DoctorDoctor Who Guide

William Hartnell

Last updated 27 July 2014


William Hartnell (1908-1975)
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William Henry Hartnell

Born: Wed 8th January 1908
Died: Wed 23rd April 1975 (age: 67)

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William Hartnell was the actor who originated the role of the Doctor in the 1960s, playing the first incarnation of the character for BBC Television from 1963 to 1966.

Emerging from a difficult family background about which he was later evasive, Hartnell held down a succession of short-term odd jobs before turning to acting in the 1920s. He enjoyed success as a touring repertory actor, and in the 1930s began appearing in films, particularly the "quota quickies" companies were obliged to release to fulfil their obligations to promote British film. Here Hartnell developed his talents as a light comedy actor, but it was not until the Second World War that his reputation began to flourish. After being invalided out of the army, he appeared as the sergeant in the well-received propaganda piece The Way Ahead, and this helped him to develop a reputation for such tough-guy roles that won him many major supporting parts. Of all the actors to have played the Doctor he had the most successful film career, with major roles in landmark films such as Brighton Rock, as the eponymous sergeant in Carry On Sergeant and, cast against type in a sensitive character part, in the film version of This Sporting Life.

It was this role that led producer Verity Lambert to offer him the part of the Doctor. Although Hartnell was initially uncertain about it, Lambert and director Waris Hussein persuaded him to accept the part, and it became the role for which he is best remembered, making him a household name in 1960s Britain. Hartnell became incredibly attached to the role and particularly enjoyed the attention and affection it brought him from children, groups of whom would follow him around his local village. He would often happily open fetes and other functions in costume and character as the Doctor. Although ill health forced him to reluctantly relinquish the part in 1966, he remained fond of the series and in 1972, with his health rapidly deteriorating even further, battled his failing memory to film one final performance as the character in the tenth anniversary special The Three Doctors, which aired between December 30, 1972 and January 20, 1973. It was his final professional performance; he died on April 23, 1975, aged 67.

The actor is played by David Bradley in the 50th Anniversary drama An Adventure In Space And Time.






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