William Gillette (1853-1937)
Sherlock Holmes Helped To Build His Castle
The world-famous actor and playwright made his retirement home in town
A scion of one of Connecticut’s oldest and most prominent families, world-famous actor and playwright William Hooker Gillette was born in Hartford in 1853. Drawn early to the theater arts, he left the city at the age of 20 to seek his fortune as an actor and stage producer. He met with moderate success at first, but became an international star largely on the strength of his performances in two Civil War plays, Held by the Enemy (1886) and Secret Service (1895). In 1899, he landed the title part of the detective Sherlock Holmes in a new stage adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s internationally popular mysteries.
Gillette was the first man to portray Sherlock Holmes in a play sanctioned by Conan Doyle himself. Gillette, with the author’s approval, rewrote the original script to better suit the demands of theater.
Gillette’s brilliant portrayal of the Victorian detective was hugely successful — so popular, in fact, that the actor was soon touring as Holmes to sold-out audiences throughout the United States and Europe. Gillette became the iconic public embodiment of the fictional English detective and starred in a variety of Sherlock Holmes dramatic productions for more than three decades.
When Anita Ballek was four years old in 1934, her father took her to meet William Gillette and take a ride on the Seventh Sister Railroad that he had built around his property. Anita didn't have a good time and thought that Gillette smelled bad. Her memories are set to scenes from the Movietone News newsreel story (below) and outtakes for that newsreel, courtesy of University of South Carolina Library.
He was responsible for some of the most memorable characteristics we now associate with the eccentrically individualistic sleuth, including Holmes’s wearing a “deerstalker” hat, smoking a curved pipe, using a magnifying glass, and playing the violin.
Gillette became so closely identified with the character he helped complete that when Conan Doyle began writing new Sherlock Holmes novels in 1901, he insisted Gillette be used as the model for the accompanying illustrations. This forever linked the Connecticut actor’s stage identity with the “canonical” image of England’s most famous fictional detective.
Late in life, after years of basking in international stardom, Gillette unofficially retired from acting. However, like many a performer after him, the lifelong thespian couldn’t stay away from the limelight.
Fox Movietone made a two minute newsreel in 1927 about William Gillette's new Seventh Sister Railroad. In an era when silent movies were coming to an end, this was one of the earliest "talkies." The Seventh Sister Railroad was Gillette's personal three-mile-long track, which explored his picturesque property, crossed bridges, trestles and even passed through a tunnel. To learn more about Gillette and his castle, visit Gillette Castle State Park. More information at DEEP's website: http://tinyurl.com/5l62fp
In 1930, at 76, the actor announced a final farewell tour in which he would travel along the east coast reprising this role as the world's greatest crime-solver one last time. Connecticut newspapers were abuzz with the news that Gillette would perform at the popular Parsons Theatre in downtown Hartford for three days in February.
Following performances in Washington, D.C., where he dined with President Herbert Hoover, and Baltimore, where he laid a wreath on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Gillette came back to his home state, opening his final Hartford appearance on February 10. The next day, he was feted by some of the city’s most notable residents at a grand luncheon at the Hartford Club.
The guests – many of them lifelong friends and associates – presented the famous actor with gifts, accolades, and anecdotes marking his legendary career and contributions to the arts.
Over 400 people attended the luncheon, and thousands more tuned in to hear Gillette endure plenty of good-natured roasting by old friends in a live broadcast on WTIC-AM radio. His final Hartford performance, before a sell-out crowd, took place the next evening.
Here is the beautifully restored 1916 silent film "Sherlock Holmes," featuring William Gillette and based on the popular play he wrote and performed.
This 1916 film, "Sherlock Holmes," is based on the four-act play of the same name by William Gillette, which he had been performing for several years prior to the film's release.by the Chicago Essanay studio. No copies of the American release have survived. In 2015, the Cinematheque Francaise collaborated with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to restore the only known surviving copy of the film., which was in their collection. This restoration has new music, English subtitles, and color tinting to match the original.
At the end of his tour, Gillette retired to the unusual stone castle he had built high above the Connecticut River in East Haddam. Six years after his death in 1937, the state of Connecticut purchased the actor’s estate, and today the castle and grounds are open to the public as part of Gillette Castle State Park, one of Connecticut’s most popular attractions, with 350,000 visitors yearly.
This article is from "Today in Connecticut History," by the Office of the CT State Historian. Click here to subscribe to the feature.
Visit the Friends of Gillette Castle's website to read more about William Gillette and the building of his castle overlooking the river.
Drone shot of Gillette's Castle by Nick Ward.