Obituary: Bobs Watson

Tom Vallance
Tuesday 06 July 1999 23:02

A POPULAR child star of the movies, the freckle-faced, stockily built Bobs Watson was noted for his ability to convey convincingly both pluck and pathos. Not as precocious or cute as most child stars, the pudgy youngster had an appealing little-man smile and the ability to burst into tears on cue - most of his films included at least one major crying scene.

Among his most affecting roles were that of Pee Wee, Mickey Rooney's young friend in Boys Town, and the deaf child who learns to speak in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, but his best remembered role is that of little Pud in the film version of Paul Osborn's stage fantasy On Borrowed Time.

Born Robert Ball Watson in 1930 in Los Angeles, Watson had five brothers and three sisters, and all of them acted in movies. Their father Coy Watson worked in pictures in several capacities - as an actor, a special effects man, and even rented horses for silent westerns. "We grew up in the movies," said Bobs. "Mack Sennett's studio was a block away from our home, across the vacant lot where we used to play. To work in a movie was no different to us than playing third base in a game in the lot." The only member of the family who did not work in pictures was Bobs's mother. "Her career was being a mother and housewife to the fullest," said Bobs, adding, "We had very little materially. But in family togetherness, love, and love of God, we were extremely wealthy."

Watson's strong religious beliefs came from his father, who was the son of a Salvation Army chaplain, and religion was to play an important part in his life. "We were not in any way the typical Hollywood family," he recalled. "Prayer was to us as natural as breath itself. I remember before an especially difficult scene in On Borrowed Time my father took me to a quiet corner on the set and said, `Let's pray.' "

Watson made his screen debut in short subjects as a baby and was in such early films as Follow the Leader (1931) and The Fisherman (1933). At first he was called Bobby Watson, but changed to Bobs after it was discovered that there was already a bit-player named Bob Watson. Although Bobs was the most successful of the Watson children, all the money they made was put into one bank account that they shared equally.

In 1935 he appeared with six of his siblings (the only time that so many of them acted together) in Life Begins at Forty. Other films included The Murder Man (1935), Mary of Scotland (1936), Show Boat (1936) and In Old Chicago (1938) before Boys Town (1938), which starred Spencer Tracy in his Oscar- winning role as the true-life Father Flanagan, who founded a sanctuary for underprivileged youths.

Watson played a tot who idolises a rebellious youth (Mickey Rooney) who runs away but returns to Boys Town when Watson is run over (he survives). The film was made by MGM, who then cast Watson in the key role of Pud in On Borrowed Time (1940). As an orphan brought up by his lovable Gramps (Lionel Barrymore), Watson had several opportunities to burst into tears as he begged his grandfather not to leave him.

When Mr Brink, representing Death, arrives to take Gramps, the old man traps him in a tree with the result that nothing living can die. Brink tricks Pud into climbing a fence, from which he falls and breaks his back. Gramps then agrees to let Brink down if he will allow both Pud and himself to go together into the afterlife.

The sincerity of the performances by Barrymore and Watson made this tricky material effective, and MGM wanted to put Watson under contract, but his father refused. As a freelance, he had notable parts in two other major productions of 1939 - his moving cameo in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, and an effective role in Michael Curtiz's splendid western adventure Dodge City, in which Watson's accidental death during a gun battle provokes hero Errol Flynn to put on the sheriff's badge and clean up the town. (One critic, not susceptible to the skills of the occasionally shrill child actor, suggested that the death should have been considered justifiable homicide.)

Watson recreated his Boys Town role in the sequel Men of Boys Town (1941), but retired from films in the early 1940s to complete his education. He served in the infantry in the Korean War, then returned to acting to play small character roles in The Bold and the Brave (1956), The Story of Mankind (1957) and What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962), and during the 1960- 61 season he was a regular on television in The Jim Backus Show.

In 1962 he married, and the same year decided to enter the Church. "No matter how pleased I was with my career or my family," he later explained, "I kept hearing, `Isn't there something more you could do with your life?' " He became a pastor in the Methodist Church and in 1969 was ordained a full deacon.

Bobs returned to the screen in Ron Howard's directorial debut Grand Theft Auto (1977), billed as "Rev Bobs Watson" and playing a minister, but maintained little contact with the people he once worked with. In April this year the Watson family were awarded a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, but Bobs was too ill to attend. His final film, Deadly Illusions, made in 1998, has yet to be released.

"For a while," he stated of his job as a minister,

I used to worry that if I gave a really moving sermon, people would just figure that I was still acting, but I got over that. Actually, I think the ability I was known for around the studios was what has helped me the most as a clergyman. To get me to cry, the directors or my dad would tell me about some terrible trouble someone was having. I could always empathise and burst into tears. Now I just see what can be done to help the person who comes to me with a serious problem - and there is always something.

Robert Ball Watson, actor: born Los Angeles 16 November 1930; married 1962 (three sons; marriage dissolved); died Laguna Beach, California 26 June 1999.

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