William Henry Hartnell (8 January 1908 – 23 April 1975) was an English actor. During 1963-66, he was the first actor to play the Doctor in the long-running BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who.
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 about accepting a part in what was pitched to him as a children’s series, 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 that he took the role because it led him away from the gruff, military parts in which he had become typecast, and, having two grandchildren of his own, he came to relish particularly the attention and affection that playing the character brought him from children.
Doctor Who earned Hartnell a regular salary of £315 per episode by 1966 (basically, £315 a week in that era of 48-weeks per year production on the series), equivalent to £4,050 a week in modern terms. By comparison, in 1966 his co-stars Anneke Wills and Michael Craze were earning £68 and £52 per episode at the same time. Throughout his tenure as the Doctor, William Hartnell wore a wig when playing the part, as the character had long hair, whereas in private life he himself favoured the traditional short-back-and-sides. Very few photographs exist of him dressed as the Doctor without the wig.
Hartnell suffered a bereavement in 1965 whilst working on the serial The Myth Makers. His aunt, Bessie Hartnell, who had looked after him during his troubled childhood, died. But the production schedule on the series was so tight, with a typical 48 episodes a year being transmitted, that it prevented his even taking time off to attend her funeral.
According to some of his colleagues on Doctor Who, he could be a difficult person to work with. Others, however, notably actors Peter Purves and William Russell, and producer Verity Lambert, spoke 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 mentioned that an extra on the set was Jewish, Courtney’s inference being that Hartnell was antisemitic. In an interview in 2008, Courtney claimed that Hartnell “was quite nationalist-minded, a bit intolerant of other races, I think.” However, he always got on extremely well with his first companion, played by Carole Ann Ford, who is Jewish.
Hartnell’s deteriorating health (he suffered from arteriosclerosis, which began to affect his ability to say his lines), as well as poor relations with the new production team on the series after the departure of Verity Lambert, ultimately led him to leave Doctor Who in 1966.
When he left Doctor Who, the producer of the show came up with a unique idea: since the Doctor is an alien, he can transform into another man when he dies, thereby renewing himself. William Hartnell himself suggested that Patrick Troughton should be cast as the new Doctor. In Episode 4 of the serial The Tenth Planet, the First Doctor regenerated into Troughton’s Second Doctor.
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