I thought it might be some fun to do a short profile of the many, many actors who have portrayed my favorite character. Such a project MUST start with the most famous Watson of all; Nigel Bruce.
Born William Nigel Bruce on Valentine’s Day 1895 in Ensenada, Mexico Bruce was an actual decendant of Robert the Bruce. His family was British aristocracy, his father a baronet and the title passing to his older brother Michael. His mother, Angelica, was the daughter of General George Selby, Royal Artillery. Bruce went by his nickname, Willie. Willie was educated in England at The Grange (sound familiar?), Stevenage and Abingdon School, Berkshire.
With the start of WWI Willie received a commission and went to France with the 10th Service Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry. While serving with the Honourable Artillery Company in 1915 he was wounded in the left leg (Hmmm… same leg as Watson!) at Cambrai and spent the rest of the war in a wheelchair. They pulled 11 bullets out of the leg which gave him problems the rest of his life. He started his acting career in 1919.
Bruce acted on the stage and in silent movies and finally came to Hollywood in 1934 where he appeared in 78 full length features. Besides acting he was an avid cricket player and captained the Hollywood Cricket Club and a prime member of the “Hollywood Raj,” a group of (mostly) British actors who worked and played together in the many British Empire type movies produced in the ’30s.
Of course 1939 saw the teaming with Basil Rathbone for the famous 14 film Sherlock Holmes series. While the first two films: Hound of the Baskerville’s and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were fairly true to form, the next 12 were updated to the WWII period in which they were made. Bruce’s role as Watson became more comic relief than stalwart compatriot. And one must admit, that while not true to the Doyle character, Bruce was a truly great character and comic actor. Besides the 14 movies, Bruce and Rathbone reprised their roles in over 200 radio shows.
Bruce died of a heart attack, October 8th, 1953 in Santa Monica, California. He left behind a wife and two daughters. A great loss at an early age!
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I always thought that the quality of a good Holmes adaptation hinges more on the Watson than the Sherlock actor. Sherlock is, in a way, an easy role to play, with all his quirks. But a good Watson is something only a handful actor manage…I don’t think that Nigel Bruce is one of them. It’s not his fault, he is a good comedic actor and plays the role he is suppose to play, it’s just that this role isn’t really Dr. Watson. It’s just named that way. (Just discovered this and look forward to go all the Watsons on your list)
Bruce was playing Watson as he had already played Colonel Blimp. Remember, most of the Bruce/Rathbone movies were formula driven B movies. Charlie Chan had number one son for comedy relief, Gene Autry had Froggie, etc. So it is understandable considering the time and thinking of the movie studios. All that said, you ate right Bruce was entertaining but not a canon Watson.
In Wille Bruce’s defence, it should be said that on radio he was much truer to the character in the Canon since the radio adventures with him and Basil Rathbone (and, later, Tom Conway) were period Victorian presentations. There was some liberty taken by having Watson retired to Southern California where he cd speak to the announcer and introduce that particular evening’s adventure.