Though a British subject through and through, actor Nigel Bruce was born in Mexico while his parents were on vacation there. His education was interrupted by service in World War I, during which he suffered a leg injury and was confined to a wheelchair for the duration. At the end of the war, Bruce pursued an acting career, making his stage debut in The Creaking Door (1920). A stint in British silent pictures began in 1928, after which Bruce divided his time between stage and screen, finally settling in Hollywood in 1934 (though he continued to make sporadic appearances in such British films as The Scarlet Pimpernel). Nigel's first Hollywood picture was Springtime for Henry (1934), and soon he'd carved a niche for himself in roles as bumbling, befuddled middle-aged English gentlemen. It was this quality which led Bruce to being cast as Sherlock Holmes' companion Dr. Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), a pleasurable assignment in that the film's Holmes, Basil Rathbone, was one of Bruce's oldest and closest friends. While Bruce's interpretation of Watson is out of favor with some Holmes purists (who prefer the more intelligent Watson of the original Conan Doyle stories), the actor played the role in 14 feature films, successfully cementing the cinema image of Sherlock's somewhat slower, older compatriot - even though he was in fact three years younger than Rathbone. Bruce continued to play Dr. Watson on a popular Sherlock Holmes radio series, even after Rathbone had deserted the role of Holmes in 1946. Bruce's last film role was in the pioneering 3-D feature, Bwana Devil (1952). He fell ill and died in 1953, missing the opportunity to be reunited with Basil Rathbone in a Sherlock Holmes theatrical production.
photo credit: Warner Brothers
by Hal Erickson biography