Born William Nigel Ernle Bruce in 4 February, 1895, in Ensenada, Mexico, to British parents, he was formally educated in England. In school, he excelled at sports, and became part of the cricket team
at Abingdon School. In 1912, he begun a career in the stock market in the City of London.
In 1914, before the first World War, he enlisted as a voluntary in the auxiliary Territorial Force of the British Army. When the conflict broke out, he was sent with his regiment to the Western Front. Despite the fact that eventually he suffered severe injuries in both legs, being as a result discharged as an invalid — having to spend most of the following year recovering —, he re-enlisted in 1916, being recruited again; however, this time to attend more bureaucratic demands.
When the war was over, Nigel Bruce had decided not to return to work in the stock market, as now he was completely passionate about acting. Determined to dedicate himself to his new found vocation, he rapidly started a career in the performing arts. Nigel Bruce made his stage debut in 1920 as a character in the play Why Marry?. Two years later, he would make his film debut in the silent Flames of Passion — now a lost film —, in a minor uncredited role. In 1930, at thirty-five years old, he would start a solid career in the movie industry, that would last until his death, in 1953. In 1934, Nigel Bruce relocated to Hollywood, where he would live for the rest of his life.
The first and the second movie — the following was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes —, were both released in 1939. They were produced by 20th Century Fox, that dropped the Sherlock Holmes series project soon thereafter. Nevertheless, Universal Studios acquired the rights for the screen to shoot the entire series, but resumed production with substantial differences. While the Fox films were big budget efforts, inspired by the original works of Conan Doyle, the Universal movies were usually low budget productions, with contemporary setting, rather than the Victorian era, where the Holmes universe is situated. Because of the period, Second World War, some features in the series saw Holmes and Watson fighting the nazis.
These movies were usually hour long features, rarely exceeding this time. The last feature in the series was Dressed to Kill, also known as Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code, released in 1946, that was one of the least successful. Regardless of the reception of the movies — some were enthusiastically received, while others failed to captivate critics and audicences alike —, both Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were widely praised by their performances as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively. Nevertheless, despite his competent acting skills, ardorous enthusiasts and avid readers of the Sherlock Holmes adventures written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle labeled Nigel Bruce's interpretation of Watson as too humorous, condesceding and caricaturesque, arguing that he gave the character an exaggerated comic atmosphere, incompatible with the Watson described by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes works.
There's no denying the fact that Nigel Bruce really gave the Watson character a more laid back, friendly and fun aspect. Nevertheless, his interpretation of Watson was crystallized as definitive in the minds of generations of viewers, and certainly can be seen as one of the best in the history of Sherlock Holmes feature film adaptations.
Despite the brief stint as Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes film series, Nigel Bruce enjoyed his career when the series was over, being in demand afterwards. He also had roles in two Alfred Hitchcock films, 1940 Rebecca and 1941 Suspicion. In total, he had roles in almost eighty movies, in a twenty-three years feature films career.
If he remains best remembered as the character Dr. Watson, this is because his remarkable acting skills went generally underappreciated, as he was never given the opportunity to fully demonstrate his versatility. During all the time he spent in the United States, Nigel Bruce never sought American citizenship, and remained a British subject for all his life. Well-liked and appreciated among the community of English expatriates in Hollywood, Nigel Bruce was an avid cricket player throughout his life. For some time, he was the captain of the Hollywood Cricket Club, whose members were mostly British. The actor died of a heart attack, in 8 October, 1953, at fifty-eight years old. His last film, the drama World for Ransom — directed by Robert Aldrich —, was released posthumously.