Where would the World’s Greatest Detective be without his sidekick? We all sort of wish we could have or be a Watson; the trusted assistant to the most brilliant mind in the world, someone to have the back of the hero when they get in a jam. Watson, in many ways, acts as an anchor for both the character of Holmes and the readers/audience involved in the story; it is through Watson we learn of Holmes’ methods and misadventures, and is Watson who, more or less, helps Holmes keep some grounding in reality, or tries to, at any rate. Some versions of Watson are more helpful or interesting than others, of course, but it’s almost assured that wherever Sherlock Holmes can be found, Dr. Watson cannot be far behind. Again, this is all opinion-based, so for all of the great Watsons not mentioned on this list...sorry. Love you, lads. AND SO, without further ado, here are my Top 12 Portrayals of Dr. Watson!
12. David Riley, from the Frogwares Games series.
While the actor playing Holmes himself throughout Frogwares’ flagship “Sherlock Holmes” line has changed a time or two, David Riley has played Watson for almost the entire series. His voice is crisp, yet easy on the ears, and while the voice acting in these games has never been especially exceptional, there’s a certain charm to his work that stands out. It’s a bit like David Hayter’s Solid Snake, I suspect, for so many Metal Gear Solid fans - he may not always be right on the money, but after a while, it’s hard to imagine anybody else playing him. And, as time has passed, Riley’s performances have only improved. He’s somewhere in the middle between Nigel Bruce and virtually all the Watsons above him: he’s not always the most capable Watson (though he remains a trusty shot and has certain detective skills of his own), but he can be a great help in a tough spot, both in-game and within the story itself of each one.
11. Howard Marion-Crawford, from the 1954 T.V. Series.
This American mystery show is rather sadly forgotten nowadays, although not entirely without reason. The plots almost never owed anything to Doyle’s stories (as far as I know, only two of his original tales were adapted, while the rest were original works), and the writing was iffy at best. (Some of the clues were so obvious that rather than making Holmes look clever, it made the other characters look even more stupid by default, and almost made it seem like Holmes had a tendency to overlook things when he wasn’t careful.) Ronald Howard’s performance as Holmes, while by no means terrible, clearly was an attempt on the creators’ part to emulate the work of Basil Rathbone, rather than create a character that was totally their own. It may sound, with all that, like I don’t like this show...but actually, quite to the contrary! I rather enjoy this series! It’s dated and corny, but it’s not without merits. The most important of these merits is, without a doubt, Marion-Crawford’s Watson. A fan of the Holmes stories himself, Marion-Crawford personally hated the way Nigel Bruce had portrayed Watson in the Rathbone-starring films. As a result, his Watson is one of the first to try and play the character as he was originally conceived, following the Rathbone supremacy. Built a bit like a boxer, with a crooked moustache (I’m not sure if it was fake or just grew like that), he was a more action-ready Watson, though no less caring or polite. This man was very clearly a soldier and a surgeon, and often provided the brawn to complement Holmes’ fantastic brains. For any flaws this show had, he made up for nearly all of them.
10. Roger Morlidge, from Sherlock: Case of Evil.
I know nothing about Roger Morlidge, beyond this film...which is perhaps a shame, because the man proves to be a fine actor in this film, and a truly lovely Watson. In this reimagining, Watson’s origins are given a bit of a makeover: instead of a surgeon and former army medic, he is a mortuary worker, with a speciality in criminal autopsies. He is also something of a tinkerer, inventing special devices to help him with his work. When he first meets Holmes, he is cynical and derisive of him, seeing him as a busybody and snob, revelling in his celebrity after the upstart private eye is credited with killing the mysterious Professor Moriarty. However, when Holmes helps Watson solve a crime...and that crime turns out to be connected to several others...their relationship starts to bloom. Morlidge is one of the toughest, most no-nonsense Watsons out there. A man who deals with gruesome death daily, cutting open skull cavities, and tinkering with the tools of his trade, is just as capable as any army surgeon, and Watson proves to be almost as clever as Holmes is. He’s smart enough to have a theory, smart enough to find the pieces to the puzzle...but he’s always a step or two behind Holmes, as Sherlock puts the puzzle pieces together much quicker than he does. Still, his skills make him a valuable asset, and the two only grow closer and more amiable as the story goes on. From rival to roommate, Roger Morlidge’s Watson really deserves more credit than he gets.
9. Vitaly Solomin, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & Dr. Watson (Russian).
Youthful, confident, occasionally naive and perhaps too quick to act, yet thoughtful and far from a fool. This is Vitaly Solomin’s Watson. A veritable cowboy in Victorian London, few incarnations of the good doctor have captured the vivacious, adventure-loving side of the character present in Solomin’s performances, an element frequently overlooked in other adaptations. This version doesn’t seem to pay too much attention to Watson as a doctor or a writer, but it certainly embraces his status as a former soldier. With his lively exuberance, mixed with his stern and calculating militant edges, and a delightful curiosity that is all his own, he makes a fitting companion to Vasily Livanov’s often-gloomy Sherlock Holmes.
8. Robert Duvall, from The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.
It does not take much to claim that Duvall’s Holmes is, perhaps, the true center-point of this Holmes pastiche. In this reinventing of the character and world of Holmes, the villainous Professor Moriarty is discovered by Watson to be a delusion - Holmes’ addictions to cocaine and morphine have driven him to the brink of madness, causing him to pin so many great crimes, like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, on a totally innocent man. Watson takes the lead for a point in this tale, as he fights to save his friend’s health, and possibly his life, with the help of none other than Sigmund Freud...all while a new and quite dangerous case rears its ugly head. Duvall, of course, is and was one of the most incredible actors who ever lived, and he puts just as much work and finesse into the role of Dr. Watson as any other character. He is supportive, but also stubborn and stern; a man who helps to inspire greatness in others. He is not easily led by anybody, his compass always pointing one direction, and only wavering when impossible points are brought to his attention. In a way, he takes the lead here, like a father or a big brother, as he and Freud work to help Holmes along through his troubles, as well as through cracking the case.
7. Lucy Liu, as Joan Watson, from Elementary.
Transforming Dr. Watson into a woman may seem gimmicky to some, but if a gimmick it is, it is one that used well. Lucy Liu’s Watson is a somewhat snarkier, more short-tempered version of the character, but no less affectionate and helpful around Holmes. Her hardened exterior is brought on by personal losses of various kinds; a former surgeon, she joins Holmes first as a “sober companion,” to see to it his drug therapy goes smoothly. She is something of Roger Morlidge and Robert Duvall, only wrapped up in a feminine skin; she’s not in the least bit afraid of danger, constantly resourceful, but despite her dry with and cynicism, she’s still more human than Holmes himself, in some ways, able to tactfully address people and work with them in ways he simply cannot. And though she is generally supportive of his endeavors, she doesn’t go along blindly, and knows when she needs to at least try to rein him in. As an updated and gender-bent twist on the character, she proves that no matter the clothes, Watson is still Watson...and Watson, to be blunt, is a pretty awesome thing to be.
6. Ben Kingsley, from Without a Clue.
Yet another major reinvention of the character, and obviously one of my favorites. Much like “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” this film takes the characters of Holmes and Watson in a whole new direction, based on a simple premise: what if Watson was the real genius the whole time? Heavily inspired by Basil Rathbone’s films, with Nigel Bruce in the role of Watson, Kingsley teams up with Michael Caine - in here, a clownish, drunken, out-of-work actor he saves from unemployment to masquerade as Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character Watson creates to help keep his own deductive abilities a relative secret. However, as time goes on, Watson becomes jealous of his own creation’s fame, and tired of the dimwitted Holmes taking all the credit. Inevitably, the two split apart. Kingsley’s Watson and his problems seem to be somewhat inspired by Conan Doyle’s own personal tribulations with his beloved detective - both grow tired of the famous sleuth, and try to cut him out of the picture...however, when Watson tries to create new ways of making his stories successful, and continuing both his line of work as a surgeon, and his “hobby” as a detective, he finds that in getting rid of Holmes, he has doomed himself. No one believes in Watson the way they believe in Holmes; it’s only be extension of him being Sherlock’s assistant that he gains any confidence at all. Much like Conan Doyle, Watson is forced to team-up with Holmes again just to get by...and, in the film’s case, to catch the nefarious Moriarty once and for all.
5. Martin Freeman, from Sherlock.
Fumbling, but never bumbling, Martin Freeman’s Watson is perhaps the most “normal” of the whole bunch. Frequently frustrated and a bit of a nervous type, his Watson is nevertheless the steadfast friend of Holmes, and a true soldier. His war wounds here are of a more psychological nature, and it takes his work with Sherlock Holmes - played by Benedict Cumberbatch most mosterfully - to help him cope with his personal demons. Over time, he starts to help Holmes cope with his own, as well. The friendship between the two is a major, MAJOR plot point in just about every episode of the series, as their relationship is constantly tested by both outer and inner forces; John’s faith in Sherlock is constantly undermined, then proven again, while Holmes’ trust in John and personal insecurities have him constantly making perhaps the worst decisions. The dynamic between the two is both close and yet distant; they know each other better than anybody else, but in a relationship like this, that doesn’t always say too much...one is always an enigma, the other always has things bared on his sleeve. That leads to chemistry like no other.
4. Edward Hardwicke, from the Granada T.V. Series.
I feel a little bad not putting Hardwicke higher than this. If you count every episode of the Granada series (he featured from Season II all the way through the end of the seven-seasons-long show), along with the play based on the show, “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes,” Hardwicke played the role of Dr. Watson perhaps more than any other person. He was the chief companion to arguably the greatest Holmes of all time, Jeremy Brett, too, which gives him a good amount of kudos as well. If I were to compare Hardwicke to another Watson (which is, needless to say, quite difficult to do), I’d say he was a more Victorian version of Martin Freeman. (Although perhaps “The Abominable Bride” disproves that, since Freeman’s work there hardly made me think of Hardwicke at all, though that’s nothing against him, obviously; two different performers, after all...but I digress.) Hardwicke’s Watson was a somewhat more frustrated, stiff take on the character, and while he often seemed in absolute awe of Holmes’ accomplishments, he still knew when he had to put his foot down. He also tended to be a bit more skeptical of Sherlock from time to time, creating a somewhat competitive streak between the two men. Stories like “The Hound of the Baskervilles” helped to expand on Hardwicke’s character, giving him more to do on his own, while others like “The Illustrious Client” and “The Three Gables” allowed the creators and the actors more room to develop his relationship with Holmes. Even without Holmes to help or guide him, Hardwicke’s Watson could readily hold his own, as he proved in “The Mazarin Stone,” where Watson had to solve a case with the help of Holmes’ far-less-active brother, Mycroft, as Holmes himself was unavailable. It’s tough to beat a performance of this consistency and caliber...but (arguably, of course), three gentlemen succeeded...
3. Andre Morell, from the The Hound of the Baskervilles (Hammer Horror).
It’s difficult to say what makes Andre Morell’s Watson so good. On the one hand, almost everyone seems to agree that he is one of the best incarnations of the character, and lauds his performance...but, on the other hand, almost nobody seems to be able to pinpoint just what it is that makes him so memorable. He doesn’t seem to take center-stage as often or as obviously as some other Watsons, such as Hardwicke, but for some reason he’s just about perfect. Whether you are familiar with Morell’s vast array of work or not, his connection to and performance as Watson is so utterly and inexplicably well-set, it’s impossible to separate the two. His chemistry with Peter Cushing, one of the best Sherlocks of all time, is absolutely spot-on...especially since, due to Cushing’s star-quality, Holmes has more to do in this adaptation than others. “Hound,” I’ve always felt, is really more of a “Watson Story” than a “Holmes story;” Holmes is absent for the entire middle-portion of the novel, and most of what he does in the opening is simply get the ball rolling for Watson...and most of what he does at the end is just helping clean up, so to speak. Since Cushing’s Holmes plays a somewhat larger role in this adaptation, Morell, one might argue, never gets a perfect chance to shine...but there’s something so charismatically casual about Morell that you never care. He’s interesting without DOING anything especially interesting. Just the way he moves and talks and works seems to speak volumes, and that, more than anything, speaks to his credit forever. It’s a performance where less becomes so much more, and we lovers of Sherlock Holmes love him for it.
2. David Burke, from the Granada T.V. Series (Season I).
While Edward Hardwicke was Jeremy Brett’s most frequent companion, he was not the first. David Burke played Dr. Watson for the first season of the Granada television series, titled “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” Due to the nature of this season, there was actually something of a character arc that was presented through Burke’s portrayal; the season ends with Holmes’ apparent demise in “The Final Problem,” and though Watson has known Holmes for a few years by the time the season starts with “A Scandal in Bohemia,” much of the season - perhaps unintentionally - becomes about Watson discovering more and more about his partner and roommate. In “The Greek Interpreter,” he learns of Holmes’ family, for instance; in stories like “The Speckled Band” and “The Blue Carbuncle,” he sees how Holmes’ own sense of justice works; in “The Resident Patient,” the audience gets to discover something, as the episode puts a bit more focus on the pair’s domesticity beyond their cases than perhaps any other episode Burke featured in. His Watson is an English Vitaly Solomin, in some ways; vivacious, youthful, and lively, but with a certain sense of gentility and world-worn care that keeps him from feeling too gullible or naive. He’s not infallible, but he tries his very best, and the chemistry between the two comes off like a pair of young siblings in a way that’s perhaps even more uncanny than Brett’s chemistry with Hardwicke. You feel about as destroyed as Watson likely feels after the end of “The Final Problem,” and it’s truly a shame he did not return for any future seasons. A perhaps underrated Watson, in his own right, David Burke still remains forever linked to the character for me.
But there is one Dr. Watson who is, in my opinion, even better...
1. Jude Law, from the Game of Shadows series.
This may seem like an odd choice, but it’s the only choice I could make. Law is David Burke on steroids; every quality Burke had is present, but now pumped full of adrenaline and action-film-fueled gusto. Aside from being a crack shot, this Watson is also a master at hand-to-hand combat, and wields a wicked cane-sword. He has all the frustration and nervousness of Hardwicke or Freeman, but in a way that is presented differently; less like a person who is especially stiff or repressed, and more out of a genuine feeling of being fed up with his partner’s antics. He has all the sternness and near-parental (or else older sibling) appeal of Robert Duvall or Lucy Liu, but is prone to mischief and foolery of his own. He still has a more dramatic, poetic side, as well, which fits with his side-job as a writer...altogether, Jude Law - to me at least - seems to encapsulate just about every capable Watson I’ve ever loved, or will love, while still adding something a little extra to mix, as well. And for that, it is elementary, my dear readers, that I award the handsome Jude Law with the not-so-handsome reward of being My Favorite Portrayal of Dr. Watson.
Honorable Mentions Include…
Nigel Bruce, from the Universal Films series.
As I’ve said time and time again, Nigel Bruce was a complete goofball. And that was the point. Some use this simple fact to utterly vilify his portrayal, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Is it accurate to the stories? Not even a little. But is it a bad performance? Perhaps a little overdone, but no, it’s actually quite amusing stuff, even today! His comic timing and mannerisms were just about spot-on, and his blustering, bumbling interludes played well off of Rathbone’s simmering Sherlock. He may not be well-regarded as an accurate portrayal of Dr. Watson, but he is funny, nonetheless. And as humor was the goal, I don’t think it’s fair to fault him. It still doesn’t get him on the main list, of course.
Val Bettin, as Dr. Dawson, from The Great Mouse Detective.
Now, those of you who’ve seen my list of Sherlock Holmes portrayals will know that I gave Basil of Baker Street - the Holmes equivalent in this lovely Disney film - an Honorable Mention, and actually said that - if I hadn’t thought it was cheating of epic proportions - I would have put him right at number one. The same, however, actually does not go for Val Bettin’s Dr. Dawson, the Watson equivalent in the story. Why? Well, while Val Bettin’s somewhat dandified Dawson isn’t exactly a bad performance - though obviously more in the vein of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal than anything else - the writing doesn’t do him many favors. If you really look at the film, you’ll find that - at the end of the day - Dawson really doesn’t DO much to affect the plot or help Basil out. He pilots a balloon and gives a pep talk, and that’s about it. The rest of the time he acts more like a spyglass for the audience; someone to marvel at Basil’s brilliance alongside us. Someone to react in a human, careful way to the mad little world of the Great Mouse Detective. This isn’t a BAD thing, and again, Val Bettin plays it very well - he and Barrie Ingham as Basil bounce off one another utterly perfectly - but it just keeps him a bit out of the running. Still, for being the animated sidekick to the best animated Holmes ever made, Dr. Dawson deserves a fair bit of love, himself.
Other Honorable Mentions Include…
Kenneth Welsh, from the Hallmark Films series. (Matt Frewer’s Holmes may be an acquired taste, but Welsh is undeniably a delicious Dr. Watson.)
Ian Hart, from The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)/The Silk Stocking.
Sir Ralph Richardson, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Radio Program).
John Mills, from The Masks of Death.