Sherlock Holmes (1976)


The play was concieved in the 1890s by William Gillette (1853 - 1937), an American actor and playwright, who became famous for playing the title character more than 1,300 times on stage over a span of 30 years, in a silent movie adaption, and on radio twice. Him using the trademark "deerstalker cap" and "curved pipe" on stage burned a distinct image of Holmes into the collective minds of generations to come. Creatively he's remembered for bringing a degree of realism to his productions where melodrama ran rampant elsewhere. Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were contemporaries and when Doyle needed some fresh money to build a new house, after he'd killed Holmes in the novels, he wrote a play in five acts depicting "Holmes and Watson in their freshmen years as detectives." Since Sherlock Holmes was thought to need some work, Gillette rewrote it with Doyle's blessing, staying in contact with him during the process. He strayed in two most notably areas from the original, though. He portrayed Holmes as "open to express his feelings" and gave him a love interest. The last being the more serious breach? In the novels, Holmes had no use for women. Audiences loved the play, newspaper critics "nearly always praised the acting and the special effects, but not the play itself." (1)



While Sherlock Holmes successfully catered to the tasts of its time, it had become an anachronism by 1976 when Leonard Nimoy took up the part. Camp, therefore, was the way to play it. In an interview he gave an example:

What we're doing [...] is a kind of reverent sendup of the whole Holmes thing. I don't think this material could play otherweise. For instance, there's a scene in which Holmes discovers a con man has tied up a damsel and stuffed her in a closet . When I open the closet and see her, I turn to the con man and say, "You contemptible scoundrel!" Now, in the 1890s when the play was written, that would have been a dramatic moment. But today it's camp. Everyone laughs. It's a fun kind of play. (2)

He goes on to say he always thought he should do Holmes since his looks and image would lent themselves to the character and he had an understanding of what makes him tick:

He's an asocial man, hardly your average 9-to-5 worker with a family. Instead, he's chosen a very special kind of life, and he has very little respect for most of the people around him who are also involved in his profession. He's an outsider, in so many ways -- particularly in his relationships, with women. Holmes is very much an alien, all right, and I felt that I could understand him the same way I understood Spock. (2)

Once he had landed the role, some fast and furious reading was in order. He'd seen a couple of Holmes movies with Basil Rathbone but never picked up any of the books. The draw Sherlock Holmes exacts he sees in the richly defined and populated world Arthur Conan Doyle created, the clear cut distinction between good and evil, a yearning for simpler times, and the mystique that surrounds the main protagonist.


Sherlock Holmes Publicity Picture 1976

The text on the picture taken to promote the play in 1976 reads, "Leonard Nimoy and Alan Sues, appearing at the Shubert in 'Sherlock Holmes', temporarily man the State Street Council Information booth at the NE Corner of State and Madison..... a crowed of fans lines up for autographs and fingerprints provided by the stars...."

Sherlock Holmes 1976

"Leonard Nimoy as 'Sherlock Holmes' comforts his ally and dear friend Doctor Watson in a dramatic moment in the international hit coming to the stage of the Shubert [Theater] for a limited [engagement] beginning Tuesday, May 11. Doctor Watson is played by Ronald Bishop."


Additional Information:

In 2009 the Los Angeles Times dug into their photo archive on the occasion of the new Sherlock Holmes movie, starring Robert Downey Jr., hitting the screen and found this picture of Leonard Nimoy as Holmes. He can also be seen as Sherlock Holmes in the fifteen minute The Universe and I, an educational short film about how planet Earth is comprised. (If anyone has this film or has more information about it, please, get in touch with me.) In the meantime, two short clips from it can be seen in the BBC special Fourty Minutes: The Case of Sherlock Holmes. (3) At the blog of Doug Drexler, who went on to work for Star Trek for real, you can get a taste of early fandom when it was still possible that Leonard Nimoy would drop by in costume because he was in "the neighborhood".




(1) Wikipedia: William Gillette

(2) Nimoy's a Natural as Holmes, Enterprise Incidents, 1976. Page 1 & 2