Obit of the Day (Historical): William Hartnell (1975)
When William Hartnell was approached by Verity Lambert, the first female producer for the BBC, to take on the role of an alient time traveler for a new science fiction show, he was wary. He considered himself a serious actor and the idea of taking on an unknown role in a show aimed at families and children could have ended his career. But the idea that his two granddaughters would watch him star in the new endeavor outweighed his concerns.
On November 23, 1963, Mr. Hartnell made his first television appearance as Doctor Who in an episode titled “An Unearthly Child.” The show was an immediate success and Mr. Hartnell starred as the Doctor for four seasons. During his tenure, Mr. Hartnell starred in 136 episodes.
It was a long road for Mr. Hartnell to travel. Born to a single mother in 1908, Mr. Hartnell never knew his father. Embarrassed by his upbringing and bullied constantly as a child for being “illegitimate,” he would later make up stories about a father he never knew. He grew up shuttled to different homes as his mother tried to find work, including traveling to Belgium to work as a nurse. Mr. Hartnell even took to shoplifting.
His life changed forever when he was taken in by Hugh Blakner, an artist and philanthropist, who paid for the young Hartnell’s education first as a jockey and then, more significantly, as an actor.
As a teenager he joined a Shakespearean company and worked his way up from stagehand to performer. By the 1930s Mr. Hartnell had found his way into the British film industry making his first on-screen appearance in the 1932 film Say It With Music.
For the next forty years, Mr. Hartnell made numerous appearances in film and television as a supporting player. He is best known, outside of The Doctor, for his role as CSM Bullisom in the BBC comedy The Army Game (1957-1960).But he was noticed for the first time by Ms. Lambert for his portrayal of a rugby coach in the film This Sporting Life (1963).
Mr. Hartnell’s health ended his career as the Doctor. He had developed ateriosclerosis which was effecting him performance physically and mentally. It was at this time that the producers created the idea of “regeneration” which allowed the character to change appearance and personality. This allows different actors to play the role while maintaining continuity. (How James Bond is a more traditional example of changing actors for a role.) Mr Hartnell himself recommended his replacement, Patrick Troughton. The transition from the first to the second Doctor took place on October 29, 1966.
Mr. Hartnell made a few television appearances after leaving Doctor Who but his health limited his performances. Even for The Three Doctors, a 10th anniversary reunion serial, the writers promised his wife Heather* that Mr. Hartnell would sit for most of his time on-screen and read his lines from cue cards.
William Hartnell, the first Doctor, died on April 23, 1975 at the age of 67.
Sources: The Daily Mirror, Wikipedia, and IMDB.com
(Image of Mr. Harnell as Doctor Who during filming in the 1965 serial The Web Planet. It is copyright of BBC and courtesy of neitshade5.wordpress.com)
* The Hartnells married in 1929. And Mr, Hartnell treated her terribly. As told in his biography Who’s There?: The Life and Career of William Hartnell, which was written by his grandddaughter Jessica Carney, Mr. Hartnell was a known womanizer and Mrs. Hartnell tried on several occasions to obtain a divorce. They never separated and were married until he died - 46 years.
Other Doctor Who posts on Obit of the Day:
Caroline John - played “Liz” Shaw, companion of the third Doctor
Raymond Cusick - Creator of the Daleks
Nicholas Courtney - Col. Lethbridge-Stewart
Elisabeth Sladen - Sarah Jane Smith