Doctor Who actors are some of the best in the business. So it’s no wonder that some of TV and cinema’s most iconic roles have almost gone to some of the best known…
The acting business is a funny game. It’s very rare for a role to be written with a specific actor in mind, and even rarer for that actor to wind up actually playing the part. Many times an actor and character seemed to dovetail so perfectly into the finished product that any other combination seems unthinkable.
But even then it was likely the result of an audition process where anything from a handful of other actors, to thousands, were also considered. All of our iconic Doctor Who actors have almost played other famous roles too. Here’s just six of the most amazing ‘What If…?’ castings that almost happened where Doctor Who actors almost played someone else entirely…
Jon Pertwee as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army
Jon Pertwee famously stopped short at the suggestion that he play the Third Doctor “as Jon Pertwee,” claiming he didn’t know who that was. Of all our Doctor Who actors, he came to the show with the greatest pedigree as a comedy actor. His voice was known in every household in the country from such shows as The Navy Lark and Waterlogged Spa as “the Man of a Thousand Voices,” able to slip from decrepit old post masters to cunning young sailors to prim vicars with ease. So it’s no surprise that in the late 1960s he was on the wish lists for many new comedy programs.
It’s still incredible to think that he was the first choice to play the lead role of the pompous and thin-skinned Captain Mainwaring in classic sitcom Dad’s Army. The BBC comedy began in 1968 and featured the hapless recruits of a Home Guard unit in the small town of Walmington-on-Sea during WWII. Mainwaring, the local bank manager, insists on taking control of the newly-formed defence unit made up of old men and others ineligible to join the regular army as a last line of defence against possible Nazi invasion.
Pertwee was working on stage in America at the time the offer to head up Dad’s Army came. He’d later claim to have been offered the role outright but to have turned it down, not realising the idea’s full potential. While Pertwee would doubtlessly have been brilliant, it’s hard not to think this one worked out for the best. Eventual Mainwaring Arthur Lowe was simply perfect casting.
Moreover, Dad’s Army was such a huge success that it ran until 1977, and also expanded to include a feature film, a radio series, a stage play, and even an attempted radio spin-off set after the war. If Jon Pertwee accepted the Dad’s Army role, he almost certainly wouldn’t have been available to play the Doctor, and the whole history of Doctor Who might have looked very different, and he might not be on our list of Doctor Who actors at all.
Tom Baker as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings
New Zealand’s Peter Jackson is well known as a massive Doctor Who fan, so much so he even owns two of the early Dalek props seen in stories like ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’ and ‘The Evil of the Daleks.’ It’s no wonder then that when composing his list of potential Gandalfs for his epic movie trilogy The Lord of the Rings there was one of our Doctor Who actors on the list. After all, Gandalf is a mysterious, whimsical, ageless traveller who nevertheless can turn on a sixpence to be deathly serious while saving the world. Sounds like a perfect job for Tom Baker!
Accounts vary on whether Baker was actually offered the role or simply made it to the short list. But either way, the Doctor Who actor himself says he thinks it was for the best. All three films were made together as part of one vast shoot between 1999 and 2004, and Baker would have had to relocate to the other side of the world for years at a time. So even if he had been offered it, he’d almost certainly have turned it down.
Of course, in the end the role of Gandalf went to Sir Ian McKellan and the rest is history. The three films saw him aid the Hobbit Frodo Baggins in the epic quest across the fantasy world of Middle Earth to destroy the One Ring. Along the way he died, was resurrected, saved the fortress of Helm’s Deep from the Urak-Hai armies of Isengard, and faced down the Witch King at Minas Tirith. But imagine if he’d also offered the odd jelly baby along the way?
It would have made a particularly fun team-up down the line as another of our Doctor Who actors actually did later play a wizard in the prequel The Hobbit trilogy – Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown.
Christopher Eccleston as Begbie in Trainspotting
Amongst the various Doctor Who actors, Christopher Eccleston was best known for his heavy, dramatic work before being cast. He’d already appeared in films and series like Cracker, The Second Coming, Jude and Shallow Grave. But early in his career he almost starred in one of the most popular and talked-about British films of the 1990s: Trainspotting. The adaptation of Irvin Welsh’s novel followed the exploits of a group of heroin addicts among the streets and bedsits of Edinburgh, somehow managing to be uncompromisingly bleak and deeply funny and imaginative at the same time.
Among the cast of characters was the dangerous and psychotic Begbie. Though not a drug user himself (unless you count vast amounts of alcohol and cigarettes) he lurked at the edges of the friendship circle. Volatile and unpredictable, he terrified the others with his violent outbursts and continuously prowled for any excuse or pretext to start a bar fight. Director Danny Boyle had already worked with Christopher Eccleston on Shallow Grave and, according to Eccleston’s autobiography, offered the role of Begbie to the future Ninth Doctor.
Eccleston turned down the role, claiming his casting would feed into negative stereotypes about Northerners (even though the character is Scottish.) However, he says he then lobbied Boyle to let him play the central role of Renton instead, even though Ewan McGregor had already been cast. Boyle stuck with McGregor, however, and the rest is history.
Trainspotting would go on to make stars out of many of those involved, including McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller and the eventual Begbie, Robert Carlyle. Carlyle returned for the sequel T2: Trainspotting and will be back as Begbie again for the forthcoming TV series based on Welsh’s novel The Blade Artist.
David Tennant as Sneed in ‘The Unquiet Dead’
This is a unique case in our list of other roles Doctor Who actors almost played. Unlike the others, Sneed in the Doctor Who Series One episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’ isn’t a huge or famous part. He’s simply a supporting character and a minor antagonist as he tries to stop the Doctor, Rose and Charles Dickens looking too closely at the ghostly goings-on around his Cardiff funeral home. But the fact that he was almost played by David Tennant could have changed everything.
Everybody knows that David Tennant has been a huge Doctor Who fan since childhood, so it’s natural that before there was any sign that Christopher Eccleston might only do one series, Tennant was eager to appear somewhere in the revival of his favourite show. Ultimately, the decision was made to alter the character of Sneed slightly to be an older man, and Alan David was cast as the undertaker.
But while there’s no rule that says you can’t be the Doctor if you’ve already been in the show (as Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi prove) there has to be some doubt over whether casting Tennant as the Tenth Doctor just months after his previous appearance would have been practical. And what might the next few years, and even the 50th and 60th Anniversaries, have looked like then, with David Tennant on the list of Doctor Who actors?
Matt Smith as the Emperor in Star Wars
The news that Matt Smith almost played Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars sounds impossible when you first hear it. After all, Ian McDiarmid first played the evil Sith Lord in Return of the Jedi when Matt Smith was just seven months old. But the widely reported rumour is that he would have slipped on the Emperor’s black cloak and hood for the most recent Star Wars film Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.
In the finished film it’s revealed that the Emperor, presumed dead at the hands of Darth Vader in the original trilogy, has perfected the art of cloning, and has been secretly running the First Order through his mind-controlled clone-puppet Snoke. But many claim that, originally, this subplot would have gone further and unveiled the Emperor as himself a clone of the original, possessed by the dark lord’s spirit. This would have called for a much younger actor to play this youthful, reborn Palpatine.
Enter Matt Smith. Lucasfilm actually announced Smith as one of the stars of The Rise of Skywalker, and he appeared on cast lists for the film’s early promotion in an undisclosed role. It was that very fact that the name of his character was being kept secret that first got Star Wars fans suspicious that he was playing some already known character of shocking importance. If true, the film ultimately went in another direction, with McDiarmid returning to play an aged, mortally wounded, version of the character, kept back from the brink of death by technology for decades.
Other rumours suggest that Smith might have playing ‘the Son,’ the personification of the Dark Side of the Force. As recently as last year, the former Doctor Who actor was still coy about who he was originally meant to be playing. But he did reveal that the character would have signalled “a big shift in the history of Star Wars” and whom might yet appear at some point in the future.
Peter Capaldi as Captain Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
In the 1990s, Peter Capaldi missed out on some prime science fiction roles. In 1996 he auditioned for the Doctor Who TV movie, almost playing the Eighth Doctor some 20 years before he’d eventually play the Twelfth. But in 2017, fans uncovered the casting call sheet for the lead role of Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and included in the shortlist was another of our Doctor Who actors – Peter Capaldi!
Deep Space Nine has long stood out among the various Star Trek TV shows due to its darker storylines and willingness to depict the crew as complex, flawed human beings. That’s true of the character of Sisko, too, who’s introduced as a man embittered by the death of his wife, and on the verge of quitting Starfleet altogether before being chosen to command the space station DS9.
Over the next seven seasons, story arcs would test Sisko like no other Star Trek captain, never more so than the celebrated episode where he becomes determined to drag the Romulan Empire into the war against the Dominion as allies of the Federation, no matter what the moral cost. It’s a role Capaldi would likely have excelled at, though the producers’ final selection, Avery Brooks, so completely owns the role that it’s still hard to imagine anyone else behind that desk, toying with Sisko’s signature baseball.
Deep Space Nine’s executive producer Ira Steven Behr has said, however, that Capaldi, along with other British actors such as Anthony Head (Mr Filch in ‘School Reunion’), was auditioned as part of ‘due diligence.’ The team’s preference had always been to take the opportunity to cast Star Trek‘s first ever African American series lead to follow in the footsteps of William Shatner’s James T Kirk and Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard.
Do you know any other great roles Doctor Who actors almost played?
That’s it for our run down of the six biggest, most surprising roles that Doctor Who actors almost played. Are there any other Doctor Who actors we’ve missed from the list? Or did any of these particularly surprise you? Let us know in the comments below!
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