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Monday, September 7, 2020

Nigel Bruce: The Man Who Would Be Watson

Internet research is indispensable, but sometimes you just have to ask the right person to get the right answer.

Over the weekend, I had a vague recollection that Nigel Bruce wrote an unpublished autobiography. That’s all I remembered. So, on Saturday afternoon I popped an email over the ocean to my British friend Roger Johnson, the always-helpful editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal, to ask him if there was indeed a Bruce memoir.

On Sunday, Roger sent me a PDF of eight pages from the Winter 1988 number of the Journal. A couple of pages consists of Nicholas Utechin’s interview with Nigel Bruce’s daughter, Pauline Page, and the rest is made up of excerpts from Bruce’s unpublished memoir, Games, Gossip and Greasepaint.

Ms. Page lovingly describes her father as a gregarious, intelligent, very funny man who read at least a book a day and fit in well with Hollywood’s British colony, which included David Niven and Boris Karloff as well as his great friend, Basil Rathbone. She remembered Rathbone fondly as a “wonderful, kind, loving, gentle – really gentle – man without a nasty streak in his body.”

Bruce took just over three years to write his autobiography, ending on Nov. 3, 1947. The extracts in the Journal are limited to his role as Dr. Watson. That began in 1938 when Basil Rathbone sent him a telegram in New York, where he had been involved in a failed Broadway play: “Do come back to Hollywood, Willie dear boy, and play Doctor Watson to my Sherlock Holmes. We’ll have great fun together.”

“Willie,” as all Bruce’s friends called him, was soon making The Hound of the Baskervilles. He earned nearly $10,000 for the picture.

“I never worked with a nicer man than Basil,” he writes, “and I never acted with a more unselfish or more co-operative actor.”

His assessment of Rathbone was based on an experience that included 13 more Holmes films and a long-running Holmes radio series. They also spent many hours together playing golf, both having a 10 handicap.

“Our (Universal) Sherlock Holmes pictures took between 18 and 22 days to make,” he reports. For this he was initially paid a salary of $850 a week in 1942 for 40 weeks. By 1945 his contract was for $1,150 a week, but he was laid off for 12 weeks – during which time he arranged an operation on his legs, which had been wounded in World War I. He acknowledges that Watson "was made much more of a 'comic' character than he ever was in the books."  

Bruce was also playing Dr. Watson on the radio for $500 a week at the same time. This was not only good money, but security for an actor.  

Although Pauline Page blames Basil Rathbone’s “very ambitious, rather pushy little wife” Ouida for ending the Holmes film series, Bruce’s final words about Rathbone in the excerpt are: “Ours had been a very happy association and one which had brought me much publicity and a lot of money. During our long time together Basil and I never had a row or any unpleasantness of any sort.”

Bruce ends his memoir with the hope that his two daughters “will enjoy their lives as much as their father has enjoyed every minute of his.”

It is good to know that William Nigel Ernle Bruce, who gave so much happiness to the rest of us, was a happy man himself. He died in 1953 at the age of 58, one month shy of five years after finishing his memoir.


  1. How very charming. I would love to read what Mr. Bruce had to say about his delightful career. He was a far better actor than he is ever given credit for these days.
    His wit and intellect must be on full display in his autobiography. I truly wish I could locate an entire copy of it somewhere.