So, who in your opinion was the "greatest" Van Helsing? I know who I feel (and I cannot be dissuaded) personified the character best on screen, but what do you think? Let's examine this diverse cinematic bullpen of actors who played the legendary Abraham Van Helsing (including "surrogate" Van Helsing's as well and in no particular order)
Edward Van Sloan - Dracula 1931
Aww, papa Van Helsing. I love Edward Van Sloan's portrayal of Van Helsing in Hollywood's (if not the world's?) first sound horror film. He is the closest personification of Stoker's genteel, wise, patriarchal Dutch doctor. Naturally then, what is downplayed is the additional idea that Van Helsing could be a physical foil for the Count as well. In 1927, he took a stab at the role (with Lugosi) on Broadway and later played the role twice on film - in Dracula and again in Dracula's Daughter (1935). He was the second Van Helsing I ever saw - Cushing came first when I was 5 years old and Van Sloan came shortly after when I was in first grade. He especially shines in the sequel, Dracula's Daughter. A Universal character actor, Edward Van Sloan is forever credited (along with Bela Lugosi, Tod Browning, Karl Freund, Jack Pierce, and Charles D. hall) with providing the template for what horror films would look and sound like for decades to come.
Jack MacGowran - The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck (1966)
Jack MacGowran's Professor Abronsius is nothing short of brilliant. As ineffectual as he is hilarious. We know right from the get go that he will be essentially useless when we see him arrive to the destination as a frozen Popsicle. Polanski took the archetype of Van Helsing and injected a healthy dose of Mr. Magoo. The result is pure slapstick heaven. Though not as slapstick on the nose as Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, Polanski and MacGowran DO make an absolutely hilarious Gilligan and Skipper. Like a few other selections on this list, Abronsius is NOT Abraham Van Helsing, instead he is Polanski's Jungian equivalent. His fate is left open at the end of the film, but one can deduce that he will either accidentaly bumble himself into survival - or - well, once that sleigh reaches its destination...?
Richard Benjamin - Love At First Bite (1979)
Richard Benjamin is hilarious in Love At First Bite. Of course, he is a descendant of Van Helsing's (like Cushing's Lorimer Van Helsing in Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, or his portrayal in Dracula AD 1972). Here, Van Helsing's offspring has changed his name for "professional purposes: to Dr. Rosenberg. I love this film, I loved it when I saw it in the theater, I loved it 10 years ago, I loved it last night. I think it works beautifully and is still part of much of the vernacular among my friends. We quote it regularly. I remember Tim Lucas discussing his favorite Renfields of the past century in a Video Watchdog and I felt he really shortchanged Arte Johnson's masterful interpretation. True, he is lampooning Dwight Frye's legendary persona in the role, but he does it beautifully. There is not a bum note in his performance. Actually, there never was - Arte is a supremely talented actor.
Laurence Olivier - Dracula (1979)
Olivier's Van Helsing is superlative. What would one expect from an actor of Olivier's stature, respectability and talent? In keeping with the British method of acting, Olivier's externals are spot on. His accent, poise, demeanor, wardrobe etc., are all exceptional (especially the accent, Olivier even speaks some Dutch in the film). I have no criticisms of Olivier's interpretation, other than his inability to act when the time comes results in his tragic demise. Olivier and the rest of the cast and personnel are fantastic - Dracula 79' is a great film that greatly benefits from location shooting, outstanding visuals, a remarkable cast, and a sublime score.
Christopher Plummer - Dracula 2000 (2000)
I found Dracula 2000 to be a vastly under appreciated film. Christopher Plummer adds a great deal to the film with his Abraham Van Helsing. The film benefited from Wes Craven's hand stitching as exec. producer and a very original take on the Dracula origin. Plummer enhanced the script's originality by emphasizing the character's physiological flaw. He also produced a strong accent and physical mannerisms appropriate for the character. I think he was an extraordinary Van Helsing in an extraordinarily original re-fashioning of the Dracula mythology. I am so grateful that Plummer is still very active, his recent turns in The New World, Must Love Dogs, Alexander, A Beautiful Mind, and what should have been an Oscar in The Insider have lent each of these films a stature they would sorely lack were it not for his presence. His Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree is still one of my all time favorite performances. His summation and chastising of Anthony Quayle and John Gielgud is a virtual tour de force!
Anthony Hopkins - Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)
Anthony Hopkins is truly a great actor. I have seen this man play ANYTHING and play "it" as if he had been that character his whole life. This is what makes it so hard and sad to say that his interpretation of Van Helsing is absolute rubbish and so are parts of the film. I don't know just what the fuck he and Coppola were thinking engaging in a constant paradox. To have the balls to say "BRAM STOKER'S" Dracula and then casually make major and minor alterations is absurd and offensive. True, Hart's script, in spite of its many variations, is just about the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel (but, given its previous cinematic versions, that's not saying much). And, indeed, there are MANY things that I love about this film - one of them however, IS NOT Sir Anthony's crazy ramblings and dirty old man lusting. I don't want or expect to ever see a true to the letter adaptation of Dracula or any other novel. These are two different mediums that are incompatible in fidelity of representation. The trick, or course, is to capture the essence of the novel and get it on the screen in a manner that suits cinema's visual nature. Hart and Coppola essentially do this. Some of their choices I do not agree with or support. One of them is Hopkins' insanely over the top interpretation - almost the antithesis to Stoker's characterization. What...the...fuck?
Hugh Jackman - Van Helsing (2004)
Uhm, No. This is 21st century Hollywood's idea of Van Helsing and about as far from the literary origins as one can possibly stray. Nothing against Hugh Jackman, a very talented and diverse actor capable of strong work, but this movie was shit. Oh, sure, I enjoyed the empty eye candy of it all - it was interesting to look at (c'mon, Kate Beckinsale for Chrissakes), but I feel it was the BIGGEST waste of potential I have seen in a very very long time. THE TEMPLATE AND STORY FOR WHAT THIS MOVIE SHOULD HAVE BEEN WAS APTLY LAID OUT BY JEFF ROVIN IN HIS NOVEL "RETURN OF THE WOLFMAN." Somers, I am sure, had his own ideas on how to pull off the "horror extravaganzas" that Universal effectively delivered in the late 1940s, but let's just say that I didn't agree with, or care for, his choices. And why of why do we get the arbitrary name change? Gabriel? Is he an angel with a horn? Why? WHY? Logic please? Why change his name? To what purpose? How will it increase profits? Is Gabriel somehow a more "hip" name than Abraham? Or is it that he is so completely fucking different from his literary source that you decided to change his FIRST name? Moving on...
Before I get to my personal choice - a note about the inclusions. There are certain Van Helsing's that aren't accounted for. Nosferatu (1922), Herzog's remake of it, Jess Franco's Count Dracula, Mel Brooks', etc. I just didn't have the time to get to EVERY Van Helsing or stand-in Van Helsing. I just chose to highlight a few for the purposes of this post. On that note: Drum Roll if you Please...
Peter Cushing - Horror of Dracula (1958), The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula AD 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974) and surrogate Van Helsing in The Vampire Lovers (1970)
As for me? My vote for best cinematic rendering of this fine literary character goes to Peter Cushing - hands down. Cushing's interpretation retained all of the elderly wisdom and gentleness found in Stoker's characterization while also injecting into the profile an Errol Flynn dexterity and "man of action" mentality. This potent combination of scholarly curiosity, a gentle and kind ethos, and armorial bearings that read "don't fuck with me" made Cushing The greatest Van Helsing to date. Doomed (much like the hard-boiled detective) to romantic isolation, this man must fight evil forces - rid the world of "unholy cults" to restore social order, to bring balance to the scales of good and evil. Only in Cushing's interpretation do we see a brilliant, delicately balanced negotiation between these polars. And speaking of "good and evil" As Nietzsche once said in Beyond Good and Evil "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster..." We cannot attribute this stoic philosophical advice to most other portrayals of Abraham Van Helsing, ESPECIALLY Anthony Hopkins' awkward and unfriendly Doctor. Hopkins lusts after Mina, has no tact whatsoever (Stoker made Van Helsing the most elegantly quotable character in the novel) and often seems to become as monstrous as the creatures he hunts. When he says "We have become God's Madmen!" in point of fact - Hopkins plays Van Helsing as a fucking lunatic right from the start. While I think that both Laurence Olivier and Christopher Plummer made FANTASTIC Van Helsing's, as written, their characters lack the ability TO ACT selflessly while preserving their own mortality. Cushing was able to derail current or impending harm to others while simultaneously defeating his evil menace/nemesis AND preserving his mortality. Olivier and Plummer FAIL to achieve this; their moments of weakness or hesitation doom their fate.
A Doctor of Philosophy, a Doctor of Theology, a Professor of Metaphysics - Hammer's rendering of Van Helsing makes him the most formidable being in the world to defeat vampires, or in fact, their King. He is armed with the most potent of all weapons: knowledge. Knowledge and the ability to synthesize it while doing what MUST BE DONE AT ALL COSTS. Witness what happens when he falls victim to the tainting of his own blood at the hands of Baron Meinster (a disciple of Count Dracula - Brides of Dracula, 1960). Cushing buries an iron in a bed of hot coals until it is glowing red hot. He cauterizes the evil from the wound with the cleansing power of fire and then douses his neck in blessed (Holy) water. It is PRECISELY these types of moments, structured around fortitude and remarkable courage, that make Cushing's Van Helsing UNDEFEATED. His will and constitution are in tact, not for sale, non-negotiable. He then battles the Baron in a typically charged and athletic duel - and bests him. Yup, every fucking time. Cushing is unbeatable. What a remarkable role model to have while growing up, uncommonly kind and supremely "bad ass" when need be.
"For the safety of one we love - for the good of mankind, and for the honour and glory of God" Abraham Van Helsing (Stoker 326).
He is The King of all Van Helsings - there is none higher, sucker Van Helsing's shall call him sire.
There's a lot of honorable mentions here beyond the ones already stated above in the disclaimer. Andrew Keir - Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966), The David Soul/Lew Ayers combo of Salems Lot (1979), Roger Perry - Count Yorga (1970), Jason Miller and E.G. Marshall in Vampire (1979). And on and on and on and on... I haven't forgotten anyone, I just can't get to them all! Besides CUSHING IS Van Helsing.