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William Henry Hartnell (8 January 1908 – 23 April 1975) was an Englishmarker actor. During 1963-66, he was the first actor to play the lead role of the Doctor in the long-running science fiction television series Doctor Who.

Early life

Hartnell was born in St Pancras, Londonmarker, Englandmarker, the only child of Lucy Hartnell, an unmarried mother. He was raised partly by a foster mother, though he did spend many a happy childhood holiday in Devon with his mother's family of farmers, where he learnt to ride.

Hartnell never discovered the identity of his father (whose particulars are left blank on the existing birth certificate) despite efforts made by Hartnell to trace him. So ashamed was he by his illegitimacy that in later years, Hartnell deliberately concealed it in interviews. Often known as Billy, he left school without any prospects, and dabbled in the commission of petty crimes; through a boys' boxing club, Hartnell met the art collector Hugh Blaker, who would become his unofficial guardian and arrange for him initially to train as a jockey (horses were his first love) then help him enter the Italia Conti Academy, theatre being a passion of Hugh Blaker, who paid for Hartnell to receive some 'polish' at the Imperial Service College, though he found the strictures too much and ran away.

Hartnell entered the theatre in 1925 working under Frank Benson as a general stagehand. In 1928 he appeared in the play Miss Elizabeth's Prisoner, by R. N. Stephens and E. Lyall Swete, along with the actress Heather McIntyre. The following year they married. The first of more than sixty film appearances was Say It With Music in 1932.

At the outbreak of the Second World War Hartnell served in the Tank Corps, but was invalided out after eighteen months as the result of suffering a nervous breakdown, and he returned to acting. Hartnell usually played comic characters, until 1944 when he was cast in the robust role of Sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead. From then on his career was defined by playing mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs , though he was noted for his ability to bring complexity to such roles, particularly his widely praised performance as Dallow in Brighton Rock (1947). In 1958 he played the sergeant in the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant and in 1963 he appeared as a town councillor in the Boulting Brothers' film Heavens Above! with Peter Sellers. William Hartnell also appeared as Will Buckley in the film The Mouse That Roared in 1959 (again with Sellers).

His first regular role on television was as Sergeant Major Percy Bullimore in The Army Game from 1957–1961. In 1963 he appeared in a supporting role in the film version of This Sporting Life, giving a sensitive performance as an aging rugby league talent scout known as 'Dad'.

After living at 51 Church Street, Isleworthmarker, next door to Hugh Blaker, the Hartnells lived on The Island, Thames Ditton. Then in the 1960s they moved to a cottage in Mayfield, Sussex.

Doctor Who (1963–1966)

Hartnell's performance in This Sporting Life was noted by Verity Lambert, the producer who was setting up a new science-fiction television series for the BBC, Doctor Who. Lambert offered him the title role. Although Hartnell was initially uncertain, Lambert and director Waris Hussein convinced him to take the part and it became the character for which he gained the highest profile and is now most remembered. Hartnell later revealed he took the role as it led him away from the gruff, military roles in which he was becoming increasingly typecast, and came to particularly relish the attention and affection that playing the character had brought him from children.

Doctor Who earned Hartnell a regular salary of £315 per episode by 1966 (equivalent to £4,050.90 in modern terms). In comparison, his co-stars Anneke Wills and Michael Craze earned £68 and £52 per episode at the same time. Throughout his tenure as the Doctor, William Hartnell wore a wig and very few photographs exist of him dressed as the Doctor without the wig.

Hartnell suffered a bereavement in 1965 whilst working on The Myth Makers: his aunt, Bessie Hartnell, who had looked after him during his troubled childhood, died. The tight production schedules prevented him from taking time off to attend her funeral.

According to some colleagues on Doctor Who, he could be a difficult person to work with, although others, notably actors Peter Purves and William Russell, and producer Verity Lambert, speak glowingly of him after more than forty years. Among the more caustic accounts, Nicholas Courtney, in his audio memoirs, recalled that during the filming of The Daleks' Master Plan, Hartnell pointed out to him that an extra on the set was Jewish, Courtney's inference being that Hartnell was an antisemite. In an interview in 2008, Courtney claimed that Hartnell "was quite nationalist-minded, a bit intolerant of other races, I think." He belonged to a different generation, however, and had always got on extremely well with his first companion, played by Carole Ann Ford, who was Jewish. Hartnell's poor health (arteriosclerosis) as well as poor relations with the new production team on the series following the departure of Lambert, ultimately led him to leave Doctor Who in 1966.

When Hartnell left Doctor Who in 1966, producers of the show came up with a unique idea. Since the Doctor is a Time Lord, he can transform into another man when he dies. Hartnell himself suggested that Patrick Troughton replace him as the Doctor. In Episode 4 of The Tenth Planet, the First Doctor dies and transforms into Troughton's Second Doctor.

Some commentators now contend that reports of Hartnell's illness were subsequently exaggerated by Lambert's successors in the role of producer, John Wiles and Innes Lloyd, to justify a desire (ultimately successful) to remove the expensive actor from the series. Others suggest that it was a mutual decision between Hartnell and the production team that he should leave the programme. However, Hartnell claimed in later life that he did not want to leave the series, writing, in an oft-quoted letter, "I didn't willingly give up the part". Suggestions that Hartnell's health was not as poor as claimed are seemingly supported by his return to demanding theatre work almost immediately upon leaving Doctor Who. He also made television guest appearances across the late 1960s including in No Hiding Place.

Later life

Hartnell reprised the role of the Doctor in the 10th Anniversary story The Three Doctors (made in 1972, broadcast 1972–73) with the help of cue cards, but appeared only in pre-filmed inserts seen on video screens. His appearance in this story was his last work as an actor. Hartnell's health had grown progressively worse in the early 1970s and in December, 1974 he was admitted to hospital permanently. He lived in later life near Sheepcote Lane near Marden, Kentmarker. In early 1975, he suffered a series of strokes brought on by cerebrovascular disease and died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure on 23 April 1975 at the age of 67. His death was reported on the BBC News and a clip of the Doctor in the TARDIS from the end of The OK Corral, the final episode of The Gunfighters, was shown.

A clip of his scene from the end of the serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) was used as a pre-credits sequence for the 20th anniversary story The Five Doctors (1983), although another actor, Richard Hurndall, played the role of the first Doctor for the rest of the episode.

Hartnell was married to Heather McIntyre from 9 May 1929 until his death. They had one child, a daughter named Heather Anne, and two grandchildren. Heather died in 1984. The only published biography of him is by his granddaughter, Jessica Carney (real name Judith). Who's There? The life and career of William Hartnell refers to many of the difficulties in his life and makes it clear that a great deal of research has been done, drawing from primary sources, as well as Hartnell's family's own extensive archive.


During his time on Doctor Who, the occasional tendency for Hartnell to 'fluff' lines has been nicknamed "Hartnellisms" or "Billy-bluffs" . It is not known to what extent this was deliberate in character performance, or rather the result of his speech or memory being affected by arteriosclerosis in combination with heavy workload.

Partial filmography

Hartnell acted in over seventy-five British films, plus numerous stage and television appearances, though he is best remembered for his Doctor Who role.



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