Nigel Bruce
Bruce in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)
William Nigel Ernle Bruce

(1895-02-04)4 February 1895
Died8 October 1953(1953-10-08) (aged 58)
Resting placeChapel of the Pines Crematory
Years active1920–1953
Violet Pauline Shelton
(m. 1921; died 1953)

William Nigel Ernle Bruce (4 February 1895 – 8 October 1953) was a British character actor on stage and screen.[1] 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 with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in both. Bruce is also remembered for his roles in the Alfred Hitchcock films Rebecca and Suspicion, as well as the Charlie Chaplin film Limelight and the original Lassie film Lassie Come Home.

Early life

Bruce pictured in the Abingdon School first XI cricket team in 1912

Bruce was the second son of Sir William Waller Bruce, 10th Baronet and his wife Angelica Lady Bruce, daughter of General George Selby, Royal Artillery.[citation needed] He was born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, whilst his parents were touring the world.[2] His older brother was the author and adventurer Sir Michael Bruce.

He received his formal education at The Grange School in Stevenage, and from 1908 to 1912 at Abingdon School in Abingdon-on-Thames.[3] At Abingdon he was a keen sportsman, playing for the first XI cricket team (for which he received Colours), the athletics' first team and the school's football 2nd XI.

In 1912, Bruce left school at the age of 17, and took up a position as a stockbroker's clerk in the City of London.[4] In early 1914, whilst working in the City he voluntarily enlisted into the British Army's Territorial Force as an infantry soldier with the Honourable Artillery Company as its Private #852. On the outbreak of World War I in early August 1914, he was mobilized with the regiment, and went out to the Western Front with its 1st Battalion on 18 September 1914 at the age of 19.[5] On 5 January 1915, whilst in trenches at Kemmel in Belgium, he was machine-gunned in the legs, causing multiple wounds and a fractured right thigh, and was subsequently medically evacuated to the United Kingdom, where he spent the rest of 1915 recovering in hospital. He was discharged from the British Army as medically unfit for further military service due to permanent damage to his legs in December 1915. In October 1916, he re-enlisted with the British Army and received training with an Officer Cadet Battalion in Cambridge, subsequently receiving a commission in January 1917, as a subaltern with the 10th (Service) Battalion, of the Somerset Light Infantry Regiment, a home service battalion, with which he served as a training officer for the rest of 1917, the permanent infirmity of his 1915 wounds preventing further active service at the front.[6]


After being discharged from the British Army, Bruce abandoned a career in the City of London Stock Exchange, and pursued a career as a professional actor. He made his stage debut on 12 May 1920 at London's Comedy Theatre as a footman in the play Why Marry?. In October of that year, he went to Canada as stage manager to Henry V. Esmond and Eva Moore, also playing "Montague Jordan" in Eliza Comes to Stay. Upon returning to England, he toured in the same role. He appeared regularly on-stage thereafter, and 8 years later began working in silent films. In 1926 he made his Broadway debut as Major Evelyn Bathurst in Noël Coward This Was a Man. He returned to Broadway several times during the 1930s, portraying Philip Downes in Ronald Jeans's Lean Harvest (1931), Mr. Jelliwell in Benn W. Levy's Springtime for Henry (1931–1932), His Excellency, Governor of the Colony in Arthur Schwartz's Virginia (1937),[7] and William Schwenk Gilbert in Oscar Hammerstein II's Knights of Song (1938).[8]

In 1934, he moved to Hollywood, U.S. As his career there became a success, he set up a home at 701 North Alpine Drive, Beverly Hills in the latter half of the 1930s.

Bruce typically played buffoonish, fuzzy-minded gentlemen. During his film career, he worked in 78 films, including Treasure Island (1934), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Rebecca (1940), and Suspicion (1941).

He appeared in two landmark films: Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature film in full Technicolor, and Bwana Devil (1952), the first 3-D feature. He uncharacteristically played a detestable figure in The Rains Came (1939) which became the first film to win an Oscar for special effects.

Dr Watson

L. to R.: Nigel Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, and Basil Rathbone from the film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

Bruce's career signature role was that of Dr Watson in the 1939–1946 Sherlock Holmes film series, alongside his friend Basil Rathbone playing Holmes. Bruce starred as Watson in all 14 films of the series, and over 200 radio programs of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.[9] Although Watson often appears to be the older of the two main characters, Bruce was three years younger than 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 intellectually dimmer and more bumbling than the literary figure. (A nickname resulting from this portrayal was "Boobus Britannicus".[9]) 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.[10]

Rathbone, however, spoke highly of Bruce's portrayal, saying that Watson was one of the screen's most lovable characters. The historian David Parkinson wrote that Bruce's "avuncular presence provided the perfect counterbalance to Rathbone's briskly omniscient sleuth".[11] Historian Alan Barnes notes that, despite the criticisms against him, Bruce rehabilitated Watson, who had been a marginal figure in the cinematic Holmes canon to that point: "after Bruce, it would be a near-unthinkable heresy to show Holmes without him".[12] The Rathbone-Bruce co-star film series lapsed with the death of its 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, and depicted Watson faithfully as a capable man of action.


Bruce was married, from 1921 until his death, to British actress Violet Campbell (née Violet Pauline Shelton[13]) whom he always lovingly called "Bunny"; they had two daughters:

He was also a second cousin of the Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.[14]

Later life

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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 of a heart attack,[15] in Santa Monica, California in 1953 at the age of 58. His body was subsequently cremated, with his ashes being placed in a niche at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.[16]

In 1947 he began writing an autobiography entitled Games, Gossip and Greasepaint, which is unpublished; however, excerpts have been printed in the Sherlock Holmes Journal, and these have been posted online with permission.[17]


Year Title Role Notes
1922 Flames of Passion Undetermined minor role Uncredited
1930 The Squeaker Collie
Escape Constable
Red Aces Kinsfeather, T. B.
Birds of Prey Major
1931 The Calendar Lord Willie Panniford
1932 Lord Camber's Ladies Lord Camber
The Midshipmaid Major Spink
1933 I Was a Spy Scottie
Channel Crossing Nigel Guthrie
1934 Coming Out Party Troon, the Butler
Stand Up and Cheer! Eustis Dinwiddle
Murder in Trinidad Bertram Lynch
The Lady Is Willing Welton
Treasure Island Squire Trelawney
Springtime for Henry Johnny Jewlliwell
The Scarlet Pimpernel The Prince of Wales
1935 Becky Sharp Joseph Sedley
She Horace Holly
Jalna Maurice Vaughn
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo Ivan
1936 The Trail of the Lonesome Pine Major Thurber
Under Two Flags Capt. Menzies
The White Angel Dr. West
Follow Your Heart Henri Forrester
The Charge of the Light Brigade Sir Benjamin Warrenton
The Man I Marry Robert Hartley
1937 Thunder in the City Duke of Glenavon
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney Lord Willie Winton
1938 The Baroness and the Butler Major Andros
Kidnapped Neil MacDonald
Suez Sir Malcolm Cameron
1939 The Hound of the Baskervilles Dr. John H. Watson
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Dr. John H. Watson
The Rains Came Lord Albert Esketh
1940 The Blue Bird Mr. Luxury
Adventure in Diamonds Col. J. W. Lansfield
Rebecca Major Giles Lacy
Lillian Russell William S. Gilbert
Susan and God Hutchins Stubbs
A Dispatch from Reuters Sir Randolph Persham
1941 Hudson's Bay Prince Rupert
Play Girl William McDonald Vincent
Free and Easy Florian Clemington
This Woman Is Mine Duncan MacDougall
The Chocolate Soldier Bernard Fischer, Critic
Suspicion Gordon Cochrane 'Beaky' Thwaite
1942 Roxie Hart E. Clay Benham
This Above All Ramsbottom
Eagle Squadron McKinnon
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror Dr. John H. Watson
Journey for Margaret Herbert V. Allison
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon Dr. John H. Watson
1943 Forever and a Day Maj. Garrow
Sherlock Holmes in Washington Dr. John H. Watson
Sherlock Holmes Faces Death Dr. John H. Watson
Lassie Come Home Duke of Rudling
Crazy House Dr. John H. Watson Cameo
The Spider Woman Dr. John H. Watson
1944 Follow the Boys Himself Uncredited
The Scarlet Claw Dr. John H. Watson
The Pearl of Death Dr. John H. Watson
Gypsy Wildcat High Sheriff
Frenchman's Creek Lord Godolphin
1945 Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear Dr. John H. Watson
The Corn Is Green The Squire
Son of Lassie Duke of Rudling
The Woman in Green Dr. John H. Watson
Pursuit to Algiers Dr. John H. Watson
1946 Terror by Night Dr. John H. Watson
Dressed to Kill Dr. John H. Watson
1947 The Two Mrs. Carrolls Dr. Tuttle
The Exile Sir Edward Hyde
1948 Julia Misbehaves Col. Bruce "Bunny" Willowbrook
1950 Vendetta Sir Thomas Nevil
1952 Hong Kong Mr. Lighton
Limelight Postant, an Impresario
Bwana Devil Dr. Angus McLean
1954 World for Ransom Governor Sir Charles Coutts Released posthumously

See also


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, 14 October 1953.
  2. ^ "Nigel Bruce-Dr. Watson To You, In 'Sherlock Holmes'". The Jackson Sun. 3 November 1946. p. 12. Retrieved 16 April 2022 – via
  3. ^ "Register". Abingdon School.
  4. ^ Abingdon School register entry for Bruce.
  5. ^ Bruce's WW1 Medal Index Card, The National Archive, Kew, Surrey, England. Archive document code: WO 372/3/140620.
  6. ^ 'Famous 1914–1918', by Richard Van Emden & Vic Piuk (Pub. Pen & Sword, 2009).
  7. ^ Brooks Atkinson (3 September 1937). "THE PLAY: 'Virginia' Opens the Season With a Large Musical Drama at the Center Theatre Theatre Units' Plays Tonight". The New York Times. p. 13.
  8. ^ "New Plays on Broadway – 51ST STREET". Billboard. Vol. 50, no. 45. 5 November 1938. p. 17-18.
  9. ^ a b Matthew E. Bunson (1997). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana. Simon & Schuster. p. 38. ISBN 0-02-861679-0.
  10. ^ Estleman, Loren D., "On the Significance of Boswells," introduction to Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I, Bantam Classic, page vii, ISBN 0-553-21241-9
  11. ^ Parkinson 2004.
  12. ^ Barnes 2011, p. 256.
  13. ^ "DEATH - VIOLET CAMPBELL". 12 January 1970.
  14. ^ Plummer 2008, p. 63
  15. ^ Turner Classic Movies
  16. ^ 'Famous 1914–1918', by Richard Van Emden & Vic Piuk (Pub. Pen & Sword, 2009).
  17. ^ Utechin, Nick ed. (Winter 1998). Fanning, Stuart (poster). "Excerpts from Games, Gossip and Greasepaint". Sherlock Holmes Journal. 19 (1). Retrieved 12 August 2007. ((cite journal)): |first= has generic name (help)

General sources

Further reading