Today I want to tell you about William Gillette, who was born in Hartford, Connecticut on this day in 1853. He was an actor who quickly realised that he could earn a lot more money if he was also a playwright and director as well. Luckily he was really good at all three.
He is best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Although he was not the very first to play the part on stage, he was the first to do so with the approval of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1893, Doyle had killed off his famous character at the Reichenbach Falls but found that he missed the income that his stories provided. So he started looking at the possibility of putting Holmes on the stage. Doyle wrote a play and approached a couple of people about the leading rôle including Henry Irving but he failed to engage their interest. Reading between the lines, it might not have been very good. Eventually it was sent to Broadway theatre producer Charles Frohman who suggested that Gillette would be the man to help with a re-write.
Doyle agreed on condition that the Holmes character should have no love interest. “Trust me” replied Gillette. At that point he had not read a single word of the Sherlock Holmes Canon. Gillette began to work on the script whilst in San Francisco touring another of his plays. Telegrams flew back and forth between the two which show that Doyle had either got over his misgivings or just given up trying to get his way. Gillette writes “May I marry Holmes?” Doyle replies “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.”
It was Gillette’s play that firmly established many of the props we associate with Holmes character. The magnifying glass, the violin and the syringe are all drawn from the Canon. The famous deerstalker hat had appeared in the illustrations of Sydney Padget in the original Strand Magazine publications. The curved pipe was Gillette’s own addition along with the really fancy dressing-gown that you see in this picture. He also introduced the phrase: “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow” which would become “Elementary, my dear Watson.” So when we think about what an archetypal Sherlock Holmes would look like it is really Gillette’s vision we are seeing, not Conan Doyle’s.
During the whole writing process Gillette and Doyle had not met in person. When they finally met, much to Doyle’s surprise, Gillette alighted form his train dressed as Holmes and entirely in character. He whipped out a magnifying glass and examined Doyle’s face closely before declaring “Unquestionably an author!” The two became lifelong friends.
Gillette’s play, in which of course he took the leading rôle, was a huge success and was performed many times in both America and Britain. He played the detective around 1,300 times. He even starred in a 1916 silent movie which was believed to be lost until quite recently. It is likely that it was this success and the friendship between the two men that lead to Conan Doyle reviving his famous character in later years. In a story called The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, Doyle includes the character of Billy the Buttons (a page boy) who was first named by Gillette in his play.
Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes was so popular that he had great difficulty in retiring. He began a farewell tour in 1929 aged 76. It didn’t finish until 1932. His success did allow him to build himself a pretty splendid castle for himself in Connecticut with 24 rooms and it’s own miniature railway. You can read about it here, or even visit if you’re in the area.