William Hartnell

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William Hartnell as the First Doctor
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William Hartnell as the First Doctor

William Henry Hartnell (January 8, 1908April 23, 1975), a British actor, was the first actor to play the lead role of the Doctor in the long-running science fiction television series Doctor Who from 1963 to 1966.

He was born in St Pancras, London. Often known as Billy, he was educated at home and at Imperial Service College. After training as a jockey, and boxing, he entered the theatre in 1924. The first of more than sixty film appearances was Say It With Music in 1932. Hartnell usually played comic characters, until 1944 with the robust role of sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead. From then on, he played mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs, like Dallow in Brighton Rock. In 1958 he appeared in the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant as Sergeant Grimshaw.

He appeared first on television in The Army Game from 19571961, and in 1963 gave up movies and took the lead in Doctor Who, for which he is now most widely known. (See List of Doctor Who serials.)

According to some he worked with on Doctor Who, he could be a tough person to work with. His poor health — arteriosclerosis brought on by years of drinking — as well as poor relations with the new production team forced him to leave Doctor Who in 1966. Some fan commentators now believe that reports of Hartnell's illness were subsequently exaggerated by his producers to justify a decision to sack the actor.

Hartnell reprised the role in the 10th Anniversary story The Three Doctors (1973) with the help of cue cards but appeared only in pre-filmed inserts. Hartnell's health had grown progressively worse since leaving Doctor Who and in December 1974 he was admitted to hospital permanently. In early 1975 he suffered a series of strokes brought on by cerebrovascular disease and died in his sleep of heart failure on April 23, 1975.

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).

Biographical information about William Hartnell is hard to substantiate because of conflicting information from various sources. Hartnell himself gave accounts of his birth and upbringing which seem to differ from verifiable facts, and the only published biography of him is by his granddaughter, Jessica Carney. Although criticised by some as a hagiography, Carney's "Who's There?" does refer to these difficulties 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. Notwithstanding a sometimes negative view of its subject, the family link with the author makes some critics view this work as biased.


Preceded by:
(none)
The Doctor
1963–1966
Succeeded by:
Patrick Troughton

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