By Jack El-Hai (Regular Contributor)
As a schoolboy, Bobby Watson sold peanuts amid the laughs and groans in the Olympic Theater in Springfield, Illinois. He soon became a vaudevillian himself, joined a traveling medicine show, and struggled to the stages of Broadway by the time he was 30. There Watson made his mark as a musical performer and comedian, performing in such shows as The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly, American Born, and The Greenwich Village Follies.
Who could have guessed that the prat-falling and facially expressive actor would someday become best known for his repeated portrayals of the world’s most reviled leader, Adolf Hitler?
Germany’s führer had first become actor’s fodder in 1935, when the actor Konparu Minamizato played him in the little-seen Japanese short film Uma Kaeru. Five years later, in his most commercially successful film The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin appeared as Hitler and famously performed a mock ballet with a floating globe.
At about the same time, however, someone noticed that Watson — already a veteran of dozens of minor film comedies — bore a strong resemblance to Hitler. When he donned a National Socialist costume, brushed across his hair, and sported the distinctive Hitlerian mustache, the similarity was remarkable. Watson appeared as the Nazi for the first time in a Three Stooges short titled You Natzy Spy, which was followed by another Moe, Larry, and Curly comedy called I’ll Never Heil Again.
From those roles as Hitler, Watson was off and running. He impersonated Hitler many times in the years that followed, in such films as Hitler: Dead or Alive (1942), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), The Hitler Gang (1944), A Foreign Affair (1948), The Story of Mankind (1957), On the Double (1961), and finally The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962). Only Watson’s death in 1965 ended the streak.
Watson, it should also be remembered, acted in many movies without wearing the swastika armband. He was an Ozmite in The Wizard of Oz and a diction coach in Singin’ in the Rain, and he wrote three comedies that were produced during the 1930s.
After Watson, many more actors chewed through parts as the German leader. Among the best known are Billy Frick (who only appeared in films once not as Hitler), Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, Michael Sheard, Ian McKellen, and Derek Jacobi. None of these great actors looked the part more than Watson. For the rest of human history, Hitler’s image in newsreels and Leni Riefenstahl documentaries will compete against the comic portrayals of the boy from Springfield.
Bakke, Dave. “Famous Springfieldians.” Springfield State Journal-Register, November 6, 2011.
Mitchell, Charles P. The Hitler Filmography: Worldwide Feature Film and Television Miniseries Portrayals, 1940 through 2000. McFarland, 2002.
This post first appeared at Wonders & Marvels on 8 February 2013.