The character was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a Victorian-era physician who studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh under Dr. Joseph Bell. One of the most influential lessons Bell passed on to his students was the importance of closely observing a patient before rendering a diagnosis. To demonstrate the utility of this practice, Bell would call a stranger into the lecture hall and by observing his manners, clothing, and other factors, deduce the person's occupation. Demonstrating these skills led to Bell being credited as "the Father of Forensic Science".
After graduating, Conan Doyle started a practice with a classmate in Plymouth but chaffed at working with a partner. Although he didn't have the funds to support his own practice, he hung out his shingle and endured failure. While awaiting patients, he turned to writing fiction and created Sherlock Holmes, based in no small part on his friend and mentor Dr. Bell. Publishers Ward Lock & Co paid £25 for A Study In Scarlet, the first Holmes story, in 1886.
As popular as Holmes has become, Holmes stories have grown beyond his creator's work. Conan Doyle's writings are considered canonical, and the further a portrayal moves from canon, the more open it is to derision from critics and fans. However, most fans got their first and most lasting impression of the great detective from cinema, and the cinematic Holmes was defined by Basil Rathbone. 20th Century Fox tapped Rathbone to star with Nigel Bruce as his companion, Dr. Watson, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and the sequel, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). The second film was the inspiration for the radio program, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which first aired on the Blue Network before finding a home on Mutual until 1950.
After the second picture, Fox sold the rights to the Holmes stories to Universal where the series was turned over to the B-picture unit (along with the "Universal Monsters"). The Universal series drifted from canon by setting Holmes and Watson up as anti-Nazi agents, but between the films and the radio series, to the public, Rathbone was Sherlock Holmes. Until he wasn't.
After seven years, Rathbone began to realize that unless he moved on there would be no escaping the role of Holmes, so he simply quit. Nigel Bruce soldiered on for another season as Dr. Watson, but the series was canceled after the 1950 season. Although television was beginning to choke out radio from sponsorship dollars, interest in a Sherlock Holmes would remain high for the next five years, when an adequate substitute for Basil Rathbone would be found.
Few actors have done as much to raise acting's status as an art form as John Gielgud. Born into a theatrical dynasty, the Terry Family in 1904, there was never any doubt that John would eventually join his parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the stage, but no one could anticipate the amount of influence he would carry. Along with Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, he dominated the British stage through the twentieth century and brought Shakespeare to a new generation of audiences (Gielgud, Richardson, and Olivier would all be knighted for their services to the theatre). After dominating the West End and Broadway, Gielgud began his own company at the Queen's Theatre in London after helping to reestablish the importance of the Old Vic Theatre in the early 1930s. When WWII began, Gielgud rushed to volunteer his services but was told that men his age would not be accepted yet. Besides, his contributions to public morale as an actor were much more important. He made a number of Shakespearean appearances on BBC radio before and during the War but did not take cinema seriously until well after the War.
Gielgud's first Hollywood effort was the lavish Julius Caesar (1953), and his portrayal of Cassius is considered one of the greatest Shakespearean screen performances of all time. Returning to England, he found his name was included on the list of those to be invested with a knighthood on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in June. In October, he was arrested for "soliciting a homosexual act in a public lavatory". At his arraignment, he gave his less recognizable birth-name (Arthur Gielgud), pleaded guilty and agreed to pay the small fine, hoping to avoid any scandal. Unfortunately, a reporter from the Evening Star was in the courtroom and Gielgud's name was soon in the mire.
Worried over what the scandal had done to his reputation, Gielgud refused to go on stage at his next scheduled performance. Rather than allow him to be consumed by nerves, actress Sybil Thorndike took him by the hand, whispered, "Come on, John darling, they won't boo me", and led him onto the stage. To his great surprise, he was greeted with a standing ovation, proving that the public "didn't care tuppence what he had done in his private life ... they loved him and respected him dearly".
Despite the outpouring of public support, the episode left Gielgud emotionally shattered and he suffered a mental and physical breakdown which forced him to drop out of the play A Day by the Sea, five months into the show's run. He was able to continue with his directorial efforts, but he maintained that an actor could only call himself an actor if he was acting. Fortunately, about this time, radio was discovering that it needed a new Sherlock Holmes.
BBC writer and producer Harry Alan Towers enjoyed a good deal of success selling syndicated radio productions to the American market through his Towers of London Production company. Popular programs included The Secrets of Scotland Yard as well as The Lives of Harry Lime and The Black Museum starring Orson Welles. Towers approached Gielgud about starring in a Holmesian project which would costar Ralph Richardson (who, along with Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, had dominated the British Stage during the mid-century) as Dr. Watson, and Orson Welles appearing as Professor Moriarty.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was first heard over the BBC and rebroadcast over NBC beginning January 2, 1955. The new program would return to canon, describing Holmes and Watson's first meetings, some of Sherlock's peculiar habits, and the beginning of A Study in Scarlet and elements of the short story "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", which was included in Conan Doyle's 1904 book, The Return of Sherlock Holmes. NBC carried the series on Sunday nights through June, with Welles appearing as Holmes nemesis in "The Adventure of the Final Problem".Gielgud brought a dignity to Sherlock Holmes which was appropriate to the canonical material, indeed, a dignity which was reflexive of his Shakespearean roles. Modern playwrights struggled to create parts suited to Gielgud's acting style, but he remained in demand for Shakespearean productions. He received an Oscar nomination for supporting Richard Burton in Becket (1964) and appeared in Orson Welles' Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (1965, panned by critics at the time, now considered Welles' best cinematic work). Gielgud continued to work on stage and in film until his death on May 21, 2000.