William Hartnell (William Henry Hartnell)
William Hartnell was born in St Pancras, London, England, the only child of Lucy Hartnell, an unmarried mother. He was brought up partly by a foster mother, and also spent many holidays in Devon with his mother’s family of farmers, where he learned to ride. He was the second cousin of fashion designer Norman Hartnell. Hartnell never discovered the identity of his father (whose particulars were left blank on the birth certificate) despite efforts to trace him. Often known as Billy, he left school without prospects and dabbled in petty crime. Through a boys’ boxing club, at the age of 14 Hartnell met the art collector Hugh Blaker, who later became his unofficial guardian and arranged for him initially to train as a jockey and helped him enter the Italia Conti Academy. 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. Hartnell entered the theatre in 1925 working under Frank Benson as a general stagehand. He appeared in numerous Shakespearian plays, including The Merchant of Venice (1926), Julius Caesar (1926), As You Like It (1926), Hamlet (1926), The Tempest (1926) and Macbeth (1926). He also appeared in She Stoops to Conquer (1926), School for Scandal (1926) and Good Morning, Bill (1927), before performing in Miss Elizabeth’s Prisoner (1928). This play was written by Robert Neilson Stephens and E. Lyall Swete. It featured the actress Heather McIntyre, whom he married during the following year. His first of more than sixty film appearances was in Say It With Music (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 returned to acting. In 1942, he was cast as Albert Fosdike in Noël Coward’s film In Which We Serve but turned up late for his first day of shooting. Coward berated Hartnell in front of cast and crew for his unprofessionalism, made him personally apologise to everyone and then sacked him. Michael Anderson, who was the First Assistant Director, took over the part and was credited as “Mickey Anderson”.
Hartnell continued to play comic characters until he was cast in the robust role of Sergeant Ned Fletcher in The Way Ahead (1944). From then on his career was defined by playing mainly policemen, soldiers, and thugs. This typecasting 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 appeared as a town councillor in the Boulting brothers’ film Heavens Above! (1963) with Peter Sellers. He also appeared as Will Buckley – another military character – in the film The Mouse That Roared (1959), again with Sellers. His first regular role on television was as Sergeant Major Percy Bullimore in The Army Game from 1957 to 1961. Again, although it was a comedy series, he found himself cast in a “tough-guy” role. He appeared in a supporting role in the film version of This Sporting Life (1963), giving a sensitive performance as an aging rugby league talent scout known as ‘Dad’. After living at 51 Church Street, Isleworth, next door to Hugh Blaker, the Hartnells lived on the Thames Ditton Island. Then in the 1960s they moved to a cottage in Mayfield, Sussex. He lived in later life at Sheephurst Lane in Marden, Kent.
Hartnell reprised the role of the Doctor in Doctor Who during the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors (1972–73). When Hartnell’s wife Heather found out about his planned involvement, she informed the crew of the show that his failing memory and weakening health prevented him from starring in the special. An agreement was made between the crew and Heather that Hartnell would only be required to sit down during the shoot and read his lines from cue cards. His appearance in this story was his final piece of work as an actor. His health had worsened during the early 1970s, 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 23 April 1975, at the age of 67. He was cremated and his ashes are buried at the Kent and Sussex Crematorium and Cemetery. A clip of a scene starring Hartnell from the end of the Doctor Who serial The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964) was used as a pre-credits sequence for the twentieth anniversary story The Five Doctors (1983); Richard Hurndall portrayed the First Doctor for the remainder of the story, in Hartnell’s absence. Colourised footage of Hartnell in The Aztecs was meshed with new footage of actress Jenna-Louise Coleman, and with body doubles for the First Doctor and Susan, to create a new scene in 2013’s “The Name of the Doctor”. The following story, and the 50th anniversary special of the show, “The Day of the Doctor” featured two new pieces of dialogue for Hartnell’s Doctor, recorded by John Guilor, who had previously voiced the actor in a reconstruction of “Planet of Giants”. Hartnell was married to Heather McIntyre from 9 May 1929 until his death. They had one child, a daughter, Heather Anne, and two grandchildren. His widow, Heather, died in 1984. The only published biography of him is by his granddaughter, Judith “Jessica” Carney, entitled Who’s There? The Life and Career of William Hartnell. It was originally published in 1996 by Virgin Publishing, and to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who, Carney, with Fantom Publishing, revised and republished the book in 2013.
- January, 08, 1908
- United Kingdom
- St Pancras, London, England
- April, 23, 1975
- United Kingdom
- Marden, Kent, England
Cause of Death
- heart attack
- Kent and Sussex Cemetery and Crematorium
- Kent, England
- United Kingdom