Jeremy Brett was a gifted yet ultimately underappreciated Thespian whose symbiotic relationship with the character Sherlock Holmes has earned him a permanent place in the livelihood of the fictitious legend as well as Baker Street Irregulars and the like. (His portrayal of the character is, arguably, the most authentic and revered today.) Born Jeremy Peter William Huggins in Berkswell, Warwickshire, England, in 1933, Brett was the son of Henry and Elizabeth Huggins along with his three brothers, John, Patrick, and Michael. His father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the army and did not want the family name associated with the dubious world of the theatrical, so young Brett plucked his stage name from the tag in his first suit, Brett & Co. He made his professional stage debut in Manchester, England, in the company of the Library Theatre in 1954. Brett's early work on the stage included everything from the classic to the avant-garde in nature; he was a diverse and multifaceted performer, who even worked alongside the likes of Charlton Heston (playing Dr. Watson oddly enough). He was still a fledgling at London's Central School of Speech and Drama when he made his first uncredited feature-film appearance in Svengali.
Brett's photograph in a British actors publication caught the eye of American filmmaker King Vidor, who subsequently cast him as Nicholai Rostov in his adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace (1956); the film marked his first encounter with future co-star Audrey Hepburn. After a stint in film, Brett returned to the London stage and joined the Old Vic theater company touring England and Canada, and it finally landed him right on Broadway in the U.S. Brett made his first U.S. television appearance on March 4, 1957, as Paris in an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. He continued to act in London plays and sing in musicals into his late twenties, including an important role as Hamlet in 1961. He married fellow Thespian Anna Massey in 1958; however, the marriage was short-lived. The couple had one son, David, for whom they continued to care for adequately in the aftermath of their divorce.
The early '60s found Brett collaborating with renowned British actor/director Laurence Olivier, who offered him supporting roles in his productions of Othello and Hamlet. Brett would have been more inclined to focus on these stage roles if he hadn't been distracted by the filming of My Fair Lady, in which he sang alongside Audrey Hepburn as Freddy Eynesford-Hill. Olivier did his best to get Brett to stay in London, but Hollywood and the West Coast were too alluring for the adventurous young man, who was always up for an adventure. After the filming of My Fair Lady finally ended, Brett partook in a number of theatrical pieces including Rolf Hochhuth's The Deputy and Turgenev's A Month in the Country. Taking a nod from director Olivier and other patrons of London's National Theatre, Brett finally made his debut with the prestigious company in 1967 as Orlando in Shakespeare's As You Like It, which premiered with mixed reviews. He also appeared with the company in MacRune's Guevara (as Che Guavara, reportedly spending time hitchhiking around South America to fully understand his character), The Merchant of Venice, and Hedda Gabler, directed by Ingmar Bergman. The '70s attracted Brett more to television and radio with a few small intermissions on the stage; he was a player in the 1976 Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. Television, however, brought him together with his second wife, producer Joan Sullivan (aka Joan Wilson), on the set of Rebecca. The two claim it was love at first sight, and they were married in November of 1977 until her untimely death from cancer in 1985. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had begun filming that year, thanks to producer and Brett-enthusiast Michael Cox; Brett continued to work through his period of grief, performing in Aren't We All through the end of July and then showed up to start filming The Return of Sherlock Holmes in August of that same year. As he fought to belie his inward grief through continuous working, his emotions finally caught up with him, and he had a breakdown of sorts after finishing the first few episodes of the Return series in 1986. It was at this point that Brett was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a sickness which had gone mostly undocumented throughout his life and was played off as indiosyncracies of an impulsive actor amongst his friends and associates.
Aside from his loss and psychological demons at bay, Brett's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the Granada series was to be his most poignant work, partly due to the emotive energy he channeled into it from his personal standpoint. He approached the role with utter seriousness and respect for the detective; Brett was a staunch critic in keeping true to the historical and literary keynotes from the stories, which resulted in a stylish, witty, and sophisticated interpretation of the singular friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. At the same time, Brett articulated facets of Holmes that went beyond the stories, creating a fresh and more vibrant (and sometimes more comical) Holmes than had been seen before. The Granada anthology includes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; four feature films were also produced from the short novels -- A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Master Blackmailer (adapted from Doyle's The Valley of Fear).
Brett was not only manic depressive, but he also had a continually failing heart; his condition was further compromised by heavy smoking, a grueling work schedule, and an already weakened heart from a spout with rheumatic fever as a child. He had become compulsive and brooding like the Holmes he portrayed in The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, a centennial commemorative play written by his good friend, Jeremy Paul, the man who also wrote a number of Holmes episodes for Granada. The Secret ran a rigorous year in the U.K. and finally came to a close in late 1989. By then, Brett's health was waning; his last appearances were on the set of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. He passed away on September 12, 1995, in his sleep at his home in Clapham Common. His career legacy is still treasured to many, and his portraiture of the famous detective hero will always remain in the hearts of Sherlockians everywhere.