IN 1997, WHEN BOBS WATSON CALLED THE WEEKLY to inquire about directions to the paper's Theater Awards — he had received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as Candy in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena Theater — the crusty voice on the other end of the line departed with: “God bless you guys, for all you're doing.” It was a nice thing to say, if a bit excessive.
It turns out Watson had been minister for the United Methodist Church for over 30 years, a post from which he resigned in order to return to the stage in 1993 to play William H. Gallagher in Light Up the Sky. “A theater stage to me is another kind of holy place,” he told Entertainment Today in 1997, when he was working on Steinbeck's play — a performance which also garnered him an Ovations Award nomination.
It also turns out that Watson, then 67, was quietly battling terminal prostate cancer, and that playing Candy gave him what he regarded as an extra lease on life. Watson died the week before last. His fellow actors had no idea how ill he was and how much pain he was in. Co-performer Travis Michael Holder remembers that Watson seemed quite depressed much of the time, though after rehearsals, he was the first to grab a broom to sweep out the dressing rooms. Not what one might expect of a child film star who'd done 125 film roles by the time he was 10 years old.
Born in 1930, Watson was raised in an Echo Park house near Mack Sennett's studios. His father, Coy Watson Jr., rented horses to Sennett and offered his kids as bit players. (The Watson family was often referred to as “The First Family of Hollywood.”) Perhaps most influential upon the child actor were the spiritual values of Boys Town, in which he appeared when he was 5, and the kindness of Spencer Tracy in the role of Father Flanagan. It was this film, and the memory of Father Flanagan, that inspired Watson to later join the ministry, in 1963, where he did dramatizations and plays within the church. Before rehearsing Of Mice and Men, Watson would gather the company in a circle, holding hands, and he would say “encouraging words” (according to Holder) about the importance of what the company was doing. Occasionally, he would invoke the name of Christ, causing Holder to publicly question whether or not all members of the ensemble were Christians. “He immediately apologized for his insensitivity,” Holder says. “There was never any friction. He was a really cool guy, and a bit of a prankster.”
Watson is survived by his wife, Jaye, three sons, four brothers and a sister.