It certainly isn't elementary for an actor to play Sherlock Holmes. At least it hasn't been for Jeremy Brett, who begins his eighth season this month as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's super snoop on PBS' "Mystery!" series. (And the first five seasons are repeating on cable's Arts & Entertainment Network.)
"I enjoy playing him now," Brett said. "He doesn't hurt me any more."
Brett, 55, was holding court at a corner table at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Sporting a tiny earring in his left ear and wearing casual clothes, the British actor who once was a member of Laurence Olivier's repertory company at the National Theatre and who played Freddy in the Oscar-winning "My Fair Lady," exuded enough charm to fill the entire restaurant.
"You sit in the middle," he said to his visitor. "I was keeping the seat warm for you."
He lighted the first of many cigarettes. "I would like a Perrier darling, " he asked the attentive waitress.
Brett has always had a love-hate relationship with Holmes. "I had read him at school and didn't like him very much," he said. "He is sort of show-offy and clever. I never took to him."
And Brett wasn't impressed when he was asked to play Holmes. "I had dinner with the producers and my son David came with me. He said, 'You don't want to do it.' And I said, 'No. I think it's dumb. Holmes, for God sakes. It has been done so many times.' "
Despite his reservations, Brett bought the whole collection of Holmes stories and read one every night while on holiday. "I discovered from the book things I could use," he said. "He never wore the deerstalker in town, he wore it in the country. He wore his topper in town. He smoked a pipe of cherry wood when he was in a disputatious mood and a tiny clay pipe when he was in his meditative moods. I really wanted to do it."
Brett is one of the few actors who have played both Holmes and Dr. Watson, appearing as Watson opposite Charlton Heston in the Ahmanson Theatre production of "The Crucifer of Blood" 11 years ago. "Chuck is an absolute darling," Brett said. "He is a sweet man and he wasn't half bad.' '
Doing the play "held me in good stead when it came to playing Holmes, having played Watson," Brett said, puffing another cigarette. "It helped me understand Watson's dilemma. Largely, he sits on the edge and listens. I have always been incredibly kind to my Watsons."
Four years ago, Brett and Edward Hardwicke, who plays his Dr. Watson in the series, took their sleuthing act to the stage. They starred on London's West End for a year and toured England in the mystery "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes."
Brett said he was amazed at the number of children who saw the play. "He is a great hero to them. I think they find him a hero because Holmes appeals to the young. All their senses are wild and Holmes was like that. They love deduction. He upholds the law in his own way and he loves children. I didn't know that because you are shut away when you do film. So the play taught me a lot."
It also changed the way he plays Holmes. "There is a change, but I can't see it," Brett said. "Rebecca Eaton (producer of "Mystery!") says she sees a difference in the last six (episodes we filmed). She can't put her finger on what it is. There is a difference, but I can't tell what it is. I don't know if it is better for the part, but it is for me."
Holmes, Brett said, has taken a toll on several actors who have played the part. He recalled a conversation he recently had with Robert Stephens, who played Holmes in Billy Wilder's 1970 film "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes."
"He said, 'I tried to commit suicide when I played the part. It ended Basil Rathbone's career. Do you understand? He is all trimming. He is a man without a heart. If you try to become someone who is hollow, you fall straight down the well and bang your head. But you have survived it."
The conversation was a great revelation to Brett. Now he suddenly understood why he would compulsively wash his hair and wear bright colors after a day's filming.
"It has been a bloody miracle I survived," Brett said. "There are those who put on the calabash pipe and the cape and hat and just go straight through it--the ones who act him and don't try to become him like Christopher Plummer and John Neville. The ones who try to be him face this dilemma. The encouragement I have been given has pulled me through."
Brett, who has 20 more mysteries to shoot to complete the entire Doyle canon, definitely seems to have made peace with Holmes and is having fun. He recently finished an episode in which Holmes gets his first kiss.
"Doyle, forgive me," Brett said. "I'm disguised as Ralph, a plumber. He has to get into this house and this girl at the door says, 'Kiss me.' He doesn't know how. She eventually jumps from a tree, knocks him down and plunkeroos him. Holmes' eyes fill with tears."
Brett laughed. "I went home after shooting to my little bar I go to in London and they (his friends) said, 'How are you doing today?' I said, 'Fine. I had to kiss (actress) Sophie Thompson all day. I'm exhausted.' They were all so jealous. Can you imagine going to work and being kissed by a 22-year-old at my age? It was magic."
Repeats of "Sherlock Holmes Mysteries" air Mondays at 6 and 10 p.m. on A&E; .
"The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes," featuring five new Holmes mysteries, begins Nov. 14 on "Mystery!" at 9 p.m. on KCET and KPBS and Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. on KOCE and 9 p.m. on KVCR.