- William Gillette
Gillette was a major stage actor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While he was not the first actor to portray
Sherlock Holmes, he became best known for that role until he last played it on stage in 1932. [http://www.holmesonscreen.com/Gillette.htm William Gillette] at Holmes on Screen. Accessed 6 May 2007.] Through Gillette's portrayals of Holmes, the use of the deerstalker cap (first used in some "Strand" illustrations by Sidney Paget) and curved pipe, became synonymous with the character. Gillette was seen as the definitive Holmes of his day, appearing on stage as the character for over thirty years, starring in a silent motion picture based on his play, and voicing the character twice on radio. [cite book |last=Riley |first=Dick |coauthors=Pam McAllister |title=The Bedside Companion to Sherlock Holmes |year=2005 |publisher=Barnes & Noble Books |pages=Pages 59-60 |isbn=978-0-7607-7156-3 ]
Born in the era of melodrama, with its grand gestures and sonorous declamations, he created in his plays characters who talked and acted the way people talk and act in real life. "Held by the Enemy", his first Civil War drama, was a major step toward modern theater in that it abandoned many of the crude devices of 19th century melodrama and introduced realism into the sets, costumes, props and sound effects. In "Sherlock Holmes", he introduced the fade-in at the beginning of each scene, and the fade-out at the end, instead of the slam-bang finishes audiences were accustomed to. "Clarice" in 1905 was significant because, for the first time, he sought to achieve dramatic action through character rather than through incident and situation.
The neighborhood where William Gillette was born,
Nook Farm(in Hartford, Connecticut), was a literary and intellectual node, abiding Mark Twainand Harriet Beecher Stowe. His father was Francis Gillette, a former US Senator with reformist ideas, fighting for the abolition of slavery, public education, temperance, and women's suffrage, and constructing most of town's infrastructure. His mother was Elisabeth Daggett Hooker, a descendant of Thomas Hooker, the puritanleader, who founded the town. In the Gillette home, young Will grew up with his three brothers and a sister. One other sister, Mary, died as a small child. One of his brothers, Edward H. Gillette, became a newspaper editor and congressman.
His oldest brother, Frank Ashbell, went to California and died there in 1859 from consumption (tuberculosis). The next brother, Robert, joined the Union army and served in the Antietam campaign, was invalided home sick, recovered, and joined the Navy. Assigned to the U.S. "Gettysburg", Robert took part in both assaults on Fort Fisher, but was tragically killed the morning after the surrender of the fort when the powder magazine exploded. When brother Edward went west to Iowa, and sister Elisabeth married George Henry Warner, both in 1863, William was left as an only child in the household.
As a student, Gillette specialized in
oratoryand engineering. But he had always wanted to be an actor and, at age 20, left Hartford to begin his apprenticeship. He briefly worked for a stock company in New Orleansand then returned to New England where, on Mark Twain's own recommendation, he debuted at the " Globe Theater of Boston" with Twain's stage-play " The Guilded Age", in 1875. Afterward, Gillette was a stock actorfor six years through Boston, New York and the Midwest.
During these years, Gillette irregularly attended a spate of institutions, although he never completed their programs: Trinity,
Harvard, Yale (1875), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, NYC-College and Boston University. His family was not overly happy about his chosen profession, but (contrary to many sources) he was not disinherited. In fact, his father, Francis, who had held the strongest objections to the theater in general, offered the least resistance, and drove him to the train station, telling his son that he had driven two other sons to this same station and they had never returned; William was to make sure he was the exception. Francis supplied him with an allowance on which to subsist (his apprenticeship was without pay). And, when his health went downhill late in 1878, William forsook the stage for more than a year to care for his father in his final illness.
Playwright, director and actor
In 1881, while performing at
Cincinnati, Gillette was hired as playwright, director and actor, by Gustave and Daniel Frohman. Taken to New York with a salary of $50-week, the first play he wrote and produced was "The Professor". It debuted in the "Madison Square Theater", lasting 151 performances, with a posterior tour through many states (as far west as St. Louis, Missouri). That same year, he performed his consecrating piece "Esmeralda", written together with Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Ignoring his critics, Gillette instead strove to "fill all the theater's seats". He was committed to catching the spectator by sprightly effects and many improvements on sound systems, stage and illumination, for example the use of sudden blackouts for dramatization, fade-in/fade-out at scenes' beginning, etc. Often, he added large pantomime segments, that were also effective on the audience.
Usually leaning toward cold roles enduring extreme situations, Gillette was also regarded as the "aristocrat of the stage" and an innovator in interpretation. His acute realism was accented by his particular charisma, replacing much dialog with physical action also. This was something he denominated in "The Illusion of the First Time in Acting", as mentioned to the "
American Academy of Arts and Letters" (1913).
In fact, historians have noted that he did "natural acting and not the melodramatic declaiming, proper of the 1800s." In other words, Gillette was an "artist based on his personality." It can be considered that all Gillette's traits had historical consequences, as since his time American theater began to reach out to the common people.
In 1882 Gillette married Helen Nichols of Detroit. They were blissfully happy. She died in 1888 from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. He was terribly grief-stricken for years and, at this vulnerable moment, was struck down with tuberculosis. He did not act again for six years, and he never remarried.
Career as Sherlock Holmes
Charles Frohmanwas a young Broadway producer, who had been successful with the exchanging of theater productions between the USA and the UK. After he produced some of Gillette's plays, the two formed a greater partnership. Their productions had great success, sweeping Gillette into London's society spot, which had been historically reluctant to accept American theatre.
In 1897, Gillette performed his play "Secret Service" at the "Adelphi Theater of London", with great success and was praised by the critics also. It also marked his first appearance on a British stage, which drew the attention of British audiences and critics.
Meanwhile, Doyle had finished his "Sherlock Holmes" saga with "
The Final Problem", published in 1893. After this publication Doyle found himself in need of further income, as he was planning to build a new house. He decided to take his character to stage. While two previous plays had been done by Charles Brookifield, the skit "Under the clock" in 1893, and John Webb, the play "Sherlock Holmes" in 1894, Doyle wrote a new 5-act play nevertheless, with Holmes and Moriarty in their freshmen years as detectives.
Doyle offered the production to
Henry Irvingand Beerhom Tree. But Irving turned it down and Tree demanded that Doyle readapt Holmes to his peculiar acting profile; Doyle turned down the deal, considering that this would debase the character.
Noting that the play needed a lot of work, literary agent
A. P. Wattsent the script to Charles Frohman who, assessing that this was impossible, traveled to London to meet Doyle nonetheless. There, Frohman suggested the prospect of an adaptation by Gillette. Doyle endorsed this and Frohman obtained the "staging-copyright" (1897). Doyle insisted on only one thing: there was to be no love interest in "Sherlock Holmes." Frohman agreed.
Gillette, who then read the entire collection for first time, liked the idea and started the piece's outlining in
San Francisco, while still touring in "Secret Service". Both artists became confident. On one occasion, Gillette telegraph Doyle: "May I marry Holmes?" ". The unwavering Conan Doyle responded: "You can marry him, or kill him, or anything you want."
Coins famous phrase
Gillette's version consisted of 4 acts. Epitomizing several of Doyle's stories, he mainly utilized the plots "
A Scandal in Bohemia" and " The Final Problem". Also, it had elements from "Study in Scarlet", "The Sign of the Four", "The Boscombe Valley" and "The Greek Interpreter".
Different from the only-intellectual original, "a machine rather than a man," Gillette portrayed Holmes as brave and open to express his feelings. He wore the deerstalker cap on stage, which was originally featured in illustrations by
Sidney Pagetin the 1890s. Gillette also introduced to Holmes' costume the cloak and the curved briar, instead of the straight pipe pictured by illustrators, supposedly so that Gillette could pronounce his lines; actually, it's as difficult to pronounce lines whether the pipe is bent or straight, and it may have been that Gillette's face was easier to see from the seats when a bent briar in his mouth. Gillette also made use of a magnifying-glass, a violinand a syringe, which were all established as "props" to the Sherlock Holmes character.
Gillette formulated the complete phrase: "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow", which was later reused by
Clive Brook, the first spoken-cinema Holmes, as: "Elementary, my dear Watson", perhaps Holmes' best known lines. Irene Adler, "the woman" of the series, was replaced by Alice Faulkner, young and beautiful lady who was planning to avenge her sister's murder but eventually falls in love with Holmes; and the pageboy, nameless in the Canon, was given the name Billy by Gillette, a name he carried over into the Basil Rathbone films.
The tentative title was: "Sherlock Holmes in an Unknown Episode, not Published in the Great Detective's Career, showing his connection with the Weird Ms. Faulkner case". But it was reduced later to: "Sherlock Holmes - A Drama in Four Acts."
After the "
Baldwin Hotel" blaze in San Francisco, in November 1898, both original scripts, Conan Doyle's and Gillette's adaptation, were partially destroyed. Gillette wrote the piece again nevertheless, in a month and by memory and/or with notes he had kept.
Traveling in 1899 to present it to Conan Doyle, they met in Ulster's train station. Gillette showed up disguised as Sherlock Holmes. With the character's posing, he approached slowly and said: "You're the writer, no doubt about it." Conan Doyle approved the script and the two became life-long friends.
After a copyright performance in England, and a pre-debut presentation streak starting on October 23, 1899, at the Star Theatre in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse in
New York, and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, "Sherlock Holmes" debuted in the " Garrick Theater" of New York in November 6, 1899, performing until June 16, 1900. It was an instant success. Gillette applied all his dazzling special effects over the massive audience.
But he faced sharp, even derisive, criticism from the newspapers, especially about Holmes falling in love. In Conan Doyle's original novels, Holmes was said to have an "aversion to women". As a matter of fact, throughout 34 years, the critics would rarely praise the production.
The company also toured nationally, along the western United States, from October 8, 1900, to March 30, 1901. This was bolstered by another company also, with
Cuyler Hastings, through minor cities and Australia.
After a pre-debut week in
Liverpool, the company debuted in London (September 9, 1901), at the "Lyceum Theater", performing in "Duke of York's Theater" later.
It was another hit with its audience, despite not convincing the critics. The 12 weeks originally appointed were at "full-hall". The production was extended until April 12, 1902 (256 presentations), including a gala for "King Edward VII", in February 1. Then, it toured through the
British Islands, with two ancillary groups: "north" (with H.A. Saintsbury) and "south" (with Julian Royce).
At the same time, the play was produced in foreign countries (such as Australia,
Sweden, South Africa). In the USA, Gillette toured again from 1902 to 1903, until November 1903, when Gillette starred in "The Admirable Crichton" by James M. Barrie, requested personally by Barrie.
In his lifetime, Gillette presented "Sherlock Holmes" approximately 1,300 times (third in the historical stage-record), before American and English audiences. He was also shown widely, through appearances in many
magazines, by way of photographsor illustrated caricatures, and was also well represented on the covers of theater programs.
Meanwhile, around the world, other productions took place, based on Gillette's "Sherlock Holmes". These were either
satiric, which were very successful, and/or undue; some lasted several seasons. Frohman's lawyers tried to curb the illegal phenomenon exhaustedly, traveling overseas, from court to court.
Even Gillette parodied Holmes once and, ironically, on this one occasion the critic praised the production. "
The Fearfully, The Harrowing" (1905) was a one-act piece, a preamble to the main production, conceived as an homage to Joseph Jefferson Holland, a member of the company who had died while touring. It was later retitled "The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes", and featured Holmes, with his typical pose but not uttering a word, listening to an alienated woman calmly. Gillette repeated the piece in London, while promoting his sentimental drama "Clarice" (September-October 1905). The juvenile Charles Chaplinportrayed " Billy the pageboy" there. But, when the production of "Clarice" became a failure, Gillette replaced "Clarice" with "Sherlock Holmes". Chaplin repeated his role again.
Models for Holmes' portrait
The magazines "
Collier's Weekly" (USA) and "The Strand" (UK) pushed Conan Doyle avidly, offering to continue the "Sherlock Holmes" series for a generous salary. The new chapters were first published in 1901, first with a prequel and later with Holmes revived definitively (1903). It continued for another quarter-century.
Gillette was the model for pictures by the artist
Frederic Dorr Steele, which were featured on "Collier's Weekly"'s covers then and reproduced by American media. Additionally, Steele contributed to Conan Doyle's book-covers, Gillette's short stories (" Baker Street Irregulars") and, later, doing marketing when Gillette made his farewell performances.
As international copyright did not yet exist, Conan Doyle's series were widely printed throughout the USA, mostly with pictures of William Gillette on-stage. "
P. F. Collier & Son" owned the copyrights of Steele's illustrations and issued drawings in many editions.
By means of such international exposure, Gillette became the image of Holmes for decades, created the very image of Holmes that remains to this day, and made the detective so real that many, both then and now, believe the detective really lived.
In 1913, while sailing up the
Connecticut Riverin his houseboat, Gillette spotted a hill, part of the "Seven Sisters", over a ferry's pierin Hadlyme. He docked, disembarked and climbed up. He was so amazed by the view that he purchased convert|115|acre|km2 of land, the next month. He decided to build up a castle at this location based on the Norman fortress "Robert the Devil". The design of the castle and its grounds features numerous innovative designs, and the entire castle was designed, to the smallest details, by Gillette himself.
During the five years of construction, Gillette lived aboard the "Aunt Polly" or at a home he had purchased in Greenport, Long Island. The material for the castle was carried up by an "aerial-trolley" designed by him. The castle's walls tapered from convert|5|ft|m thick at the base to convert|3|ft|m at the upper levels. The castle possessed 24 rooms and 47 doors, with hand-carved puzzle locks, which were also devised by Gillette. The main salon measured 30 by convert|50|ft|m and was convert|19|ft|m in height, featuring a complex mirrored system of surveillance of the castle's public rooms from his bedroom. He explained this as a means "to make great entrances in the opportune moment."
The mansion was finished in 1919, at a cost of 1 million US
dollars. Gillette called it "Seven Sisters". Its small train was his personal pride. The train's layout was convert|3|mi|km long, and it travelled all around the property, crossing several bridges and going through one tunnel designed by Gillette. Gillette also enjoyed strolls on his property in company of his guests, who included the noted physicist Albert Einstein, former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, and former Mayor of Tokyo Yukio Ozaki.
After Gillette died with no wife or children, his
willstated:"I would consider it more than unfortunate for me – should I find myself doomed, after death, to a continued consciousness of the behavior of mankind on this planet – to discover that the stone walls and towers and fireplaces of my home – founded at every point on the solid rock of Connecticut; – that my railway line with its bridges, trestles, tunnels through solid rock, and stone culverts and underpasses, all built in every particular for permanence (so far as there is such a thing); – that my locomotives and cars, constructed on the safest and most efficient mechanical principles; – that these, and many other things of a like nature, should reveal themselves to me as in the possession of some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded."
In 1943, Connecticut's government took the property, re-baptizing it "Gillette's Castle" and "
Gillette Castle State Park".
Located in 67 "River Road", East Haddam, Connecticut, it was reopened in 2002. After a four years of restoration, costing 11 million dollars, it now includes a museum, park, and many theatrical celebrations. It receives 100,000 annual visitors, who can hike or picnic there.
The castle remains a distinctive feature of the view from the Connecticut River.
Last years and farewell tour
Gillette announced his retirement many times throughout his career, despite not actually accomplishing this until just after his death. The first announced retirement took place after the turn of the century, after he purchased the boat "
Aunt Polly" which was convert|144|ft|m in length and weighed 200 tons.
Naturally, "Sherlock Holmes" was Gillette's foremost production with 1,300 performances (in 1899-1901, 1905, 1906, 1910, 1915, 1923, and 1929-1932). While performing on other tours, he was always forced to include at least one extra performance of "Sherlock Holmes", by popular demand.
In 1929, at the age of 76, Gillette started the farewell tour of "Sherlock Holmes", in Springfield,
Massachusetts. Scheduled for two seasons, it was eventually extended into 1932.
In the "
New Amsterdam Theater" of New York, on November 25, 1929, a great ceremony took place. Gillette received a signature book, autographed by 60 different world eminences. There, in his speech, Conan Doyle stated: "I consider the production a personal gratification... My only complaint is that you made the poor hero of the anemic printed page a very limp object as compared with the glamour of your own personality which you infuse into his stage presentment." Former President Calvin Coolidgecommented that the production was a "public service". And Booth Tarkington told him, "I would rather see you play Sherlock Holmes than be a child again on Christmas morning." On the same occasion, the critics concurred, praising the performance sentimentally. The definitive "farewell appearance" took place on March 19, 1932, in Wilmington, Delaware.
His last appearance on stage was in Austin Strong’s "Three Wise Fools" in 1936, co-starring with Charles Coburn, James Kirkwood, Brandon Tynan, Isabell Irving, and Mary Rogers, daughter of comedian Will Rogers.
Gillette died on April 29, 1937, in Hartford, due to a
pulmonary hemorrhage. He was buried in the Hooker family cemetery, at Farmington, Hartford County, Connecticut, next to his wife.
In his life, Gillette wrote 13 original plays, 7 adaptations and some collaborations, encompassing "
farce", " melodrama" and " novel adapting". Two pieces about the "Civil War" highlights: "Held by the Enemy" (1886) and "Secret Service" (1896). Particularly, "Secret Service" was successful with both the public and the praising critics. He reaped 3 million dollars in gaining, great deal of it by copyright.
*1881, "The Professor". Original. Gillette's first play. About an appealing professor coveted by the girls, while grappling with the rude boys.
*1881, "Esmeralda". Adaptation (original by
Frances Hodgson Burnett). Light comedy. Starred by Annie Russell. Later by Viola Allen. (Film: 1915)
*1884, "The Private Secretary". Adapted from the German "Der Bibliothekar" (by
Gustav Von Moser). Well Known. Many changes over the original: "Rev. Mr. Spaulding" became a medium. Also, it had several modifications throughout five years of presentations.
*1886, "Held by the Enemy". Original. Successful. First Gillette's drama in years of the "
American Civil War". (Film: 1920)
*1894, "Too Much Johnson". Original. Successful. (Films: 1919, 1938)
*1896, "Secret Service". Original. Foremost production until "Sherlock Holmes". On "Civil-War" 's "Captain Thorne", "Union"-spy infiltrated as press correspondent ("Lewis Dumont"). Performed by
Maurice Barrymore(Philadelphia) and William Gillette (Broadway). It lasted a year on stage. (Films: 1919, 1931, 1977 TV)
*1899, "She Loved him So". Original.
*1899, "Sherlock Holmes". (Films: 1916, 1922 UK, 1932, 1939 UK, 1981 TV, 1982 TV)
*"She (Fire Goddess)". Adaptation (
*1903, "The Admirable Crichton". First Gillettes's starring role in a play by James M. Barrie.
*1906, "Clarice". Original. Sentimental comedy.
*1910, "Electricity". Original.
In-life editions of "Sherlock Holmes"
*1922. First publication by
Samuel French. It was based in 1923's reposition.
*1935. Published by
Doubleday, Doran & Co.. It was a pricey edition, containing Gillette's foreword, multi-paged feature on trivial data and illustrations by Frederic Dorr Steele.
*In 1916, Gillette starred the first cinema-adaptation of his "Sherlock Holmes", albeit it was not the first film about Holmes. It was a seven-reel silent film by "Essanay Film Manufacturing Co." directed by
Arthur Berthelet. Marjorie Kayplayed Alice Faulkner and Ernest Manpaniwas Moriarty. One acid critic noted that Gillette was "about to lose his physical strength to perform the character" since then, insisting that he would not be able to repeat it over the 60 years old. No copy of the film has survived.
*In 1922, "Goldwyn Pictures" filmed another version of Gillette's play. It was directed by
Albert Parkerand John Barrymoreplayed Holmes. This has recently been restored by the George Eastman House.
*"Secret Service" was filmed in 1919 by "
Paramount Pictures", directed by Hugh Fordwith Robert Warwickin Gillette's role and Shirley Masonas the female lead.
*"Secret Service" was filmed again in 1931 by "
Radio Pictures". It was directed by J. Walter Rubenand Richard Dixwas the Union's spy.
*In 1977, as part of the Broadway Theatre Archive, a production of "Secret Service" was filmed starring a pair of young unknowns –
John Lithgowas Captain Thorne and, as Edith Varney in her very first appearance on film, Meryl Streep. This is the only play by Gillette still available on commercial VHS or DVD.
*On October 20, 1930, Gillette performed the first radio-version of Sherlock Holmes in history: "
The Adventure of the Speckled Band". It was based on the original theater version by Conan Doyle, re-adapted by Edith Meiser, and was the first time Sherlock Holmes was portrayed on radio. It was transmitted by WEAF-NBC (New York) and sponsored by " G. Washington Coffee Co.". This show became the pilot of a series, and after Gillette, Holmes was performed by several actors along five seasons.
*On November 18, 1935, Gillette, now 82 years old, performed his own "Sherlock Holmes" on WABC radio of New York. His play was again re-adapted by Edith Meiser.
Reginald Masonplayed Dr John H. Watson and Charles Bryantplayed Professor Moriarty. Its duration was 50 minutes. This play too was the pilot for a new Holmes series by " Lux Radio Theater". " The New York Times" said that Gillette was "still the best, with all his shades and improvisation."
*1927, "The Astounding Crime on Torrington Road". Only mystery novel.
Tryon, North Carolina
In 1891, after his first visiting of Tryon,
North Carolina, Gillette began building his bungalow, which he later enlarged into a house. He named it Thousand Pines and it is privately owned today. In November, the town of Tryon celebrates the "William Gillette Festival," honoring Gillette.
* [http://www.sherlockholmesfestival.com/ Tryon's Festival home (External Link)]
New York City
On December 7, 1934, Gillette attended the first dinner meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York. To this day, the BSI honors him with the William Gillette Memorial Luncheon on the Friday afternoon of their annual January meeting in New York City.
*"I want to make money on Holmes quick, so as to be through with it!"
*"Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow."
*"There isn’t any reason in the world why we can’t do as well in this farewell business as any other country on the face of the globe. We have the farewellers and the people to say farewell to. If I can only keep it up I will be even with my competitors by the Spring of 1922, and by the Winter of 1937 I will be well in the lead."
*"It just seems, somehow, that every five years finds me back again, so you can expect me back at it again once more in 1941. Probably in 1976, when they are celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, or what ever it is, 40 years from now, I'll still be farewelling. I should apologize for being here, but I am a man among Yankees, and they take promises with a grain of salt – in fact they usually take them home and pickle them in brine, so they probably knew I'd be back. Besides I have several good excuses – but they really don't count. And besides – and you men who follow horse racing will know what I mean – I'm not running against anyone, they're merely letting me trot around the track."
*"Farewell, Good Luck, and Merry Christmas."
*"Sherlock Holmes: The Published Apocrypha", compiled by
*"The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", compiled by
*imdb name|id=0319069|name=William Gillette
* [http://www.henryzecher.com/gillettebio.htm William Gillette Introduction]
* [http://www.bakerstreetjournal.com The Baker Street Journal - writings about Sherlock Holmes]
* [http://dep.state.ct.us/stateparks/parks/gillettecastle.htm Gillette´s Castle at Connecticut]
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