More than 70 years after his death, a new biography tells the story of one of the American theater’s greatest stars.
William Gillette, a Hartford native, is best-remembered today as the living personification of Sherlock Holmes. He wrote the first popular play about the detective and brought Holmes to life and established for all time the image of Holmes with the deerstalker cap, the bent briar pipe and the profile, creating what may be the most instantly recognizable icon in the world. And it was from Gillette’s play that Hollywood film-makers derived four of the famous phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson."
“Gillette established the manner in which Holmes was to be portrayed,” author Henry Zecher explained. “Mysteries in general have been staged on the template he created; and, until Jeremy Brett did his own interpretation, actors playing Holmes for the next several decades did it the way Gillette did it.”
More than bringing Holmes to life, however, Gillette was among the 19th century’s most successful actors and playwrights. In a career spanning six decades, he was one of the best-known celebrities in the Western world.
“Gillette was a towering figure in an age of towering figures,” Zecher added. “Among his friends were Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Roosevelt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Nast and Maurice Barrymore. He built a castle on the Connecticut River and a miniature railroad to run around it. Among the guests who rode on that train were President Calvin Coolidge, physicist Albert Einstein and Tokyo Mayor Ozaki Yukio, who gave to America the cherry blossoms in 1912. James M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, wrote two hit plays for which he specifically asked for Gillette to star in.”
As a playwright Gillette was known for the stark realism of his sets, costuming, dialogue and actions. He developed realistic and dramatic lighting and sound effects. And he led the way in making American drama truly American.
“American arts tended to be like the British,” Zecher continued, “and the British had a very poor opinion of American drama. Then Gillette took his first Civil War play – Held by the Enemy – to London in 1887 and it was the first American play with a thoroughly American theme to be a major success on British stages.”
As an actor, he developed the philosophy of The Illusion of the First Time, in which an actor speaks his lines each night, not as if he has spoken them a hundred times before, but as if he is making them up as he goes along, as real people do. Actors were to enter the room of the set the same way, looking about as they go rather than blithely walking in as if they had done so many times before. The idea, Gillette said, was to create the illusion of life on the stage.
Among the young stars Gillette helped at the dawn of their careers were Ethel Barrymore, Charles Chaplin and Helen Hayes, and later screen stars made their film debuts in productions of his plays: William Powell in Sherlock Holmes in 1922, starring John Barrymore as Holmes; Meryl Streep in the 1976 Broadway Theater Archive filming of Gillette’s greatest play, Secret Service, co-starring John Lithgow; and Christian Slater in Sherlock Holmes in 1981 opposite Frank Langella as Holmes.
Gillette played Holmes more than 1,300 times in both America and England between 1899 and 1932. Upon his death in 1937, the New York Times declared, “His comedy bordered on farce, his drama on melodrama, but it would be hard to convince that portion of the American public that knew and followed him that any better actor had ever trod the American stage. And it might be impossible to find any other actor who at 76 could revive a role from the Nineties and make a smashing tour with it through two seasons over the length and breadth of the country. It would be conservative to say that Mr. Gillette was the most successful of all American actors."
For generations of theater-goers and Holmes enthusiasts, Gillette remained the definitive Sherlock Holmes of all time. This is the first full biography published on him. It is published by Xlibris Press in Bloomington, Ind.