A Classic Player: William Gillette, 1853-1937

By C. CLAIBORNE RAY

William Gillette, actor and playwright, became the living face of Sherlock Holmes in more than 1,300 stage performances and a 1916 silent movie. He was one of the very earliest members of The Players, was present at its historic first meeting on Dec. 31, 1888, spoke at Founder's Night in 1907 and actually listed the club as his residence in Who's Who in 1910. His real eventual home was an elaborate medieval castle with every modern convenience that he designed and built high above the Connecticut River. During its construction, from 1914 to 1919, Gillette lived on his houseboat so he could closely supervise every detail. Gillette's Castle is now a state park, open to the public. Its miniature railroad, alas, was sold to an amusement park. Gillette was the son of a former Senator from Connecticut and eventually won his respectable family's approval of his life in the theater. He starred in many successful productions in America and England, often in largely forgotten plays he wrote himself, like the Civil War dramas Held by the Enemy and Secret Service. But in 1899 Gillette received permission to adapt an unsuccessful play by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who later became a lifelong friend. The play's great success bolstered both their fortunes and helped give The Great Detective an indelible image. Things like his deerstalker cap and dressing gown came from the original stories and illustrations, but Gillette turned Holmes's straight pipe into a curved one, which he felt did not interfere with his line delivery. Later illustrators used Gillette as the model for Holmes. One line from his adaptation took on a life of its own: "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow," which metamorphosed into "Elementary, my dear Watson" in an early sound film. Gillette reprised the role many times, notably in a three-year farewell tour that ended in 1932. In his own time, Gillette was famous for his naturalistic and controlled acting, with few of the sweeping gestures of many of his contemporaries. His delivery was said to be somewhat dry, well suited to the character of Holmes. He also invented a new method of producing realistic sound effects for offstage horses. Among his many theatrical friends were Helen Hayes,Ethel Barrymore and Charlie Chaplin. His wife, Helen Nichols, died in 1888 after a ruptured appendix. He died in 1937 of a pulmonary hemorrhage. William Gillette still hangs out near the bar in the Grill, both in a portrait by the illustrator Eric Pape and in his Sherlockian silk dressing gown in the design for a "Sherlock Holmes" theater program.


C. Claiborne Ray retired in 2008 as deputy obituary editor at the New York Times and wrote the Science Q&A column for Science Times until 2019. She has used The Players as her drawing room since 2014. She is chair of the Admissions Committee.