Nigel Bruce

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Nigel Bruce
Nigel Bruce in The Last of Mrs Cheyney trailer.jpg
BornWilliam Nigel Ernle Bruce
(1895-02-04)4 February 1895
Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
Died8 October 1953(1953-10-08) (aged 58)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Years active1920–1952
Spouse(s)Violet Pauline Shelton (1921-1953; his death)
Children2 daughters
RelativesJulian Gilbey
Will Gilbey
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Not to be confused with Nigel de Brus.
Nigel Bruce
Nigel Bruce in The Last of Mrs Cheyney trailer.jpg
BornWilliam Nigel Ernle Bruce
(1895-02-04)4 February 1895
Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
Died8 October 1953(1953-10-08) (aged 58)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
Years active1920–1952
Spouse(s)Violet Pauline Shelton (1921-1953; his death)
Children2 daughters
RelativesJulian 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.[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 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 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.

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[edit]

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.[2] 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."[2]) 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."[3]

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 and Pauline. In 1946 Pauline married the British flying ace Alan Geoffrey Page.

Later life[edit]

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.[4]


1929Red AcesKinsfeather, T.B.
1930The SqueakerCollie
Birds of PreyManager
1931The CalendarLord Willie Panniford
1932The MidshipmaidMajor Spink
Lord Camber's LadiesLord Camber
1933I Was a SpyScottie
Channel CrossingNigel Guthrie
1934Coming-Out PartyTroon, the Butler
Stand Up and Cheer!Eustis Dinwiddle
Murder in TrinidadBertram Lynch
Treasure IslandSquire Trelawney
The Lady Is WillingWelton
Springtime for HenryJohnny Jewlliwell
The Scarlet PimpernelThe Prince of Wales
1935Becky SharpJoseph Sedley
SheHorace Holly
JalnaMaurice Vaughn
The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte CarloIvan
1936The Trail of the Lonesome PineThurber
Under Two FlagsCapt. Menzies
The White AngelDr. West
Follow Your HeartHenri Forrester
The Charge of the Light BrigadeSir Benjamin Warrenton
1936The Man I MarryRobert Hartley
1937Thunder in the CityDuke Of Glenavon
The Last of Mrs. CheyneyLord Willie Winton
1938The Baroness and the ButlerMajor Andros
KidnappedNeil MacDonald
SuezSir Malcolm Cameron
1939The Hound of the BaskervillesDr. Watson
The Adventures of Sherlock HolmesDr. John H. Watson
The Rains CameLord Albert Esketh
1940The Blue BirdMr. Luxury
Adventure in DiamondsCol. J.W. Lansfield
RebeccaMajor Giles Lacy
Lillian RussellWilliam S. Gilbert
Susan and GodHutchins Stubbs
A Dispatch from Reuter'sSir Randolph Persham
1941Hudson's BayPrince Rupert
Play GirlWilliam McDonald Vincent
Free and EasyFlorian Clemington
This Woman Is MineDuncan MacDougall
The Chocolate SoldierBernard Fischer, Critic
1942Roxie HartE. Clay Benham
This Above AllRamsbottom
Eagle SquadronMcKinnon
Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of TerrorDr. John H. Watson
Journey for MargaretHerbert V. Allison
1943Sherlock Holmes and the Secret WeaponDr. John H. Watson
Forever and a DayMaj. Garrow
Sherlock Holmes in WashingtonDr. John H. Watson
Sherlock Holmes Faces DeathDr. John H. Watson
Lassie Come HomeDuke of Rudling
Crazy HouseDr. John H. Watson (Cameo appearance)
1944The Spider WomanDr. John H. Watson
The Scarlet ClawDr. John H. Watson
The Pearl of DeathDr. John H. Watson
Gypsy WildcatHigh Sheriff
Frenchman's CreekLord Godolphin
1945Sherlock Holmes and the House of FearDr. John H. Watson
The Corn Is GreenThe Squire
Son of LassieDuke of Radling
The Woman in GreenDr. John H. Watson
Pursuit to AlgiersDr. John H. Watson
1946Terror by NightDr. John H. Watson
Dressed to KillDr. John H. Watson
1947The Two Mrs. CarrollsDr. Tuttle
The ExileSir Edward Hyde
1948Julia MisbehavesCol. Bruce "Bunny" Willowbrook
1950VendettaSir Thomas Nevil
1952Hong KongMr. Lighton
LimelightPostant, an Impresario
Bwana DevilDr. Angus McLean
1954World for RansomGovernor Sir Charles Coutts


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, 14 October 1953.
  2. ^ a b Matthew E. Bunson (1997). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana. Simon & Schuster. p. 38. ISBN 0-02-861679-0. 
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Utechin, Nick ed.; Fanning, Stuart (poster) (Winter 1998). "Excerpts from Games, Gossip and Greasepaint". Sherlock Holmes Journal 19 (1). Retrieved 12 August 2007. 
  • Parker, John ed. (1947). Who's Who in the Theatre (10th revised ed.). London: Pitman. pp. 341–2. OCLC 6344958. 
  • Townend, Peter ed. (1970). Burke's Peerage, Baronetage, and Knightage (105th ed.). London: Burke's Peerage. p. 389. OCLC 8948585. 

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