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Brett, Jeremy (1933-1995)


Main image of Brett, Jeremy (1933-1995)

Born Peter Jeremy William Huggins on 3 November 1933, Jeremy Brett studied at Eton and the Central School of Speech and Drama before making his professional acting debut in 1954 with the Library Theatre in Manchester, later joining the Old Vic company in London.

With his dashing good looks and elegant demeanour, Brett was frequently cast in period or classical roles both on stage and on television. He was especially fine in macabre or gothic pieces such as the adaptations of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (Armchair Theatre, ITV, tx. 22/1/1961), Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata (BBC, tx. 16/3/1962) and later Robert Muller's undervalued 'Club of the Dammed' anthology, Supernatural (BBC, 1977).

The most significant of his infrequent feature film roles was as Eliza Doolittle's unsuccessful suitor Freddy in the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady (US/UK, d. George Cukor, 1964), in which Bill Shirley dubbed his vocals even though Brett regularly sang in stage productions. His first great television success was as an exuberant d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (BBC, 1966), carrying off the role with aplomb despite being ten years too old for the part.

Brett was superb as Edward Ashburnham, Ford Madox Ford's fatally flawed yet seemingly perfect English gentleman, in Julian Mitchell's dramatisation of The Good Soldier (ITV, 1981). As Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (BBC, 1979) he proved much better at puncturing the character's gruff exterior than Laurence Olivier had been in the Hitchcock version (US, 1940). In it, he co-starred with his ex-wife Anna Massey, cast against type as the scheming Mrs Danvers. Brett's second wife was the American television producer Joan Wilson and after their marriage in 1977 he moved to Hollywood, appearing in various TV mini-series and such popular shows as The Love Boat (ABC, 1977-86), The Incredible Hulk (CBS, 1978-82), Hart to Hart (ABC, 1979-84) and even the puerile Galactica 1980 (ABC, 1980).

Brett's greatest success, however, came with playing Sherlock Holmes for Granada between 1984 and 1994. His thrillingly theatrical and dynamic performance, built from the smallest gesture and verbal inflection to unexpected leaps over furniture, brilliantly brought Conan Doyle's mercurial 'consulting detective' to life. Blessed with two exceptional performers as Dr Watson, first David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke, Brett's interpretation defined the role for a generation.

Dogged by ill health in his final years, Brett died in London of a heart attack on 12 September 1995.

Michael Cox, A Study in Celluloid (Cambridge: Rupert Books, 1999)
David Stuart Davies, Bending the Willow - revised edition (British Columbia: Calabash Press, 2002)
Terry Manners, The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes (London: Virgin, 1997)
Linda Pritchard and Mary Ann Warner, The Jeremy Brett-Linda Pritchard Story (Cambridge: Rupert Books, 1998)
R. Dixon Smith, Jeremy Brett and David Burke: An Adventure in Canonical Fidelity (Minnesota: University of Minnesota, 1986)

Sergio Angelini

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The (1984-85)

Jeremy Brett's classic characterisation of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective hero

Thumbnail image of Merchant of Venice, The (1974)Merchant of Venice, The (1974)

Jonathan Miller's production starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright

Thumbnail image of Thriller (1973-76)Thriller (1973-76)

Popular anthology of suspenseful tales

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