05/28/2024

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The 81 Best, Worst, and Strangest Dr. Watson Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked

The 81 Best, Worst, and Strangest Dr. Watson Portrayals of All-Time, Ranked

Three years ago, when I ranked 100 Sherlock Holmes performances in an article for this very website, I had thought that I had landed upon the most challenging project I’d ever undertake at CrimeReads. Watching countless film and TV adaptations, attempting to ascribe value to various interpretations of the character, attempting to force a logical ranking out of them all… for weeks, I wrung my hands over it, and, when it was over, I washed my hands of it—and the notion of putting together any similar list ever again.

And yet here we are. Here we are again. The list which you are about to read is a ranking of the 81 film and TV performances of Sherlock Holmes’s esteemed colleague, Dr. Watson, and if I may say so… this list was much, much harder. No disrespect to the good detective, but this is the hardest ranking I’ve ever done. Why? Because the adaptation history of Dr. Watson is even more fraught, even more frenzied and clueless and madcap than the legacy of Sherlock Holmes. The thing about Holmes is, there are a few qualities of his that everyone agrees on: his deductive abilities, his slightly taciturn nature, his soft spot for his friend Watson. There is no such coherence to the Watson canon! Well, except for a long trend in which he’s represented as a blithering idiot. But that only adds incoherence to the character, a man who evidently was smart enough to get a medical degree and become an army surgeon and yet is so spectacularly dumb that he is confused by the simplest observations and amazed by the simplest observations. It’s maddening. Why did I put together this list? Why did I subject myself to all these Watsons? What’s wrong with me!? Hold on, I need to calm down.

All right, I’m back. I have a lot of thoughts about Watson, but this isn’t the place for all of them. If anyone’s interested, you can find them in a long polemic, elsewhere on this website. For now, we should stick to procedure. Here are the rules, or the attempt I made at coming up with rules.

First of all, why are there only 81 Watsons when there are 100 Sherlocks? Well, a lot of the shorter films and TV shows on the Sherlock list don’t include Watson. Shockingly. And some that do, show him so fleetingly, like Mr. Holmes (2015), that it’s not worth trying to discuss them.

Second, how do you rank a character like Watson? Are the good portrayals the ones that are closest to the source text, or just generally the ones that give the man a little of his dignity back? Or perhaps they convey gameness and commitment to the performance? For the first time, I don’t really know. It’s some combination of these things. But I can confirm that you do get a bunch of points if you’re a Watson who can find a pulse on a victim, or go five minutes without announcing “by Jove!”

A note about media. This list is a ranking of performances that I, and everyone else, can access. This rules out theater and radio portrayals, and any of the many lost silent Sherlock Holmes films. I’m sorry. (As always, my thanks to the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia for its treasure trove of information about countless adaptations.)

Well, without further ado, let’s get this over with. As one foolish Watson or two might say… tally ho.

 

81. Seth MacFarlane, Family Guy, “V is for Murder” (2018)

Seth MacFarlane voices Brian the dog in Family Guy, and Brian acts as Dr. Watson to Stewie’s Sherlock in one episode. Brian doesn’t really do anything other than be his usual self, so there isn’t much of a “Watson” to rank, here.

 

80. John C. Reilly, Holmes & Watson (2018)

The thing about this irredeemably silly movie is that John C. Reilly is not bad at playing Watson. The character is written as a joke, and not a very good one. Though I did laugh at the pompous way he says “cocaine” when offering it to a sick patient. John C. Reilly is a very good actor and I’d love to see him play Watson in a movie that doesn’t appear to have been written in ten minutes.

79. Dudley Moore, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978)

British comedy duo Peter Cook and Dudley Moore play Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in this weird spoof of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I love Dudley Moore and I think what he does with Watson (taking the character’s associated cluelessness to astronomical heights) is a good idea, but the film on the whole isn’t funny enough to make his effort worthwhile.

 

78. Heinz Rühmann, Der Mann, Der Sherlock Holmes War (1937)

Heinz Rühmann’s Watson is very interesting. He lurks in the background of interrogations and clue-findings, staring with a pair of giant eyes. He’s basically a lizard. If at one point, he whipped out his tongue to catch a fly, I wouldn’t be shocked.

 

77. Campbell Singer, The Man Who Disappeared (1951)

I’m sorry to say that Campbell Singer is rather misplaced as Watson. Singer’s got the vibe, casting-wise, of a butler in a slamming-doors-comedy… a character who is supposed to bounce into a room at the worst moments. But I think we need something different from a Watson.

 

76. Richard Peel, Murder by Death (1976)

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson aren’t in Murder by Death, but they were going to be! All that remains of their appearances is one deleted scene from the film. Richard Peel’s Watson has a hardcore “I SAY” kind of personality, evidently inspired by Nigel Bruce.

 

75. Chris Emmett, 3-2-1, “Sherlock Holmes” (1983)

Watson, in case you’re wondering, is the guy with the high-pitched voice and the tumbler in his hand. He says things to Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes thinks that his dog is talking instead. I’m so confused. 3-2-1 was a game show. I don’t know why a game show has a Sherlock Holmes sketch smack-dab in the middle of it. Everyone involved seems a bit drunk, if you ask me.

 

74. Anthony O’Donnell, O Xangô de Baker Street (2001)

This movie is technically about how Holmes and Watson come to Brazil to solve horrific Jack-the-Ripper-style murders, but it’s actually about how the local cuisine doesn’t agree with Holmes, and how Dr. Watson wears dorky sandals and accidentally gets high. That’s all I have to say.

 

73. Mikhail Vashukov, Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Mikhail Vashukov plays Dr. Watson in this inane Russian Sherlock Holmes stage musical (which was filmed, so it goes on this list.) He gets points for that little jog and how he lifts up his bowler hat with he sings his name.

 

72. Margaret Colin, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1987)

In 1941, Rex Stout wrote an essay called “Was Watson a Woman?” In the original stories? No. In many adaptations? Yes. One of many films with a Lady Watson is The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a 1987 TV movie. In this film, Margaret Colin plays Jane Watson, John Watson’s great-granddaughter. Also in this film, Sherlock Holmes has been cryogenically frozen for eighty years, and Jane Watson unfreezes him. Regrettably, Jane doesn’t have much of a personality, except that she’s into Sherlock and she’s American.

 

71. Himesh Patel, Enola Holmes 2 (2022)

Himesh Patel appears in a post-credits scene of Enola Holmes 2 as Dr. Watson. I like Himesh, and his presence as Watson (though brief), is warm and affable. I find Henry Cavill extremely annoying as Holmes, but a good Watson might help to reset his whole deal. We’ll see, I guess. I assume there’s a third film coming out at some point. Until I know more, I’m sticking Himesh up here.

 

70. Gerard Horan, Science Fiction: “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Link” (1992)

Gerard Horan’s Watson is mostly there to announce plot developments and explain crucial details in this short, educationally-inspired TV episode. His droopy, fulsome mustache is endlessly entertaining, however.

 

69. Hubert Rees, The Baker Street Boys (1983)

I’m not sure who decided that Watson was a bowler hat guy, but wow, that sartorial choice matches Sherlock’s deerstalker in ubiquity. I knew that Watson was Watson because I first saw that hat on the head of a man I could only subsequently conclude was Hubert Rees. Rees looks like what I picture when I close my eyes and imagine “Doctor Watson”—youngish, blondish, mustachioed—so he gets points for that. The script doesn’t give him much to do, but he definitely captures an essence.

 

68. Igor Ugolnikov, Oba-Na! Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (1994)

This goofy Russian adaptation is about how Holmes and Watson want to get super drunk together on New Year’s Eve but can’t, because they keep being interrupted by well-wishers and other visitors. I am 90% this is the whole plot? As I said when I listed this thing on the Sherlock Holmes list, there are no subtitles.

 

67. Zhongquan Xu, Sherlock Holmes in China (1994)

Sherlock Holmes in China, also known as Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Heroine, is a fascinating, complicated film in which Holmes (who is white) and Watson (who is Chinese) travel to Qing Dynasty China and get mixed up in a mystery. Zhongquan Xu’s Watson seems almost exclusively played as comic relief, and appears sometimes to be Holmes’s servant more than his friend.

 

66. Adam Ungvar, Sherlock Holmes Nevében (2011)

Adam Ungvar plays a dorky, loyal Watson in this Hungarian film which imagines Holmes and Watson as kids and actually reads a lot like Stephen King’s It.

 

65. Ernst Romanov, The Blue Carbuncle (1980)

Ernst Romanov’s dopey, jumpy Watson might be the best part of this strange, poorly-lit Soviet Holmes comedy.

 

64. Richard Woods, Sherlock Holmes (1981)

This film is actually a recording of a 1981 theatrical production of William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes play which starred Frank Langella. Watson’s given VERY little to do in that play, besides be a dolt, and Richard Woods does his best to oblige. BUT! He’s also given a big responsibility with a lot of narration. So, he’s put to work. He pitches in.

 

63. Phil Hartman, “Sherlock Holmes Surprise Party,” Saturday Night Live

This skit features Jeremy Irons as Sherlock and Phil Hartman, one of the funniest men to ever live, as Watson. He’s adorable as a Watson who’s just trying to throw Holmes a nice birthday party, but he doesn’t get to do too much. I’m sorry, Phil!

 

62. Kenneth Welsh, The Hound of the Baskervilles (2000), etc.

Kenneth Welsh gives us a very standard, neutral Watson, in this Matt Frewer series. He’s a little older, startles a bit easily, is clearly along for the ride… doesn’t really add much.

 

61. Alexei Sayle, Episode #1.6 of The All New Alexei Sayle Show (1994)

Evidently, the point of this very cute sketch is to make fun of the common representation of Watson as an easily-astounded buffoon, and Alexei Sayle delivers. His Watson has his mind blown when Holmes notices things like how it’s getting dark outside, or does something as simple as turn on the lamp. A perfect satire. Well done, Alexei, old chap!

 

60. Donald Houston, A Study in Terror (1965)

Case in point, Alexei! The only “terror” in this movie is how completely inept Watson is. He sits on pipes, grows astounded whenever Holmes says the most general thing. You want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him out of whatever this is!

 

59.  Václav Voska, Sherlock Holmes’ Desire (1972)

This incomprehensible, 97-minute Czech movie about “how Sherlock Holmes wants to be a professional violin player but is very bad at it” features an all-time goofy Watson. Par for the course.

 

58. Royce Pierreson, The Irregulars (2021)

Royce Pierreson’s commanding Watson is a not-so-great guy in this topsy-turvy spin on the Holmes stories. He hires a bunch of children to solve dangerous crimes involving ghosts, so his partner Holmes can take the credit.

 

57. Patrick Monckton, “My Dear Watson,” Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1989)

This episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (technically, at this point, it had already gone by The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents and then had the “New” dropped), is a little story about Sherlock Holmes. When I watched this episode for my Sherlock Holmes ranking, it was available online. Now, that no longer seems to be the case, so, unless I wanted to wander onto some very… unpolished streaming sites, I had to rely on my memory. It’s too important to leave off the list, because this episode is all ABOUT Watson! He’s kidnapped and Holmes has to find him, which… aww. Anyway, the other thing about this take on the character is, it’s about how he’s a GOOD doctor. Lestrade has gone mad from constantly being outshone by Holmes, and Watson (with some of that cool psychoanalysis training that was becoming pretty hip in the Victorian zeitgeist?) brings him from the brink of insanity. Monckton’s Watson is good-natured, and a good doctor!

 

56. Jenny O’Hara, The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective (1976)

The Return of the World’s Greatest Detective is a movie about how a guy named Sherman Holmes gets hit on the head and thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. By this logic, if I get hit on the head, I will think I’m Olivia Rodrigo. Larry Hagman plays our misremembering sleuth and Jenny O’Hara plays his psychologist, Dr. Joan Watson (yeah that’s right… decades before Elementary), who, you know, becomes his Watson in sleuthing, too. She’s very cute and bubbly, which works well.

 

55. David Mitchell, “Holmes and Watson,” That Mitchell and Webb Look (2010)

British comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb have played Holmes and Watson a few times. I enjoy when comedy duos take on the Holmes and Watson parts. And no duo does that better than Mitchell and Webb. In this sketch, which cracks me up, they both play two actors who are competitive with another and wind up building tension as they switch roles from Holmes to Watson on different nights of the same production. Mitchell is a solid Watson, but Webb is a good one in a later sketch. That’s a few slots below.

 

54. Gianni Bonagura, L’ultimo dei Baskerville (1968), etc.

In this late 60s, black-and-white adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Gianni Bonagura brings a new vibe to the proceedings as a Watson who just stands around. It’s very Italian.

 

53. William Rushton, “Elementary, my Dear Watson,” Comedy Playhouse (1973)

William Rushton’s voluminously-bearded Watson is the sidekick to John Cleese’s Sherlock Holmes in this comic standalone episode of the series Comedy Playhouse. He absolutely loves that his friendship with Holmes allows him to “neglect” his practice and jaunt about with Holmes on “harebrained” adventures while still living “very comfortably.” He’s a blunter Watson than we usually encounter, but he makes a good point.

 

52. Robert Webb, “Old Holmes,” That Mitchell and Webb Look (2010)

This sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look is a strange, heartbreaking representation of an elderly Holmes, with dementia and no longer in possession of his faculties. David Mitchell’s senile Holmes captures the sad irony of the deterioration of the greatest mind of the age… but Robert Webb’s loving and lucid Watson, underscores just how sad this really is. He looks at his friend with both admiration and heartbreak. Yes, technically, this is a piece of sketch comedy. I don’t really know how.

 

51. Jessie James Grelle, Case File nº221 (2019)

This Japanese anime show is about a house in Kabuki-chō, Tokyo’s red light district, that is home to several unusual individuals, including the detective Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson, who works at the university hospital, stumbles on the group after looking into a murder (committed by Jack the Ripper). This is a hyper-knowledgeable, slightly stiff, stylish Watson—a take on the character we don’t see too often.

 

50. Terence Rigby, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982)

If Terence Rigby’s Dr. Watson had any more of an English accent, he would be completely unintelligible. I, personally, enjoy a spot of gluey English elocution, but must admit that it doesn’t make this Watson sound entirely “with it.”

 

49. Earle Cross, Sherlock Holmes and the Baskerville Curse (1983)

This Hanna-Barbera-looking Sherlock Holmes cartoon (is it for kids? they shoot the dog! they kill the dog!) features a Watson who is equal parts “stout, off-balance sidekick” and “intrepid detective in his own right.” Earle Cross provides exactly the voice you’d think this character would have.

48. Mr. Moyse, Sherlock Holmes (1912), etc.

In this French silent film series, there really isn’t much for Watson, played by a tall, baldish actor named Mr. Moyse, to do. He mostly stands near Holmes and looks at stuff, accompanies him everywhere. For the modern viewer, the vibe of this relationship might be “what if a guy who looked like Prince William followed you everywhere?”

 

47. Fritz Odemar, Der Hund von Baskerville (1937)

Fritz Odemar stands out as a chain-smoking Watson in this German adaptation. All of the characters are basically chain-smokers, too, but he chain-smokes the most. I mean, look at the Hound, itself; it looks like it just can’t kick its ten-pack-a-day habit.

 

46. Lewis Arquette, Sherlock Hound (1984)

Lewis Arquette is the voice of Watson in this cartoon series in which Holmes, Watson, and company are all anthropomorphic dogs. He is a portly Scottie dog, often panting, sometimes bewildered.

 

45. Burt Blackwell, The Interior Motive (1976)

Burt Blackwell played Watson to Leonard Nimoy’s Holmes in this short TV movie. All you really need to know about him is that he looks like this, and Holmes calls him “Old Fish.”

 

44. Bernard Fox, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1972)

Hey, the Fox and The Hound, as it were. Get it? Bernard Fox’s richly mustachioed Watson is a little ditzy but also a little petty? He’d love to get the better of Holmes one of these days. In a friendly way, of course. This is amusing.

 

43. Val Bettin, The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

Val Bettin is the voice of Watson in this Disney film in which Holmes, Watson, and company are all anthropomorphic mice, rats, and lizards. Technically, his name is Dr. David Q. Dawson, and he is a mouse of stout heart and a fair amount of pluck. One of the most loyal, most cheerful Watsons of all time.

 

42. Bill Paterson, Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars (2008)

Watson, though earnest and well-meaning, is ultimately less help than a bunch of street children in this movie about how Holmes is wrongly arrested for murder.

 

41. Thorley Walters, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962)

Thorley Walters’s Watson is a bit cotton-headed, but it’s in a way that’s very faithful to the texts: he absolutely cannot tell when his dear friend Holmes is in disguise. He’s completely fooled. Like, Christopher Lee’s Holmes is great, but the man is a million feet tall! That’s kind of a giveaway.

 

40. Athole Stewart, The Speckled Band (1931)

Athole Stewart plays opposite Raymond Massey as a tall but generally unhelpful Watson, who truly does nothing of importance throughout the entire film.

 

39. Jason Liebrecht, The Empire of Corpses (2015)

This anime amalgam of Sherlock Holmes and other works of 19th century literature offers a surprisingly young and handsome 2-D Watson, and you know what? Good for him!

 

38. Edward Fielding, Sherlock Holmes (1916)

This silent film is an adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 Sherlock Holmes play, and therefore, it is mostly about Sherlock Holmes. Watson is Holmes’s “confidante” who “sometimes” accompanies the detective on adventures. Part comic relief, part lip-service to the books, the Watson in the play does very little. Watson in the silent film, played by Edward Fielding, does even littler, I’m afraid. There’s barely any Watson to rank!

 

37. Nigel Bruce, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), etc.

Look, I love and respect Nigel Bruce. He was an extremely talented comic actor, and a prolific and versatile voice actor. His Watson is an icon—often imitated, never truly repeated. But even when his Watson is at his most adorable, you can’t deny that Bruce is doing Dr. Watson pretty dirty. My God. It’s as if he asked himself, “what if Dr. Watson were the stupidest person to ever exist?” and then doubled down on that. Sometimes Watson’s ineptitude is flat-out painful; several times in my life, I had to fast-forward through a few of his antics. Let’s get on with the mystery, we don’t need the posh English equivalent of all four Beverly Hillbillies to stall us now. If he weren’t so iconic, he’d be further back on this list. Alas.

 

36. John Scott-Paget, The Hound of London (1993)

How did John Scott-Paget feel, playing Dr. Watson to Patrick Macnee’s Sherlock Holmes, when Macnee had played Watson so many times in his career? That’d be like playing Michael Corleone in front of Al Pacino.

 

35. Warburton Gamble, A Study in Scarlet (1933)

“Warburton Gamble” is a name that many people in my life would accuse me of making up. In fact, I had to check a few times that I didn’t make it up. But I didn’t! He is real! It’s his stage name; he was born Evelyn Charles Warburton Gamble, but I’ll take it. He plays Watson in this b-movie mystery thriller starring Reginald Owen as Holmes. (Owen also played Watson in a film the year before and therefore has his own entry on this list.) Gamble’s Watson seems to take things in a little slowly, but this doesn’t mean he’s not bright. He just appears to be thinking “huh,” almost constantly, about everything.

 

34. George Seroff, Der Hund von Baskerville (1929)

I’m going to quote the late BSI member Russell Merritt’s essay (from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s retrospective on this really wonderful film), because he assesses Watson perfectly. Carlyle Blackwell “plays off George Seroff’s bashful Watson, in arguably the first Holmes film to make the Holmes-Watson friendship a central part of the story. True, Seroff turns Watson into an adoring naïf, but Seroff gives personality to a character who up to now had been notoriously colorless or missing altogether in Holmes silents.”

 

33. Roger Morlidge, Sherlock (2002)

Roger Morlidge’s Watson has the stylings of a heist movie sidekick. He’s versed in the lingo and the protocol just as well as (if not better than) the protagonist, but he’s the one who hangs back to do the research. If the setting was moved to the year 2000, this guy would be wearing Vans and eating a hero while hacking into a mainframe in two minutes. Love it.

 

32. Donald Pickering, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1979-1980)

This cute, low-budget Sherlock Holmes show features a pleasant, competent Dr. Watson, who serves as the series’ narrator. He and Holmes are real roommates; they have a gentle banter, regard each other (relatively) as equals. In one episode, after they plan to travel to Dover, Holmes says “you pack, and I’ll arrange the tickets!” Now, if that isn’t teamwork…

 

31. Paul Edwin Roth, Sherlock Holmes (1967-1968)

Paul Edwin Roth plays, in this late 60s German adaptation, a Dr. Watson who is surprisingly calm under pressure, and dexterous enough to lazily point a revolver at someone with his right hand and smoke a pipe with his left.

 

30. Takanori Iwata, Sherlock: Untold Stories (2019)

The Japan series Sherlock: Untold Stories is one of the sexiest… I mean… most interesting Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Dean Fujioka’s sexy, bad-boy Sherlock? Takanori Iwata’s sexy, motorcycle-riding Watson? A+. The Watson character is named Junichi Wakamiya, and he’s a psychiatrist who winds up teaming with Sherlock to solve mysteries. Also, he’s extremely hot. Maybe I said this earlier. I can’t remember, due to the hotness.

 

29. John Hillerman, Hands of a Murderer (1990)

This Sherlock Holmes adaptation can be a bit slow, and its occasionally sleepy tone is very much not hindered by John Hillerman’s sonorous baritone. Putting that aside, this Dr. Watson is actually fairly badass. He’ll smoke anyone who endangers Sherlock. You love to see it!

 

28. Richard Johnson, The Crucifer of Blood (1991)

The Crucifer of Blood isn’t a great movie, but I really like Richard Johnson’s fatigued, frustrated, knowledgeable Watson. He’s also got very exciting eyebrows.

 

27. Roland Young, Sherlock Holmes (1922)

I find the plot of this Sherlock Holmes silent to be rather trying (it’s all about how Holmes wishes he were married), but I kind of love Roland Young’s Watson. His body language and facial expressions help characterize him as an earnest friend and good listener. He also looks a fair amount like the actor Harris Dickinson, to the point where I’ve been thinking that I’d be very interested to see Harris play Watson.

 

26. José Luis García-Pérez, Holmes & Watson: Madrid Days (2012)

José Luis García-Pérez’s Watson, in this Spanish-language Sherlock Holmes movie about Jack the Ripper terrorizing London, has a fantastic look.  He’s young, suave, smart. Vibes-wise, he’s one of our Best Watsons.

 

25. Melville Cooper, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Your Show Time (1949)

Melville Cooper’s Watson isn’t the brightest bulb, but the great thing about him is that he’s happy to joke about his dimness with Alan Napier’s Holmes. A solid guy, doesn’t take himself too seriously. If you’re going to do a dopey or daffy Watson, this is the way to do it, I say.

 

24. Patrick Macnee, Sherlock Holmes in New York (1972)

Patrick Macnee was a pro at playing Watson. He played him here, in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady in 1991, and in its sequel, Incident at Victoria Falls, in 1992. He also played Sherlock Holmes, but this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes list so I’m not going to get into those. Macnee offers a majorly different school of Watsonian performance than Nigel Bruce. It’s like the Stanislavski Method vs. Strasberg’s. (Except not at all.) Nigel Bruce’s Watson is excitable and idiotic. Patrick Macnee’s Watson is excitable and of normal intelligence.

23. Arthur M. Cullin, The Sign of Four (1923)

Arthur M. Cullin stepped in to play Watson in The Sign of Four, one of the 46 some-odd films made by Maurice Elvey out of the Holmes stories, replacing relative-lookalike Hubert Willis, whose performance is described more below. Cullin is a good Watson, though he seems to be doing his best Willis impression?

 

22. Hubert Willis, The Yellow Face, (1921) etc.

Hubert Willis plays Watson in Maurice Elvey’s series of faithful mystery films made during the silent era, adapting the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and further stories, co-starring Ellie Norwood as Sherlock Holmes. (Willis is the one smoking, in the photo.) Norwood and Willis played these roles in 44 shorts and one long film together. I love Willis’s engaging, dauntless Watson, almost as much as I love Norwood’s incredibly subtle and sophisticated Holmes.

 

21. Nigel Stock, Sherlock Holmes (1964-1965)

I’m not about to say that if you’ve seen one Nigel’s Watson, you’ve seen them all. But if I did say that, would I be so wrong? Nigel Stock’s Watson, which he played alongside Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing’s Holmeses, isn’t nearly the imbecile that Nigel Bruce is, but he’s not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier that is this time-consuming list, either.

 

20. Joanne Woodward, They Might Be Giants (1971)

Joanne Woodward’s Mildred Watson is an absolute delight to watch. First of all, Woodward is such a good actress that she’s a delight to watch all the time. But she’s great as a cranky, overworked, caring Watson to George C. Scott’s Sherlock Holmes (well, he’s a guy who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes).

 

19. Reginald Owen, Sherlock Holmes (1932)

I don’t love Clive Brook’s Sherlock Holmes, but I have a soft spot for Reginald Owen’s Watson, probably, in part, because I have a soft spot for Reginald Owen. (He’s Admiral Boom from Mary Poppins, remember?) Reginald Owen wins the award for Loudest Watson out of them all; he yells everything he says, regardless of what it is he’s saying or where he is saying it. I really appreciate that because I do the same thing, but I also like it because it’s great to see a Watson so full of vim and verve.

 

18. LeVar Burton, “Elementary, Dear Data,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (1988)

In this, the best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data the android (Brent Spiner) and Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge (literacy champion LeVar Burton) end up inside a VR-style game where they play as Holmes and Watson, solving a brand-new mystery. It’s perfect. They’re perfect. The lack of a spin-0ff series is a tragedy.

 

17. Ben Kingsley, Without a Clue (1988)

What to do with Without a Clue? I really don’t have a clue. In this decidedly Pro-Watson film, the good doctor (Ben Kingsley) is the real detective genius but needs a public face for his enterprise, and so hires a drunken actor named Reginald Kincaid (Caine) to play the made-up detective “Sherlock Holmes.” I am a Watson truther, so I do appreciate this take, even if it makes all the characters rather unrecognizable.

 

16. Alan Cox, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Alan Cox gives us the NERDY Watson we’ve all been waiting for! Every overconfident genius protagonist needs a neurotic little geek behind the scenes, and Young Sherlock Holmes lifts the curtain for us! Why aren’t there more bookish, poindexter-ish Watsons in the world?

 

15. André Morell, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

André Morell’s calm, square-jawed Watson is the relative intellectual equal of Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes in this pulpy Terence Fisher adaptation. He’s got impressive deductive faculties of his own and a wry air. He and Holmes exchange quite a few inside glances when they’re interviewing someone, suggesting that they’re operating on the same wavelength.

 

14. Colin Blakely, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

Colin Blakely’s Watson is a concerned, slightly goofy but dependable friend to Robert Stephens’s Sherlock Holmes. AND, essentially, his Watson is a writer, which isn’t an angle we get too often!! Actually, the film on the whole is one of my favorite Holmes takes because it is so much about Watson’s editorial input, stressing how Watson co-creates a Holmesian image for the public.

13. Ian Hart, The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

Ian Hart, who reprised the role as Watson in the Rupert Everett film Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, starred as Watson first in this really good adaptation of Hound that I guess no one but me saw, against Richard Roxburgh’s Holmes. I like the seriousness of his, and Roxburgh’s, performances. And Hart brings an almost dark gravitas to Watson that we don’t often see. I feel like we also don’t usually get a Watson with this color hair, either. Just an observation.

 

12. Shihori Kanjiya, Miss Sherlock (2018)

I love Shihori Kanjiya in Miss Sherlock, a modern, female, Japanese reboot. She plays Dr. Wato Tachibana (who, with her honorific title, is called “Wato-san,” which is amazing). Wato returns to Tokyo from medical volunteer work in Syria to witness the strange murder of her mentor, a traumatic event which leads her to meet a strange consulting detective, a mysterious, elegant woman who goes by the name “Sherlock” and who has tremendous powers of observation (Yûko Takeuchi). They wind up collaborating on the case, and ultimately living together. But this isn’t the chummy partnership of Holmes-and-Watson you’ve come to know; more than simply being motivated to solve crimes by boredom, this Sherlock is motivated solely by her own pleasure. She’s even a little mean to Wato (Shihori Kanjiya), who, on the other hand, is shy, sympathetic, and sensitive—dealing with her own demons, PTSD that has begun to rage since her return to Japan. Their friendship becomes more like a sisterhood—fraught, frustrated, turbulent, triumphant.

 

11. Vitaly Solomin, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (1980-1987)

This impeccable Russian adaptation of the Holmes stories features a wonderful performance from Vitaly Solomin as a thoughtful, caring Watson. His naturally furrowed brow makes him look like he’s constantly in deep thought, which is what this Watson pool needs more of.

 

10. Martin Freeman, Sherlock (2010-2017)

I like Martin Freeman’s Watson better than I like Benedict Cumberbatch’s (occasionally nasty) Holmes in the BBC Sherlock series. As with Miss Sherlock, I think the production is wise to focus on the psychological impact of his wartime service. Personality-wise, he’s an all-in, best-friend type with an adrenaline-junkie side to him.

 

 

9. Robert Duvall, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976)

Robert Duvall can do anything, and he’s charming (and surprisingly excellent at being British) in The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Part comic relief, part caring friend, part short king, he’s the secret weapon of an already wonderful film.

 

8. Lucy Liu, Elementary (2012-2019)

Lucy Liu’s Dr. Joan Watson is a wonderful example of the great ways a character can be interpreted to fit a new adaptation. Liu plays an ex-surgeon looking for a new career, becoming a sobriety companion and randomly being assigned to Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes. But his energetic, erratic brilliance, and her calm, thoughtful approaches turn out to be an excellent match, and they become best friends and start solving cases together. Watson is a canny New Yorker, loves The Godfather and shoes, and Holmes decides he’s going to teach her his methods, which is interesting; thus Liu’s Watson doesn’t merely comment on or observe Holmes’s methods or stand as proof of the singularity of his brilliance, she becomes an experiment in the accessibility and transferability of his methods.

 

7. James Mason, Murder by Decree (1979)

I love James Mason’s elegant, gentle Watson in this film, in which he is a voice of equal reason to Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock. His slightly sentimental nature even becomes comic relief, like when Sherlock squashes the single green pea that Watson has been trying to stab with a fork. He gets very put-out at the demise of the pea. It’s so cute. Another actor would have played this Watson as a clueless buffoon or fall-guy, but Mason keeps his Watson genuine without making him too simple.

 

6. Ian Fleming, Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour, (1931), etc.

Not that Ian Fleming, this Ian Fleming. He played Watson against Arthur Wontner’s Holmes and boy did he hold his own; before Nigel Bruce’s dumb Watson, Fleming was a Watson who kept Holmes in check while also being extremely curious himself.

5. Donald Churchill, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1983) etc.

Donald Churchill’s Dr. Watson and Ian Richardson’s Sherlock Holmes are BEST FRIENDS FOREVER and they’re a joy to watch. A JOY. They get the sillies together, and if that is not friendship… what is?

 

4. Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes (2009), etc.

I really do not enjoy Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Sherlock Holmes… but I love Jude Law’s performance as Watson. It’s emotional and yet elevated. He chides Holmes, despairs of him, worries about him. It’s actually kind of adorable?

 

3. Howard Marion-Crawford, Sherlock Holmes (1954-1955)

I love Howard Marion-Crawford’s Dr. Watson. His is a worthy companion to Ronald Howard’s Holmes. Theirs is a relationship of mutual respect. He is genuinely interested in Holmes’s work, rather than simply, perpetually being bewildered by it, and Howard’s frequent glances and small smiles to Watson while they’re working suggests their genuine interest in collaboration.

 

2. Edward Hardwicke, The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1986-1988), etc.

Hardwicke is the second Watson to play alongside Jeremy Brett’s Holmes in the long-running series; Watson got Darrened when the prior actor, David Burke, left to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. The Two Watson Discontinuity Problem is actually the only issue I have with this series, which is pretty perfect, otherwise. Hardwicke’s Watson is rather impeccable. He is the consummate sidekick: game, clever on his own, a bit amused by Holmes’s antics. He is his professional equal and proud friend, holding his own next to Holmes like no other.

 

1. David Burke, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1985), etc.

It’s not easy to pick Number One in general, let alone on a list of Watsons, let alone between Burke and Hardwicke!!! It’s in fact quite hard. But I find myself giving the edge to David Burke, the first of Jeremy Brett’s Watsons? Is that even fair, after he was in it for only one season and Hardwicke did all the rest? Is it because he looks so much like the Watson I picture when I close my eyes, or is it because he brings a slight air of light comedy to a partnership, and I always need my duos to feel a teensy bit like vaudeville acts? I don’t know. It’s hard. On another day, I might switch them.