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March 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
Find more Sleuths on Screen
Adapting popular crime series for television and the movies comes with the challenge of casting the correct actors in the part of beloved characters. Casting the wrong actor in a role can condemn a series to a single outing, but good casting can create a franchise (and make billions of dollars, as in the case of James Bond—$6 billion and still counting). The actor is often the character since many more people may see the movies than will read the books. The actor in a crime series will forever define the character—until he or she is replaced by a younger actor. The James Bond series has survived and prospered using numerous actors in the starring role. Other franchises keep trying to find the perfect actor for the part. The Jack Ryan series is about to feature its fourth Jack Ryan in five films. Some characters transcend nationalities. You can find Czech Philip Marlowes, Italian Jules Maigrets, Japanese Miss Marples, and Russian Hercule Poirots.
With the help of the Internet Movie Database, we’ve put together a list of 15 popular sleuths (well, 14 sleuths and 1 second banana) and some of the actors who have portrayed them.
James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux
Burke’s popular Cajun detective has appeared in about 20 books but only in two films. Alec Baldwin played him in the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners, but it failed at the box office. Robicheaux was best cast in Bertrand Tavernier’s In the Electric Mist (2009), when he was portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, although it, too, failed to find an audience.
John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee
McDonald’s “salvage consultant” was featured in 21 novels, but only two movies have been made from them. Rod Taylor played McGee in Darker Than Amber (1970), and later, Sam Elliott, famous for his horseshoe mustache, played McGee in Travis McGee, a 1983 TV movie, although he was relocated to California, so it hardly counts.
Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm
Dean Martin starred as a wisecracking version of secret agent Matt Helm in The Silencers and in three other films made in the 1960s. These films, noted for their sexy costars (Stella Stevens, Ann-Margaret, Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate), parodied the James Bond movies of the time and bore little resemblance to the tough counteragent that Hamilton featured in 27 books. In the 1970s, Tony Franciosa played him in Matt Helm as a former spy turned private detective in a short-lived, standard-issue television series. Dean Martin’s Helm later served as inspiration for Mike Myers’ comical spy, Austin Powers.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan
Four films have been released (so far) featuring Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and three actors (so far) have portrayed him. Alec Baldwin played Ryan in The Hunt for Red October but was replaced by Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Ben Affleck got mixed reviews as Ryan when the series was rebooted in 2002 with The Sum of All Fears. But stay tuned. Later this year, the Jack Ryan franchise will be rebooted once again, this time with Chris Pine starring as the young CIA analyst in the Kenneth Branagh–directed Jack Ryan.
Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer
First played by Biff Elliot in I, the Jury (1953), Hammer was probably most famously portrayed by Ralph Meeker as a sadistic bully in Robert Aldrich’s nihilistic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Spillane’s tough guy has also been played by Brian Keith, Darren McGavin, Kevin Dobson, and Armand Assante, among others. Stacy Keach had the longest run as Mike Hammer, starring as the detective in three different television series from 1983 through 1998. In an unusual casting job, Spillane himself once played his own creation in the UK production of The Girl Hunters (1963).
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe
Dick Powell was the first to play Chandler’s hard-boiled detective in the 1944 Murder My Sweet, a big change of pace from his typical roles as the nice-guy singer in many Warner Brothers musicals. In 1946, Humphrey Bogart offered the definitive portrayal of Marlowe in John Huston’s The Big Sleep, a performance greatly admired by Chandler himself. Marlowe has also been played by George Sanders, Robert Montgomery, George Montgomery, James Garner, Elliott Gould, and Robert Mitchum. Robert Montgomery’s Marlowe in Lady in the Lake is interesting because almost the entire picture is shot in the first-person perspective, so you almost never see Marlowe. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, starring Gould and set in the 1970s, was anachronistic in many ways, but Gould pulls it off. Danny Glover, in an unusual bit of casting, won an Emmy nomination as Marlowe in Showtime’s Fallen Angels television series.
Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar (The Saint)
Charteris’ mysterious Simon Templar, “the Saint,” is another long-running character from a series of 70 books that first appeared in 1928. The Saint first appeared on the silver screen in 1938, when he was portrayed by Louis Haywood in The Saint in New York, but he was soon replaced by George Sanders for a run of five films. Haywood briefly returned to the role in 1953. The character was revived for a successful, long-running television series in the 1960s starring Roger Moore (later famous for his turn at James Bond and on the TV western Maverick) and then revived again in the late 1980s by Simon Dutton (son-in-law of Sir Lawrence Olivier). In 1997, Val Kilmer portrayed the Saint in a motion picture. A new television series featuring the Saint is currently in production.
George Simenon’s Jules Maigret
George Simenon’s Maigret appeared in 75 novels published over 40 years. He has been portrayed in film and on television, beginning with Night at the Crossroads (1932), starring Pierre Renoir (son of the painter and brother of the filmmaker). Simenon himself preferred the actor Rupert Davies, who played Maigret on the BBC. (Interestingly, Simenon thought that the ideal Madame Maigret was portrayed by Tomomi Sato, who played her in a modern-day Japanese version in 1978.) Jean Gabin, Richard Harrison, Michael Gambon, and the Italian Sergio Castellitto, among others, have also been cast as Maigret.
Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason
First portrayed by Warren William in The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) and in three other films, the popular defense-attorney character is best remembered for Raymond Burr’s embodiment of the role. Burr played him on television from 1957 to 1966. Monte Markham played him in The New Perry Mason in the 1970s, while Burr starred in Ironside, but Burr later reprised the role in Perry Mason Returns, which aired on and off until Burr’s death in 1993.
Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan
Created by an American novelist who wrote seven novels featuring the Chinese American detective from Honolulu, Charlie Chan first appeared on film in 1926 in a 10-chapter serial called The House without a Key, starring George Kuwa. Interestingly, Kuwa was Japanese and one of only three Asian actors to play the detective. In Chan’s next outing in 1927, he was played by Kamiyama Sojin (Japanese) and then in 1929 by E. L. Park (Korean). In these early films, Chan’s role was minimized. Chan films were unsuccessful until a Swede, Warner Oland, portrayed him in 1931 with Charlie Chan Carries On. Oland played Chan in 15 more films, often with his costar, the Chinese American actor Keye Luke, who played Chan’s Number One Son, Lee Chan. Chan was next played by Sidney Toler (an American of Scottish descent); then by Roland Winters; and in the 1950s, by J. Carrol Naish on television. The character of Chan was also popular in China, prompting several productions in China starring Gu Meijun and Bai Yan.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot
Christie’s Belgian detective, boasting prodigious, crime-solving “gray matter,” has appeared in novels and stories from 1920 through 1975. The first film adaptation appeared in 1931 starring Austin Trevor. Albert Finney was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Peter Ustinov played him six times. David Suchet has been playing him since 1989. Poirot has also been played by Tony Randall, Ian Holm, and Alfred Molina, and he has been voiced by Kôtarô Satomi in a recent Japanese anime.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple
It took around 30 years for someone to adapt Christie’s amateur detective, the spinster Miss Marple, for the silver screen. Distinguished stage actress Margaret Rutherford was cast as the eccentric Marple in 1961’s Murder She Said, and she reprised the role five times. In 1980, Angela Lansbury played Marple in The Mirror Crack’d. She later went on to play the Marple-like Jessica Fletcher in the hit TV series Murder She Wrote. Helen Hayes, the First Lady of the American stage, also played Marple on television. More recently, she has been portrayed by Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan, and Julie McKenzie. A popular Japanese anime series features the voice of Kaoru Yachigusa as Marple.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
These days, Holmes is experiencing a major comeback, appearing on both big and small screens. Jonny Lee Miller is playing Holmes in the modern-day series Elementary, set in New York City. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes in Sherlock, set in modern-day London. Robert Downey Jr. has played him in a couple of blockbuster motion pictures directed by Guy Ritchie. Over the years, Holmes has also been played by Christopher Lee, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, and many, many others (more than 70 actors have played the part in more than 200 films and television programs going back to 1900—that’s right, 1900). Still, after all of these years, he is most famously embodied by Basil Rathbone, the star of stage and screen who portrayed the popular detective in many motion pictures (and on the radio), starting with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1939.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Doctor Watson
If there are more than 70 actors portraying Sherlock Holmes, then no doubt there would likely be more than 70 actors portraying his devoted friend and assistant, Doctor John H. Watson. Most recently, in a change of pace (and gender), the good doctor is being portrayed by Lucy Liu (as Dr. Joan Watson) in Elementary on television. Over on Sherlock, Martin Freeman, aka Frodo Baggins, is Watson. Recently, on the big screen, he has been played by Jude Law. Nigel Bruce famously portrayed him as a lovable but somewhat bungling sidekick, even though his character, as written by Doyle, was anything but bungling. Other actors in the role include Robert Duvall, Ben Kingsley, Reginald Owen, and dozens more.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond
It seems like every generation has to have its own Bond. James Bond, 007, based on the character from Ian Fleming’s series of best-selling spy novels, had his first onscreen appearance on television in 1954 in Climax, an adaptation of Casino Royale. Played by Barry Nelson as an American agent, he was sometimes referred to as “Jimmy.” For many, though, Bond is Sean Connery, who played him in seven motion pictures. While Connery wasn’t the author’s first choice, Fleming came around after the success of the first film, Doctor No, in 1963. Connery’s sex appeal and charisma made him a big star, but he tired of the role and passed the torch to George Lazenby, who dropped it in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969; then Roger Moore took over, much more successfully, in 1973. Moore added a more elegant, comedic touch to 007 in Live and Let Die and six other pictures before turning the role over to Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and finally, Daniel Craig. Somewhere in there, David Niven played Sir James Bond in a comedic version of Casino Royale.
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