Born: 7th July 1919 (as John Devon Roland Pertwee)
It's not unreasonable to suggest that Jon Pertwee was destined to be an actor. His father's family had been involved in the profession for generations and, with his parents' marriage already falling apart before his birth in Chelsea, London, it was the Pertwees who raised him. His godfather was the highly-respected Shakespearean actor Henry Ainley whose son, Anthony, would play the Master in Doctor Who during the Eighties. As a child, John Pertwee was frequently in trouble at school, but he also became involved in amateur dramatics and even daredevil circus performing. In 1936, a noticeable lisp stymied his application to the Central School of Speech and Drama. But Pertwee persevered and won a place at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts... only to be expelled shortly thereafter, when he refused to accept a minor role in a play.
Instead, he threw himself into repertory theatre, where a typographical error led him to adopt the stage name “Jon” Pertwee. By 1938, he was appearing in a West End production of Goodbye Mr Chips, while making his debut on BBC Radio. The same year, he became a film extra at Denham Studios, starting with A Yank At Oxford. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Pertwee joined the Royal Navy. He was transferred from HMS Hood mere weeks before nearly all hands were lost during the infamous hunt for the German battleship Bismarck, but he later suffered a traumatic back injury in a bombing run that would plague him for the rest of his life. Pertwee was subsequently assigned to intelligence work alongside James Bond creator Ian Fleming, an experience which stoked his interest in gadgetry. He also became involved in radio comedy, developing a wide repertoire of voices. This association continued after the War, most notably on the long-running The Navy Lark, which ran for eighteen years from 1959.
Meanwhile, Pertwee began appearing on television, initially with hosting duties on Little Show in 1946. He also gained a larger foothold in the cinema. In 1953's Will Any Gentleman...?, Pertwee appeared alongside the future First Doctor, William Hartnell. It was here that he met actress Jean Marsh -- later to play Doctor Who companion Sara Kingdom in The Daleks' Master Plan -- and they married in 1955. Unfortunately, a 1959 parody of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde called The Ugly Duckling saw Pertwee exacerbate his back injury, following an accident involving star Bernard Bresslaw. Pertwee and Marsh were divorced in 1960, by which time he had already begun a relationship with Ingeborg Rhoesa; they married the same year. Together they had a daughter, Dariel, and a son, Sean; both followed in the family tradition by becoming actors, with Sean Pertwee enjoying a cameo appearance in the Doctor Who fiftieth-anniversary spoof, The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot (2013).
During the Sixties, Pertwee appeared in three films in the Carry On comedy series, as well as other titles like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. He maintained a strong presence on the stage, with There's A Girl In My Soup transferring to Broadway in 1967. Pertwee's American exposure meant that he had to turn down the offer of a role in the classic comedy series Dad's Army. Indeed, Pertwee's television appearances during the decade were sporadic, although they did include shows like A Slight Case Of..., Beggar My Neighbour and The Avengers. Pertwee also released an album in 1962 called Jon Pertwee Sings Songs For Vulgar Boatmen.
When word emerged that Patrick Troughton would be leaving Doctor Who in 1969, Pertwee was encouraged to apply for the role of the new Doctor by Tenniel Evans, with whom he co-starred on The Navy Lark. Although Pertwee's agent, Roger Stone, was less enthusiastic, he nonetheless made enquiries... and was astonished to learn that Pertwee was already second on the shortlist drawn up by producers Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin. When first choice Ron Moody passed on the role, it was offered to Pertwee. Following a discussion with BBC Head of Drama Shaun Sutton, whom he had known for many years, Pertwee agreed to play the Third Doctor. Although Bryant and Sherwin had intended to take advantage of Pertwee's comedic talents, their new leading man instead took Sutton's advice and decided to bring much of himself to the role. As such, the Third Doctor became a man of action who shared Pertwee's love of gadgets and vehicles.
Following his debut in 1970's Spearhead From Space, Pertwee remained on Doctor Who for five seasons -- longer than either of his predecessors. Flagging ratings had plagued the show during the latter part of Troughton's tenure, but the viewing figures now turned around, and Doctor Who enjoyed a renaissance. Virtually all of Pertwee's episodes were overseen by producer Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, who surrounded the Third Doctor with the so-called “UNIT Family” of characters, most notably Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and often pitted him against the original Master, played by Roger Delgado. Pertwee also made an unsuccessful attempt to write for the programme, collaborating with Reed de Rouen on “The Spare-Part People”. During his time on Doctor Who, Pertwee maintained his involvement with The Navy Lark, and also appeared in the 1971 horror film The House That Dripped Blood. In 1972, he released a single entitled Who Is The Doctor, which paired the Doctor Who theme music with such memorable lyrics as, “I cross the void beyond the mind, the empty space that circles time... I am the Doctor”.
However, Delgado's accidental death in 1973 was the beginning of the end for Pertwee's time on Doctor Who. With Manning, Letts and Dicks all deciding to leave the programme during the next year, Pertwee concluded that it was time for him to move on too. His decision was reinforced by the BBC's refusal of his request for a substantial pay raise, as well as the discomfort of his chronic back pain and a mounting sense of boredom with the role of the Doctor. He made his exit in 1974's Planet Of The Spiders. Pertwee immediately moved on to host the game show Whodunnit? for four years. He also appeared in The Goodies and Jackanory, while big screen roles included One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing and The Water Babies.
At the end of the decade, Pertwee embraced a second iconic role in the form of Worzel Gummidge's eponymous talking scarecrow. The original series ran from 1979 to 1981, and ended only when producers Southern Television lost their ITV franchise. In 1983, Pertwee returned to Doctor Who for the twentieth-anniversary special, The Five Doctors. Other Eighties television included a regular voice role in SuperTed and its sequel series, The Further Adventures Of SuperTed, and then the New Zealand-produced revival Worzel Gummidge Down Under, which ran from 1987 to 1989. A bid to lead another science-fiction series called Starwatch failed to proceed past a 1988 pilot.
In 1989, Pertwee was the original star of the stage show Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure, eventually handing over to Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor. Doctor Who's thirtieth-anniversary year in 1993 saw Pertwee reprise the Third Doctor in the charity special Dimensions In Time and the BBC Radio play The Paradise Of Death. Pertwee was also approached regarding Lost In The Dark Dimension, a direct-to-video movie intended to launch a new era for Doctor Who, but it ultimately went unproduced. Pertwee also appeared alongside other Doctor Who castmembers in the BBV video dramas The Airzone Solution and PROBE: The Zero Imperative. His last movie role was in 1992's Carry On Columbus, while final television appearances included an episode of Virtual Murder and the 1995 telefilm The Adventures Of Young Indiana Jones: Attack Of The Hawkmen.
Pertwee donned the Third Doctor's Inverness cape one last time for a Doctor Who fan film called Devious, which was recorded in 1995 but never completed. While on vacation in Connecticut on May 20th, 1996, Pertwee suffered a heart attack and passed away in his sleep. A week later, the British broadcast of the Eighth Doctor TV movie Doctor Who (1996) was dedicated to his memory. A second radio play, The Ghosts Of N-Space, which had been recorded in 1994, aired posthumously. It seemed almost inconceivable that even death could silence such an irrepressible, larger-than-life figure. Pertwee was the first person to embrace the blurring of the lines between Doctor and actor -- at conventions he would often emerge on-stage in full costume, declaring “I am the Doctor!” -- and he was essential to the broadening of Doctor Who's appeal beyond its original juvenile audience.
Pertwee wrote two autobiographies: Moon Boots And Dinner Suits was initially released in 1984, while I Am The Doctor: Jon Pertwee's Final Memoir was co-written with David J Howe and issued by Virgin Publishing in 1996. Jon Pertwee: The Biography by Bernard Bale was published by André Deutsch Ltd in 2000. With the permission of Pertwee's widow, Big Finish Productions used samples from Pertwee's performance in Devious to incorporate the Third Doctor into their fortieth-anniversary audio drama, Zagreus, in 2003.
|Updated 23rd July 2020|
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