Born: 16th December 1929 (as William Nicholas Stone Courtney)
The son of a diplomat, Nicholas Courtney was born in Egypt but spent time during his childhood in France, Nairobi and Kenya, as well as the United Kingdom. Following his National Service, he worked in a department store before winning a place at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. He then spent several years in repertory theatre, while also working as an assistant stage manager. His first television role was a small part in a 1957 installment of ITV Television Playhouse. In 1962, Courtney married a French nurse named Madeleine Seignol. They would have two children, Phillip and Isabella.
Courtney's career on the small screen started to pick up in the mid-Sixties, with credits on No Hiding Place, The Avengers and The Saint. In 1965, he was a candidate to play King Richard III in the Doctor Who serial The Crusade, but director Douglas Camfield had already earmarked Julian Glover for the role. Later that year, Camfield instead cast Courtney as intergalactic espionage agent Bret Vyon in the first four episodes of The Daleks' Master Plan. The next year, Courtney was a lead in Watch The Birdies, while an uncredited appearance in The Brides Of Fu Manchu was a rare film role. Late Sixties television included Softly Softly, Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), and a return to The Avengers.
However, Doctor Who wasn't finished with Courtney yet -- not in the slightest. In late 1967, Camfield was back on Doctor Who to make the Yeti story The Web Of Fear for Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor. He cast Courtney as the ill-fated Captain Knight. However, when actor David Langton abruptly backed out of playing Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, Camfield promoted Courtney; the character and the serial were both successes. The Doctor Who production team began contemplating a revised programme format, centred around a para-military organisation called the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce: UNIT. Lethbridge-Stewart, now promoted to Brgadier, would be its leader.
UNIT and Lethbridge-Stewart's new role were established in 1968's The Invasion. Courtney then signed a two-year contract to appear opposite Jon Pertwee's Third Doctor beginning with his debut adventure, Spearhead From Space. Although Courtney occasionally suffered bouts of depression, and only slowly warmed to Pertwee, this would become one of the happiest times of his professional career. When Katy Manning, John Levene, Richard Franklin and Roger Delgado joined the programme over the course of the following year, they forged a close-knit “UNIT family” not only in front of the cameras, but behind the scenes as well.
Courtney's involvement in Doctor Who gradually diminished during the latter part of the Pertwee era. At the same time, he was in shows such as Doomwatch, The Rivals Of Sherlock Holmes and The Two Ronnies. By the time Tom Baker took over as the Doctor, the UNIT format was being dispensed with, and Courtney made his final regular appearance as the Brigadier in 1975's Terror Of The Zygons. Attempts to bring Lethbridge-Stewart back in several stories over the next couple of years all failed, for various reasons. This was a low point for Courtney, whose marriage was also ending. The actor placed a renewed emphasis on the stage, including a run as the Narrator in The Rocky Horror Show, and also found success on the radio, where he was briefly a regular on the soap opera Waggoners' Walk.
On television, Courtney appeared with Peter Davison on All Creatures Great And Small in 1980 and Sink Or Swim a year later. In 1983, he was invited to reprise the role of Lethbridge-Stewart opposite Davison's Fifth Doctor in Mawdryn Undead. This was the first of three Eighties Doctor Who appearances for the Brigadier, and Courtney also enjoyed an uncredited cameo in the twenty-fifth anniversary story, Silver Nemesis, in 1988. Other television during the decade included Minder, Juliet Bravo and Yes, Prime Minister. On stage, he had the first of two stints in Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap.
In 1990, Courtney married Karen Harding. His career began to slow during the Nineties, but he still appeared in shows like Screen One and Satellite City, while a starring role in the long-delayed Then Churchill Said To Me finally made it to air. Courtney returned to the Brigadier several times: in the 1993 Children In Need sketch Dimensions In Time, the 1995 video drama Downtime for Reeltime Pictures, and two productions for BBC Radio -- The Paradise Of Death and The Ghosts Of N-Space -- which reunited him with Jon Pertwee.
From the late Nineties, Courtney worked for Big Finish Productions on several occasions. In particular, their range of Doctor Who audio dramas provided the opportunity for Lethbridge-Stewart to appear alongside Doctors he had not encountered on television. In the mid-Eighties, plans to pair the Brigadier with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor had been scuppered, but they finally met in 2000's The Spectre Of Lanyon Moor. Similarly, Lethbridge-Stewart featured in the 2001 Eighth Doctor story Minuet In Hell.
Courtney's health began to decline during the first decade of the new millennium, but he could be seen in programmes such as Soldiers Of Love, Doctors and The Bill. He also had a starring role in The Scarifyers for BBC Radio. He published two autobiographies: Five Rounds Rapid! was released by Virgin Books in 1998, and was followed in 2005 by Still Getting Away With It, co-written with Michael McManus and issued by Scificollector. In 2002, Big Finish released The Nicholas Courtney Memoirs: A Soldier In Time, read by Courtney himself.
Courtney's last movie was 2008's Incendiary, and his final television credit came later the same year: fittingly, it was a valedictory appearance as Lethbridge-Stewart in Enemy Of The Bane, the second-season finale of Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. A second appearance in the show, joining David Tennant's Tenth Doctor in The Wedding Of Sarah Jane Smith, was sadly made impossible when Courtney suffered a stroke in 2009. Soon thereafter, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which took his life on February 22nd, 2011.
|Updated 30th May 2020|
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