Born: 8th January 1908 (as William Henry Hartnell)
Born in London to an unwed mother and never aware of his father's identity, William Hartnell would spend the rest of his life haunted by the shame he felt towards his origins. Raised sometimes by his mother and sometimes by extended family, much of Hartnell's impoverished youth was spent at the margins of juvenile delinquency. But it was a decision at age thirteen to join a boy's boxing club which would change the course of his life. There he met an artist named Hugh Blaker who effectively became Hartnell's surrogate father, encouraging his interest in Shakespeare and helping him enroll at the Italia Conti Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Still in his teens, Hartnell joined the Shakespearean repertory company led by Sir Frank Benson. This led to bigger opportunities, including a tour of Canada during which Hartnell met an actress named Heather McIntyre. A year later -- on May 9th, 1929 -- Hartnell and McIntyre were married. Their only child, Heather Anne, was born the following December.
In the late Twenties, Hartnell began to appear in movies, initially as an extra. In the early Thirties, he appeared in his first radio broadcast and made his West End debut. He soon progressed to leading film roles, albeit typically in cheaply-made crime thrillers and comedies. In 1940, World War Two briefly put Hartnell's acting career on hold as he joined the British Army, but a nervous breakdown resulted in his discharge less than a year later.
What for a long time seemed to be Hartnell's definitive role came in 1944, when he played Sergeant Ned Fletcher opposite David Niven in director Carol Reed's war movie The Way Ahead. For the next two decades, Hartnell found himself cast again and again as similarly gruff heavies -- be they military types, policemen or crooks -- including Dallow in Brighton Rock (1948) with Richard Attenborough, Sergeant Buckley in The Mouse That Roared (1959) with Peter Sellers, and even Sergeant Grimshaw in Carry On Sergeant (1958), which launched the long-running Carry On farce franchise. The burgeoning medium of television offered Hartnell no refuge from typecasting. He made his small screen debut in a 1955 installment of London Playhouse, but his first regular television role was as yet another military man, Sergeant Major Bullimore, in two seasons of The Army Game spanning 1957 and 1961.
But while these roles brought Hartnell enormous success -- even inspiring the formation of his own fan club -- the actor himself grew weary of the rut in which his career had become trapped. He began yearning for opportunities to display different facets of his acting talent, and found one such role in the 1963 drama This Sporting Life. Such was the versatility that Hartnell displayed as an aging rugby scout that it prompted producer Verity Lambert to offer him the lead role in her new television show, Doctor Who, later the same year. Although Hartnell was initially reticent to commit himself to such an unusual project, he ultimately agreed to play the Doctor, and made his debut in the first episode of 100,000 BC in November 1963.
While Hartnell soon fell in love with Doctor Who -- and was particularly fond of his newfound popularity with its juvenile audience -- enormous trials lay ahead. Although he was only fifty-five years old when he was cast as the Doctor, Hartnell found himself exhausted by the almost year-round production schedule, which saw him shuffling back and forth between London and the Sussex cottage he shared with his wife. Most notably, he often struggled with his lines -- an issue that was hard to mitigate, given the primitive state of editing in an industry that still behaved as though a drama like Doctor Who were being broadcast live.
To make matters worse, Hartnell was discomfited by the frequent changes in Doctor Who personnel -- both behind the camera and in front of it -- and his relationship with Lambert's successor as producer, John Wiles, was particularly acrimonious. After a matter of months, Wiles and his script editor, Donald Tosh, devised a plan to replace Hartnell with a different actor during the fantastical events of The Celestial Toymaker. But when the BBC vetoed the move, Wiles and Tosh resigned from Doctor Who instead.
Even though Hartnell got along better with his third producer, Innes Lloyd, the writing was on the wall. Unbeknownst to the actor, Hartnell from suffering from arteriosclerosis -- exacerbated by his heavy consumption of alcohol -- which was gradually inhibiting his memory and weakening his body. Lloyd soon came to realise that Hartnell's health was too fragile to withstand the rigours of making Doctor Who. Hartnell finally agreed to relinquish the role of the Doctor following the recording of one final adventure, The Tenth Planet, in October 1966. He would be replaced by Patrick Troughton.
Despite his poor health, Hartnell continued to act in both television (including episodes of No Hiding Place and Softly, Softly) and the theatre. His mental and physical prowess continued to diminish, however, and in 1970 he was forced to retire. During these years, Hartnell rarely watched Doctor Who due to the upset he still felt towards the circumstances surrounding his departure. Nonetheless, he agreed to return to the programme in 1972 for the tenth-anniversary story The Three Doctors, though his ill health meant that his involvement was far more limited than had originally been intended. The Three Doctors turned out to be Hartnell's final acting performance. Crippled by a series of strokes, he passed away in his sleep on April 23rd, 1975.
For many years, the shadow of Hartnell's legend loomed over Doctor Who like that of a remote, unknowable mountain. However, this began to change in the early Nineties, when new research into the show's formative years began to shed better light on its original leading man. In 1996, Virgin Publishing released Jessica Carney's biography of her grandfather entitled Who's There?: The Life And Career Of William Hartnell; it was updated and reissued by Fantom Publishing in 2013. Carney's book, in turn, influenced Mark Gatiss' script for An Adventure In Space And Time, the 2013 dramatisation of the creation of Doctor Who. Here, David Bradley's portrayal of William Hartnell provided a sympathetic yet largely unvarnished glimpse into the life of the man whose creation of the Doctor would finally propel him beyond humble beginnings and career frustrations, into eternity.
|Updated 4th May 2020|
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