William Nigel Ernle Bruce (4 February 1895 – 8 October 1953), best known as Nigel Bruce, was a British character actor on stage and screen.He was best known for his portrayal of Dr. Watson in a series of films and in the radio series The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (starring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes). Bruce is also remembered for his roles in the Alfred Hitchcock films Rebecca and Suspicion.
Bruce was the second son of Sir William Waller Bruce, 10th Baronet (1856–1912) and his wife Angelica (died 1917), daughter of General George Selby, Royal Artillery. Bruce was born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico while his parents were on holiday there. He was educated at the Grange,Stevenage and at Abingdon School, Oxfordshire. He served in France from 1914 as a lieutenant in the 10th Service Battalion - Somerset Light Infantryand the Honourable Artillery Company, but was severely wounded at Cambrai the following year, with eleven bullets in his left leg, and spent most of the remainder of the war in a wheelchair.
He made his first appearance on stage on 12 May 1920 at the Comedy Theatre as a footman in Why Marry?. In October that year, he went to Canadaas stage manager to Henry V. Esmond and Eva Moore and also playing "Montague Jordan" in Eliza Comes to Stay; upon returning to England, he toured in the same part. He appeared constantly on stage thereafter, and eight years later, also started working in silent films. In 1934, he moved toHollywood, later setting up home at 701 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills.
Nigel Bruce typically played buffoonish, fuzzy-minded gentlemen. During his film career, he worked in 78 films, including:
- Treasure Island (1934),
- The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934),
- The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936),
- The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936),
- Rebecca (1940),
- Suspicion (1941),
- Lassie Come Home (1943)
- The Corn Is Green (1945).
Bruce participated in two landmark films: Becky Sharp, the first feature film in full Technicolor, and Bwana Devil, the first 3-D feature. He uncharacteristically played a detestable figure in 1939'sThe Rains Came which became the first film to win an Oscar for special effects.
Bruce's signature role was that of Dr. Watson in the 1939-1946 Sherlock Holmes film series with close friend Basil Rathbone as Holmes. Bruce starred as Watson in all 14 films of the series and over 200 radio programs of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Although Watson often appears to be the older of the two main characters, Bruce was actually three years younger than his co-star Rathbone.
Though for most viewers Nigel Bruce formed their vision of Dr. Watson, Holmes purists have long objected that the Watson of the books was intelligent and capable (although not an outstanding detective), and that Bruce's portrayal made Watson far dimmer and more bumbling than his literary original. (A nickname resulting from this portrayal was "Boobus Britannicus.") Loren D. Estleman wrote of Bruce: "If a mop bucket appeared in a scene, his foot would be inside it, and if by some sardonic twist of fate and the whim of director Roy William Neill he managed to stumble upon an important clue, he could be depended upon to blow his nose on it and throw it away."
Rathbone, however, spoke highly of Bruce's portrayal, saying that Watson was one of the screen's most lovable characters. The Rathbone-Bruce film series lapsed with the death of producer-director Roy William Neill in 1946. Since then, most major modern adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, especially since the 1970s, have consciously defied the popular stereotype to depict Watson faithfully as a capable man of action.
Nigel Bruce was married from 1921 until his death to British actress Violet Campbell (née Violet Pauline Shelton; 1892–1970) whom he always lovingly called "Bunny"; they had two daughters, Jennifer and Pauline. In 1946 Pauline married the British flying ace Alan Geoffrey Page.
Bruce, known as "Willie" to his friends, was a leading member of the British film colony in Los Angeles, and was captain of the (mostly British) Hollywood Cricket Club. Unlike some of his contemporaries, and along with other British actors such as Basil Rathbone and Charlie Chaplin, Bruce maintained his British citizenship, despite long residence in the United States. He also retained his membership of London's Garrick Club and Buck's Club until his death. His final film, World for Ransom, was released posthumously in 1954.
Bruce died from a heart attack in Santa Monica, California in 1953, aged 58. He was cremated, and his ashes stored in the vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.
He wrote an autobiography called Games, Gossip and Greasepaint which has never been published; however, excerpts have been printed in the Sherlock Holmes Journal, and these have been posted online, with permission.