)
    Role: D’Artagnan
  • The Merry Widow  (1968)
    Count Danilo Danilovitch
  • An Ideal Husband  (1969)
    Role: Viscount Goring
  • The Rivals (1970)
    Role: Captain Absolute
  • The Merchant of Venice  (1973)
    Role: Bassanio
  • Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill  (1974)
    Role: Count Karel Kinsky; 2 episodes.
  • Haunted: The Ferryman  (1974)
    Role: Sheridan Owen
  • The Prodigal Daughter  (1975)
    Role: Father Daley
  • Madame X  (1981)
    Role: Dr. Terrence Keith
  • Macbeth  (1981)
    Role: Macbeth
  • The Good Soldier  (1981)
    Role: Edward Ashburnham
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street  (1982)
    Role: Robert Browning
  • Number 10  (1983)
    Role: William Pitt the Younger
  • Morte d’Arthur  (1984)
    Role: King Arthur
  • Florence Nightingale  (1985)
    Role: William Nightingale
  • Deceptions  (1985)
    Role: Bryan Foxworth
  • Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994)
    Role: Sherlock Holmes

    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1985)
    • The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986-1988)
    • The Sign of Four (1987)
    • The Hound of the Baskervilles  (1988)
    • The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1991-1993)
    • The Master Blackmailer (1993)
    • The Eligible Bachelor (1993)
    • The Last Vampyre (1993)
    • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1994)

 

Notable Stage Appearances

  • Troilus and Cressida (The Old Vic, London, 1956)
    Roles: Patroclus & Troilus
  • King Richard II (Winter Garden Theatre, New York, 1956)
    Role: Duke of Aumerle
  • Macbeth (Winter Garden Theatre, New York, 1956)
    Role: Malcolm
  • Romeo and Juliet (Winter Garden Theatre, New York, 1956)
    Role: Paris
  • Troilus and Cressida (Winter Garden Theatre, New York, 1956)
    Role: Troilus
  • Marigold (Savoy Theatre, 1959)
    Role: Captain Archie
  • Hamlet (Oxford Playhouse, Oxford/Royal Strand Theatre, London, 1959-1961)
    Role: Hamlet
  • The Deputy (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, 1964)
    Role: Father Riccardo Fontana, S.J.
  • As You Like It (Royal National Theatre, London, 1967)
    Role: Orlando
  • The Merchant of Venice  (Royal National Theatre, London, 1970)
    Role: Bassanio
  • Aren’t We All? (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, 1985)
    Role: The Hon. William Tatham
  • The Secret of Sherlock Holmes (Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 1988)
    Role: Sherlock Holmes

 

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