William Hartnell's background is one which has been surrounded by inconsistency. Until the recent biography of his life, written by his granddaughter Jessica Carney, was released most people believed Hartnell had been born on 8th January 1908 in Seaton, Devon. His father was supposedly a Farmer, Professional Soldier or a stockbroker, depending on which account you read.
According to the research by Carney, Hartnell was in fact born in London close to King's Cross. His Birth Certificate is blank where his father's name should be - perhaps explaining the first fictional account of his life.
Hartnell found himself being enrolled at the Itali Conti, with the help of his unofficial guardian Hugh Blaker. The Trainin led him to work in Repertory at Sir Frank Benson's company.
In his early days on the stage Hartnell found himself often performing eight different plays (mostly Shakespeare) during a week - something that nowadays would be unthinkable. Also in his early days Hartnell sought to play the comedy roles rather than the straight drama in an tempt to emulate his own hero Charlie Chaplin.
In 1928 Hartnell appeared in a play entitled Miss Elizabeth's Prisoner in which he appeared alongside an actress by the name of Heather McIntyre. They were later to be married and despite many problems were still together when Hartnell died in 1975.
The Second World War came along and like may actors Hartnell found himself fighting for his country. He was drafted into the Tank corps, but was invalided out after 18 months after suffering from a nervous breakdown.
Hartnell appeared in many films as you can see from the filmography below. Many were made on a very fast turnaround and this can sometimes be seen in the finished film.
However some of his films are more memorable, most notably Brighton Rock. This film was made seven years after Hartnell & Richard Attenborough had appeared together in a tour of the play, finishing off in the West End and shows what a versatile actor Hartnell was.
In 1957 Hartnell appeared on television in the Army Game (a series that also featured Charlie Hawtrey & Bernard Bresslaw). In the show he played Sergeant Major Bullimore who was a very aggressive character, often barking orders and being pretty unpopular. When Hartnell left the series he went to Pinewood to record the first of the Carry On films and found himself playing an almost identical character. In Carry On Sergeant we do occasionally get to see a soft side to Hartnell with some great scenes, especially the first of the film whilst discussing his retirement from the army. In 1961 Hartnell was persuaded to return to the Army Game for a further season, but by now he was getting stuck in the roles of what he described as "Bastard Roles". Bearing this in mind Hartnell asked his agent to try and find him some character parts. This led to a part in the film This Sporting Life. It was a role that finally moved away from the bullies, and ultimately led to him becoming best known as an irascible time-traveler with a blue police box, since through this film he was cast in the BBC TV series Doctor Who.
Hartnell was the first person to play the Doctor and made the show very popular during the sixties. He was convinced the show would run for at least five years, despite the fact it was only originally commissioned for thirteen weeks. During his time on the show he became a hero to thousands of children and so was bitterly disappointed when he was forced to retire from the show due to a combination of ill health (he suffered from arteriosclerosis) and disputes with the new producer
Despite his illness Hartnell went straight into touring with the pantomime Puss In Boots, appearing at Ipswich, Southend, Cheltenham & Taunton (This leads to the assumption that it was more likely to be the disputes than the illness that forced him to leave the show).
He returned to the Television screen in an episode of No Hiding Place in 1967, but was constantly reminded of Dr Who due to reviews by the critics who by now knew him simply for the part of the Doctor.
1968 began well, seeing him appearing in a guest role as Harry Swift in the BBC Police series Softly Softly. In the April he returned to the stage to appear in a play called Brother & Sister - it seemed things were beginning to return to normal after the unhappy departure from Dr Who .
However having combated these difficulties Hartnell's health began to decline further and throughout 1969 it became apparent that the roles he could actually do were becoming far and few between. In Feb 1970 he recorded his last major tv role in a series called Crimes Of Passion. Rather fittingly his ultimate appearance was that of the Doctor once more when in 1973 the series celebrated it's tenth anniversary. Originally it was intended to re-unite him with the other two actors to have played the Doctor in a special story. However Hartnell was by this time seriously ill. Amazingly he managed to record several scenes for the show by reading cue cards that were placed around him during the recording. When the story was shown it was clearly noticable that Hartnell was having difficulties and now appeared to be very frail - the story marked the end of his acting career. After recording these short scenes his illness became much worse, and Heather became his full time nurse finding it impossible to leave him on his own in fear of what could happen to him. He was admitted to hospital for a short time in August 1974 and in December he was admitted permanently. When on 23rd April 1975 it was announced that Hartnell had died in his sleep the papers paid tributes remembering for his time on Dr Who , but sadly very few mentioned the number of films he had appeared in during his early days of acting. It is unfortunate that instead of being remembered as a versatile actor he was remembered for such a small part of history in a very large acting career.