He was a big hit as Freddie Eynsford-Hill opposite Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, and he had a 40-year long career on stage and screen. But Brett is best known for his uncanny portrayal of the master detective Sherlock Holmes in several series of episodes for Granada Television, from 1984 to 1994. His intense and acerbic Sherlock was a huge hit with audiences and still remains popular in reruns.
Peter Jeremy William Huggins, the youngest of four brothers, was born 11/3/1933, at Berkswell Grange, a spacious 17th-century manor just outside Birmingham, England. His parents, Colonel and Mrs. Huggins were involved with the Red Cross, a fact which helped shape Jeremy's generosity, even as a child. The Colonel and all four of his sons belonged to Woodmen of Arden, an archery club. Jeremy later demonstrated his archery talents as Sherlock Holmes in The Problem of Thor Bridge. He also took riding lessons and competed with his pony 'Babs' in equestrian exhibitions.
Jeremy suffered from rheumatic fever, an illness which left his heart much-weakened. He also had a speech impediment. He confessed to Rosemary Herbert*, "I was tongue-tied. [He actually had an extra piece of skin tissue, under his tongue.] I had a very weak 'r' sound and had to work hard on it. I didn't have the condition corrected until I was 17. And then I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama to relearn how to speak."
*['Interview with Jeremy Brett', Armchair Theatre, 1985]
In 1951, he indeed enrolled in London's Central School of Speech and Drama. Jeremy's father forbade him from using the family name 'Huggins' on the stage. He thought acting was a crude and dishonorable profession. So, Jeremy took the name 'Brett' from the label in his first suit (which was a green tweed made by Brett and Co., Warwick).
While there he made his feature film debut, in Svengali, an obscure 1955 British version of the Svengali story. When he left the Central School, Jeremy became a reperatory player at the Manchester Library Theatre. In one of his early parts there, he played a soldier. He borrowed his father's military boots to wear for the role. His father came to see him, and called him "a triumph, my boy".
His mother Elizabeth didn't see that, or any other triumph; she died in an auto crash in 1959. Jeremy told a BBC2 reporter that he channeled all the anger from his mother's loss into his acting, especially Hamlet.
While with the Library Theatre, his photo appeared in the British Spotlight, an acting directory, and caught the eye of American director King Vidor. He was cast with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 spectacle War and Peace, filmed mostly in Rome. He then joined the Old Vic Theatre Company, and appeared in a series of plays on London stages, the majority of which were Shakespeare's. Troilus and Cressida being the most heralded, it was moved to New York's Broadway, and then toured other American cities.
Jeremy married actress Anna Massey, daughter of film star Raymond Massey, on 5/24/58. Their only child, David Raymond William, was born 8/14/59.
In 1961, Jeremy played Hamlet to rave reviews, and the admiration of his father, at the Strand in London. As he gained notoriety, his marriage was failing. Anna and Jeremy divorced in 1962.
At age 12, Jeremy had bicycled to the Cameo Cinema to see Laurence Olivier's Henry V. He was so impressed he decided to be an actor. He was working under Olivier in 1963 at the Chichester Festival Theatre, appearing in the plays Saint Joan, and The Workhouse Donkey. Olivier was not happy when Jeremy was offered, and accepted, a role in the film version of My Fair Lady. Off to Hollywood he went, to star along Audrey Hepburn. Warner Bros. had to pay Olivier's National theatre Group $10,000, to release Jeremy from his contract. While in Hollywood, he had to turn down many other offers while he waited for his scenes to be filmed.
He then went to Broadway to star in the controversial Nazi crimes play The Deputy. After 109 successful productions, he returned to England.
In 1967 Jeremy finally made his debut with the National Theatre. He played Orlando in Shakespeare's As You Like It. In 1970 he played alongside Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice. This won great reviews all around, and a production was taped for broadcast on US television in 1974. He appeared in many more productions, the last being Hedda Gabler, with Maggie Smith.
In 1976, Jeremy hosted a PBS anthology series called Piccadilly Circus. This was produced by Joan Sullivan, who also produced Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!, among others. Their professional and romantic chemistry resulted in their marriage, 11/2/77.
He then mostly did British and American television and films.
In 1978 he performed the title role in Dracula, a touring production, which set box office records in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Brett was clearly enjoying the over-the-top portrayal, and the critics loved it.
In late 1980 he took a role in Los Angeles, playing Dr. Watson in The Crucifer of Blood, alongside Charlton Heston's Holmes, at the Ahmanson Theater.
In 1982 he produced, directed, and starred in Shakespeare's The Tempest, which was performed in Toronto. He had been approached by Granada to portray Holmes, with a vision of producing all 60 of Conan Doyle's stories. He was more interested in making a film version of The Tempest. Not having much luck, he took the Holmes canon with him to Barbados, fell under the spell, and the rest is history.
As The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes wrapped up filming, Jeremy wanted to return to America, to be near his wife. He knew that Joan had cancer, but the filming schedule had kept them apart. While he performed Aren't We All? at The Brooks Atkinson theater in New York, he spent time with Joan during her last few months. She died on July 4, 1985, and he was devastated.
He somehow continued until the play closed, then returned to Britain for The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The grief he was feeling, coupled with the pressures of location shooting and spending many lonely nights in hotel rooms, took their toll. The troubled and tormented aspects of Sherlock Holmes, the character, were blurring with Jeremy's own burdens, and after the first set of episodes, he suffered a 'breakdown', in his own words. While undergoing treatment, he was determined to be bipolar, fighting manic depression.
It was acknowledged that he had the condition most of his life, but his temperamental behavior was largely considered part of an actor's psyche. Jeremy Brett feared he may not be able to act again. But he returned to the Sherlock Holmes series production, and in 1988 he returned to the stage, this time to star as Holmes in his friend Jeremy Paul's The Secret of Sherlock Holmes. It opened at Wyndham's Theatre, and was fantastically successful. They had anticipated a six-week run, but it took off to rave reviews and packed full houses for a year. After that came a British tour, which ended in late 1989.
During this time, Brett's unfortunate illness manifested itself, to his associate's concerned attention. He would be at times irritable and troubled. Trying to keep his performance fresh, he would sometimes insert phrases, and even entire monologues from his Shakespeare days, confusing audiences. Still, they loved him, heaping praise and accolades.
During his later years, he discussed the illness candidly, encouraging people to recognise its symptoms and seek help. But the stress from the treatment medicine, the years of heavy smoking, and the damage from the rheumatic fever were too much to absorb. He passed on from heart failure on 9/12/95, in his sleep at home in Clapham Common, South London.