Bobs Watson seemed destined for a lifetime in pictures, moving or otherwise. He was the youngest of nine siblings, all of whom were child actors. He appeared in 125 films before he was 10; screen roles for the nine Watson children ultimately topped 1,000.
All of his five older brothers became press photographers--his brother Delmar owns the largest known archive of historical Los Angeles photographs--and their uncle George "Rally" Watson had been the first staff photographer of The Times.
But on Jan. 18, 1966, with more than three decades of lucrative film and TV work behind him, Bobs (his real name) chucked the celluloid world to become an $1,800-a-year minister with the United Methodist Church.
The career change, puzzling to many who knew him, was the result of his experiences nearly 30 years earlier on the set of "Boys Town," the classic 1938 MGM drama starring Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy, who won an Academy Award for his role as Father Flanagan. Watson's performance at age 7 as the endearing ragamuffin Pee Wee won the hearts of viewers across the nation and led to a lucrative contract offer from Louis B. Mayer.
He ministered until 1993, when he left, saying wanted to devote more time to raising funds and speaking on behalf of Boys Town, which serves 27,000 disadvantaged children nationwide each year.
Now, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, he spends his days in his Los Angeles home working on his memoirs, hoping to leave his three sons, Christian, Timothy and Patrick, with a better understanding of his life, beginning as a child of Hollywood in the 1930s.
"The house I was raised in was about 600 feet from Mack Sennett's studios and offices [near] Echo Park," Watson recalls. "As a result of being so close to the studios, my dad started out renting horses for the silent movies for $2 a day."
And jobs for the kids weren't far behind.
"They'd literally say to my dad, 'Hey Coy, have you got any kids about so tall?' " Watson recalls, holding his hand a few feet off the ground. "He'd come home and pick out one of the kids that the part would be for. . . . They weren't all major films--a lot were one-, two- and three-reelers--but we always had at least bit parts with some lines."
Watson's first role came at age 6 months, in "Riding to Fame" in 1931. By age 7 he had worked on more than two dozen films, having demonstrated an easy ability to cry on command, providing memorable performances in "In Old Chicago" (1938) and "On Borrowed Time" (1939).
Soon after came the part that changed his life.
"When we were making the film I didn't realize that all [the orphans at Boys Town] had to eat was what they grew there; I think they only had one kind of vegetable," recalls Watson, 66, who lives in Los Angeles. "It was also a time when simple acts of kindness were taken to heart. There was one boy whose job was to meet us every day. I always called him 'Ants in the Pants.' When we left, he gave me his one prized possession, a bag of marbles with a hole in it, which I still have 59 years later."
Through "Boys Town," Watson got to meet the real Father Flanagan, who coined the phrase, "There is no such thing as a bad boy." Whenever he talked to the children, Watson recalled warmly, he would kneel down to their eye level. "Since that time, I can never look at a child without seeing them through the eyes of Father Flanagan. He was many things, but mostly, he was a man who didn't care what denomination you were," Watson says. "I was a 7-year-old Methodist but all he saw was a boy who, like all boys, needed to be loved."
Tracy shared many qualities with the man he portrayed, including eyes that could look "right into your soul," Watson recalls. "Having to look into his eyes, with the magnitude that he had, he was such a loving, caring character who profoundly influenced me. Whenever I would try to picture a 'man of God,' I would always think back to Spencer Tracy and Father Flanagan."
Following "Boys Town," MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer offered Watson a six-year contract for $265,000, an enormous amount of money at that time. His father sought counsel from Tracy, who had become a close friend.
"Don't do it. If you sign him under contract, then they will own him and he will no longer be your child," Watson recalls Tracy telling his father. "I think my dad is the only man who ever said no to Louis B. Mayer."
Watson continued to work before being drafted into the Army, where he made training films and appeared in more than 600 shows. After his discharge he made "The Bold and the Brave" with Rooney, and had numerous film and TV roles.
Still, Watson remembered the experiences of "Boys Town" and began to question his priorities, remembering this as his calling to enter the ministry. "I didn't have a choice," he says. "I was called to it and when you're called, you have to respond."
Over the next three decades, he served as a Methodist minister in Las Vegas and Southern California, using his acting expertise, props, make-up or jokes to dramatize his Scripture readings.
In 1988, Watson returned to Boys Town for the first time, joining Rooney for the 50th anniversary of the making of the movie. In 1990, he delivered the dedication sermon for Boys Town's $5 1/2-million chapel, and on Nov. 16, 1991--his 61st birthday--he helped celebrate the organization's 75th anniversary.
For Watson, being part of Boys Town again was like coming home. At the same time, however, he became increasingly discontented with the politics involved in being a minister, and in 1992 ended his active ministry after 31 years. In some ways, Watson's career duplicated that of his role model, Father Flanagan, who was also known for challenging rules and belief systems that he felt did not apply.
Now reflecting back on his dual careers, Watson says, "I feel sometimes that I've lived about six lifetimes. I've been honored and kicked around in the dirt but it's always been a tremendous learning process as an individual. . . . Acting is understanding people's feelings and I am able to do that with great depth. That's been both a blessing and a curse."