Nigel Bruce

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Nigel Bruce
Nigel Bruce in The Last of Mrs Cheyney trailer.jpg
Born William Nigel Ernle Bruce
(1895-02-04)4 February 1895
Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
Died 8 October 1953(1953-10-08) (aged 58)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Cause of death heart attack
Occupation Actor
Years active 1920–1952
Spouse(s) Violet Pauline Shelton (1921-1953) (his death)
Children Jennifer Bruce
Pauline Bruce[1]
Relatives Julian Gilbey
Will Gilbey

William Nigel Ernle Bruce (4 February 1895 – 8 October 1953), best known as Nigel Bruce, was a British character actor on stage and screen.[2] 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, Lady Bruce (died 1917), daughter of General George Selby, Royal Artillery. Bruce was born in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, while his parents were on holiday there. His older brother was the author and adventurer Sir Michael Bruce, 11th Baronet. 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 of the Somerset Light Infantry and 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.[3]

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 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 acting the same part. He appeared constantly onstage thereafter, and eight years later started also working in silent films. In 1934, he moved to Hollywood, 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 Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Rebecca (1940), and Suspicion (1941).

Bruce participated 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.

Watson role

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.[4] 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."[4]) 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."[5]

A clerihew runs:

Conan Doyle

said Watson was Holmes' foil;
but surely he need not
have made him such a clot.

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, and depicted 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, married in 1944 (divorced in 1946) Jay Gould III, son of Jay Gould II;
  • Pauline, married in 1946 the British flying ace Alan Geoffrey Page.

Later life

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.[6]


Year Title Role
1929 Red Aces Kinsfeather, T.B.
1930 The Squeaker Collie
Escape Constable
Birds of Prey Manager
1931 The Calendar Lord Willie Panniford
1932 The Midshipmaid Major Spink
Lord Camber's Ladies Lord Camber
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
Treasure Island Squire Trelawney
The Lady Is Willing Welton
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 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
1936 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. 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 Reuter's 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 Beaky
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
1943 Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon Dr. John H. Watson
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 appearance)
1944 The Spider Woman Dr. John H. Watson
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 Radling
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


  2. Obituary Variety, 14 October 1953.
  3. This is covered in The Peerage. Source: here
  4. 4.0 4.1 Matthew E. Bunson (1997). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana. Simon & Schuster. p. 38. ISBN 0-02-861679-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 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
  6. Utechin, Nick ed. (Winter 1998). Fanning, Stuart (poster). "Excerpts from Games, Gossip and Greasepaint". Sherlock Holmes Journal. 19 (1). Retrieved 12 August 2007. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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