Douglas Wilmer, Sherlock Holmes Actor, Dies at 96

Jason and the Argonauts 1963 still - Douglas Wilmer, Todd Armstrong-Photofest-H 2016
Columbia Pictures/Photofest

The London native played the famous detective for the BBC and in a Gene Wilder film and had many brushes with the character over the years.

Douglas Wilmer, who began a long association with Sherlock Holmes when he ably portrayed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth on a 1960s series for the BBC, died Thursday. He was 96.

Wilmer, a respected veteran of stage and screen, died at Ipswich Hospital in Suffolk, England, after a short illness, The Sherlock Holmes Society of London reported. (He was an honorary member of the society.)

The London-born actor first played Holmes opposite Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson in 1964 (for a pilot episode) and then for an 11-episode season in 1965. (For another season of Sherlock Holmes, Peter Cushing replaced him in 1968.)

Wilmer also portrayed the logical Professor Van Dusen, a Holmesian detective created by American author Jacques Futrelle, in 1971's The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes for the ITV network. Later, Gene Wilder insisted Wilmer return as the famous resident of 221B Baker St. in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975).

And for Sherlock, the current British series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Wilmer had a cameo as a cranky old man who gave Watson a hard time in the Diogenes Club in the 2012 second-season finale "The Reichenbach Fall."

Mark Gatiss, who co-created Sherlock and plays Mycroft Holmes on the latest series, wrote on Twitter: “An honour to have known dear Douglas Wilmer. A Sherlock for all seasons. The work was something, the man was all. RIP.”

There are many — including some at The Sherlock Holmes Society of London — who consider Wilmer the definitive Holmes.

"The part interested me very much because I’d never really, I felt, seen it performed to its full capacity," he said in a 2009 interview. "There’s a very dark side to Holmes, and a very unpleasant side to him. And I felt that this was always skirted round, which made him appear rather sort of hockey sticks and cricket bats and jolly uncles … a kind of dashing Victorian hero. He wasn’t like that at all. He was rather sardonic and arrogant, and he could be totally inconsiderate toward Watson. I tried to show both sides of his nature."

Wilmer once ran Sherlock's wine bar in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and recorded a series of the Conan Doyle stories on audiocassette.

Wilmer also portrayed Sir Nayland Smith, a Holmes-like character who has a sidekick and battles the villain played by Christopher Lee, in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967).

Wilmer, who served in the British Army and trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, played British officer Francis de Guingand in Patton (1970), was the police commissioner in Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and stood out as fussy British Secret Service art expert Jim Fanning in Octopussy (1983).

His first major film role came in Richard III (1955), directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. He appeared in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Pursuit of the Graf Spee (1956) and in two films directed by Anthony Mann: El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Wilmer's film résumé also included Cleopatra (1963), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964) — his first Inspector Clouseau film — One Way Pendulum (1965), Khartoum (1966), The Reckoning (1970) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and he was seen on television in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Saint, The Avengers and Space: 1999.

In 2010, he published a memoir, Stage Whispers.