I’ve been thinking a lot recently about actors and the roles they play, and how they change how we think about the character.
Last month, I wrote about Peter Ustinov’s portrayal of one of the great detectives of fiction, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Ustinov will never be my Poirot, but after I got used to seeing him as the Belgian detective, I didn’t have much of a problem seeing him as a worthy candidate for the role. I could even see some sort of weird alternate reality where he was my Poirot, if I had been exposed to his movie version of the character first instead of the BBC television series starring David Suchet. (Well, actually, I did see Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot before I saw David Suchet’s, but he really didn’t become Poirot, since I also was seeing him in other movies, and I wasn’t seeing him donning his Poirot persona week after week.)
Shortly after, I wrote about Peter Falk in Columbo. Somehow, the very idea of another actor trying to step into Falk’s battered trenchcoat, driving around in his antique car, chewing on his cheap cigars – somehow the whole idea feels wrong. Strictly speaking, the role wasn’t actually written with him in mind – instead the first portrayal was by Bert Freed, almost a decade passing before Falk would don Columbo’s rumpled suit and begin badgering murderers into confessions. Still, he played the part so long, and so well, that it has become impossible to separate the two in my mind.
In rare occasions, this sort of “true” will even be endorsed by the original creator, even if years pass between the television or movie adaptation and the work that inspired it. Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, was so impressed by John Thaw’s portrayal of Morse that he decided that Thaw was “his” Inspector Morse. He’s even entered this in writing – Dexter has entered a clause in his will barring Morse from being portrayed by another actor after his death. For Colin Dexter, John Thaw “became” Morse, even though nearly twelve years passed between Dexter’s first book being published and John Thaw being cast in the role. (As a side note, currently-airing prequel series, Endeavor, was cast with Colin Dexter’s approval, so that show should be safe after the author’s passing, though I could be mistaken – I’m no… barrister? Lawyer? Is this a lawyer question or a barrister question?)
Other times, creators endorse an actor or actress they feel particularly well-suited to their character, making their approval of the selection known before filming even begins. This is the case with Joan Hickson, who played Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple character in the British television interpretation of Christie’s works. Much earlier in her career, Hickson had taken part in a play written by Christie, and the author sent her a note saying “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple”. Though Christie wouldn’t live to see Hickson’s portrayal of Miss Marple, that series has also become my personal vision of Miss Marple, despite having been exposed to several other interpretations of Christie’s classic character before seeing the BBC production.
Other characters haven’t had so proactive a creator, or one who was born into the era of modern media. Perhaps the king of all detectives, “my” Sherlock Holmes will always be Jeremy Brett, but the great detective has been cast in a variety of different directions in the last few decades. From Benedict Cumberbach, to James D’Arcy, to Robert Downey Jr., we’ve had the mixed privilege of seeing what feels like an unending parade of “Sherlock Holmeses”, with varying degrees of success.
And this isn’t likely to end any time soon – such is the fate of the classic character in the public domain, I suppose. In 2015, Ian McKellen will get to show us his take on the vibrant detective in the upcoming movie, Mr. Holmes – I’m hoping this one rings a bit more true with the source material than some of the other adaptations in recent years, even if it is an original story and not an authentic Doyle. It could hardly be any further than Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson!
Can you think of any other actors who have come to embody the essence of a mystery author’s character? If so, please post a comment telling us who those actors are and the mystery books’ characters they bring to life so well.