Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Five Best Portrayals of Dr. Watson

It's never easy to play the part of the trusted sidekick. So today, we show our appreciation for one of the most famous sidekicks in English literature: Sherlock Holme's associate, confident, and biographer Dr. John H. Watson. Below are our five picks for the best portrayals of Dr. Watson in film and television.

David Burke.
1. David Burke - His intelligent, analytical Watson appeared opposite Jeremy Brett's Baker Street sleuth in 13 episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes TV series in the 1980s. This Watson often demonstrated his own powers of deduction--and was clearly pleased when Holmes confirmed his conclusions (and equally disappointed when that didn't occur). He also had an eye for the ladies, though his attentions were subtle and always gentlemanly. Burke's Watson may not have been Holmes' equal partner, but he was a highly valued associate worthy of Holmes' trust and reliance. It's a shame that Burke left the series to resume his stage career, but the actor wanted to spend more time with his family.

Andre Morell.
2. Andre Morell - Alas, Morell only portrayed John Watson once, alongside Peter Cushing's Holmes in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles. Following in the footsteps of Nigel Bruce, Morell presented a very different Watson--an articulate man of action with a bright mind. Due to Conan Doyle's plotting in Hound, Watson occupied much of the screen time and Morell carried the load effortlessly. Interestingly, Morell's wife, the delightful Joan Greenwood, appeared in the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore parody version of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1978.

Nigel Bruce.
3. Nigel Bruce - While this interpretation has little to do with the literary Dr. Watson, I've always enjoyed it very much. Nigel Bruce makes Watson a bumbler and provides the films' de facto comedy relief, but he's a charming, sincere character. It's essentially a variation on the same character that Bruce played in many films. Still, he and Rathbone made a marvelous pair--though one wonders why Holmes kept this Watson around.

Edward Hardwicke.
4. Edward Hardwicke - When David Burke left the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes TV series, he suggested that Edward Hardwicke (Cedric's son) replace him as Watson. Only two years Burke's senior, Hardwicke's Watson seemed much older in the role. He appeared less tolerant of Holmes' excesses, but also showed greater concern for his friend. In the episode "The Final Problem," we see the disappointment on Watson's face when he learns that Holmes confided only in his brother Mycroft after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls. More than any other Holmes and Watson, this pair come across as genuine friends (which Brett and Hardwicke became in real life).

James Mason.
5. James Mason - There was some stiff competition for the final spot on our list and I seriously considered Donald Houston from A Study in Terror and Ben Kingsley as a very different Watson in the amusing Without a Clue. In the end, I opted for James Mason's steadfast Watson who appeared opposite Christopher Plummer's flamboyant Holmes in Murder By Decree. Mason was a spry 70 when he appeared as Watson. He imbued the role with a quiet intelligence and dignity.


  1. While a Doyle fan, I too support Nigel Bruce. There's a mostly unspoken affection on Holmes' part that he wouldn't allow for any other human being. OK, maybe Irene Adler, but that's different. As to why Holmes would hang with the Boobus, such a disparity would more easly lead to a greater degree of hero worship. And Holmes could never get enough of that, either in person or through Watson's "fictions".

  2. I consider the Jeremy Brett series to be the definitive interpretation of Holmes on screen, so Burke and Hardwicke would go at the top of my personal list. I'd probably have to include Ben Kingsley as well... Without a Clue was one of my favorite comedies as a kid. It might even be part of the reason why I became such a big Sherlock Holmes fan.

    I can't deny having a fondness for Lucy Liu's portrayal on Elementary. It's obviously a very different interpretation, but that character's arc from sober companion to novice detective is the most rewarding aspect of the first season for me.

  3. I like David Burke myself; I thought he was quite close to Conan Doyle's literary Watson, as well as a good, steady complement to the wonderfully eccentric Brett. And I also liked Mason's Watson--made him into a gentle, compassionate man, which I think was probably like Conan Doyle himself.

  4. For me the #1 will always be Nigel Bruce, even though he isn't really true to Conan Doyle's character. I really like David Burke too and was disappointed when he left after only a season or so. He followed in the tradition of Bruce's genial bumbler. I eventually grew accustomed to Edward Hardwicke's Watson and respected the dignity he brought to the character, which seemed much closer to Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson.

  5. I have to go with Nigel Bruce also. His personality just goes so well with Rathbone.

  6. I had NO idea James Mason played Watson. Must check this one out!

    Of all the others you listed, I'm not sure I have a fave. Each actor brings a different interpretation...I think I like 'em all!

  7. While he generally seemed to be several steps behind Holmes in the Universal films, Nigel Bruce's Watson did have one chance to top his colleague in 1994's The Spider Woman. Holmes assumes a diorama depicts the skeleton of a child, and Watson points out through the teeth and skull size that the illustration is actually that of a dwarf.
    That being said, one of my favorite depictions of Watson came courtesy of Patrick Macnee in the underrated TV movie Sherlock Holmes in New York, which starred a very urbane Roger Moore as the Great Detective.

  8. David Burke is the quintessential Watson. I think Conan Doyle would approve. I have grown to have a great respect for Edward Hardwicke as well. I think James Mason is often underappreciated and brings a wonderful performance to this table, too.

  9. I still like Bilbo's modern take on the role.

  10. You totally missed out on two of the best ever! Donald Pickering and H Marion Crawford both of whom played Dr Watson as men of action worthy of a former army officer of the time..