William Hartnell

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William Henry Hartnell (8 January 1908 – 23 April 1975) was a British 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, London, England, 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 learned to ride a horse.[1]

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. Often known as Billy, he left school without any prospects, and dabbled in the commission of petty crimes.[2] 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) and help him enter the Italia Conti Academy.[3] Theatre being a passion of Hugh Blaker, he paid for Hartnell to receive some 'polish' at the Imperial Service College, though Hartnell found the strictures too much and ran away.[1]

Hartnell entered the theatre in 1925[1] working under Frank Benson as a general stagehand.[2][4] 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.[3] His first of more than sixty film appearances was Say It With Music in 1932.[5]

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.[3] Hartnell usually played comic characters, until 1944 when he was cast in the robust role of Sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead.[4] From then on his career was defined by playing mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs. The fact that he had become typecast in such roles bothered him, for even when cast in comedies he found he was invariably playing the heavy. In 1958 he played the sergeant in the first Carry On film comedy, Carry On Sergeant, and in 1963 he appeared as a town councillor in the Boulting Brothers' film Heavens Above! with Peter Sellers. He also appeared as Will Buckley in the film The Mouse That Roared in 1959 (again with Sellers).

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