From the earliest days, the role of the Doctor has always attracted great actors – actors for whom the part has become their defining role. But actors with long lists of credits where Doctor Who sits among many others. Both before and after their time in the TARDIS, many Doctor Who actors have turned in fantastic performances in sometimes icon movies and TV series.
We’ve tried to find what could be the Doctor Who actors’ greatest roles…
William Hartnell – Sgt. Grimshaw, Carry On Sergeant
Before the creation of Doctor Who, William Hartnell was best known for the portrayal of hard-nosed military men, such as Sgt. Bullimore in The Army Game. The consummate sergeant major archetype, Hartnell’s finest take on the genre was in the very first entry in the famous Carry On… series of films. As the title character of Carry On Sergeant, his Sgt. Grimshaw faced retirement while trying to whip one last bunch of comically inept recruits into shape.
Like many Doctor Who actors, Hartnell plays his role to perfection; he’s not only the straight man to the mischief of the other stars, but he gives the aging Sergeant an element of hidden vulnerability, unable to explain to his subordinates how much their success would mean to him. This gives the film its heart.
Honorable Mentions: This Sporting Life as a rugby talent scout seeing potential in Richard Harris’ combative young player, and Brighton Rock as the stone-faced lieutenant to Richard Attenborough’s psychopathic gang leader.
Patrick Troughton – Cole Hawlings, The Box of Delights
Patrick Troughton is one of those Doctor Who actors with a long career as a character actor, his filmography littered with spellbinding performances in roles both big and small.
But for a generation of children, his role as Cole Hawlings – the mysterious, twinkly, old man with secret magical powers in The Box of Delights – is almost as iconic as his role as the Doctor. The 1984 adaptation of John Masefield’s novel is a Christmas favourite in many houses, with Troughton’s grey and bearded Punch and Judy man enlisting young Kay in the battle to keep the magical Box out of the hands of the sinister Father Abner.
Honourable Mentions: The Omen, as a doomed priest who attempts to warn Gregory Peck that his adopted son Damien is the Anti-Christ, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger as another mysterious, but humorous, wise man advising the young hero on his quest.
Jon Pertwee – Worzel Gummidge
Jon Pertwee is one of the few Doctor Who actors to succeed in following the show with a lead role just as iconic. As the titular scarecrow in Worzel Gummidge, he enchanted millions of kids as the straw man with interchangeable turnip heads. Daft and silly, often stubborn and selfish, Worzel was so beloved as to eclipse the Doctor himself for a time as Pertwee’s most well-known role.
Honourable Mentions: The Navy Lark had made Pertwee a household name years before he became the Doctor, starring in the radio sitcom as the scheming Chief Petty Officer, and The House That Dripped Blood as an egocentric movie star and method actor whose new role as a bloodthirsty vampire goes too far.
Tom Baker – Rasputin, Nicholas and Alexandra
None of the Doctor Who actors have been more defined by the role than Tom Baker. But before the Doctor, he portrayed the real life figure of Rasputin, the sinister monk who cast his influence over the Russian royal family. Baker’s penetrating stare made for an almost hypnotic performance and he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.
Honorable Mentions: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, as the dark magician Koura, summoning up various Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation monsters to bedevil the heroes. In fact, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks visited the cinema to see him in Sinbad to size up his Doctorish potential. Also The Vault of Horror as a bohemian painter who discovers his paintings have the power to kill.
Peter Davison – Tristan Farnon, All Creatures Great and Small
Peter Davison may be the one who was most famous before joining the ranks of Doctor Who actors. All Creatures Great and Small had already made his name as the carefree, borderline idle vet Tristan Farnon. It was a part built on Davison’s natural charisma, with the feckless Tristan often acting poorly, but always likeable. Davison even returned to the role of Tristan for four more series after leaving the TARDIS, making it the true cornerstone of his CV.
Honourable Mentions: The Last Detective as DC “Dangerous” Davies – the downbeat, put-upon police detective methodically solving the cases nobody else wants, and Chris Chibnall’s Law & Order: UK as Henry Sharpe, head of the Crown Prosecution Service.
Colin Baker – Paul Merroney, The Brothers
Unusually for Doctor Who actors, Colin Baker was initially known for playing villains.
Paul Marroney was to British road haulage what JR Ewing was to Texas oil, and Colin Baker was perfectly cast as the ruthless businessman who debuted in series four of soap drama The Brothers. He quickly became the focal character for the remaining four series as his scheming and vicious delight at frustrating his enemies’ attempts to topple him became the engine for the show’s storylines. It made Baker one of the villains the public most loved to hate in the late 70s. The Brothers was so big in the Netherlands that the cast even released a Christmas album, including Baker singing ‘White Christmas’ in character as Merroney.
Honourable Mentions: One of the many Doctor Who actors to appear in Blake’s 7 – in Baker’s case, as the gloriously over-the-top criminal Bayban the Butcher in the episode ‘City at the Edge of the World.’ And Casualty, where he made a memorable guest appearance as a patient with glow-in-the-dark eyes who claims to be in contact with aliens.
Sylvester McCoy – Radagast the Brown, The Hobbit
Sylvester McCoy was another of those Doctor Who actors who made it onto the big screen. His most famous role outside of Doctor Who was so high profile it even became a running gag in The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. As part of director Peter Jackson’s expansion of JRR Tolkien’s short novel The Hobbit into a billion dollar blockbuster trilogy, the role of the wizard Radagast was greatly expanded. Though little more than a passing mention in the books, Radagast became a plumb role for McCoy on film, with the Doctor Who actor’s Scottish actor’s mix of whimsy and mystery ideal for a wizard so eccentric he made even Gandalf look staid and boring.
Honourable Mentions: Sense8 as the Old Man of Hoy in a touching and melancholic performance as a man who has spent three decades on the run from a sinister organisation, and wondering if the price he’s paid for his freedom in paranoia and self-isolation has been too high, and The Owners as Dr. Huggins, in a layered performance as the seemingly kindly country doctor with a dark secret.
Paul McGann – ‘I’, Withnail and I
Paul McGann is one of those Doctor Who actors who was quite well known before taking to the TARDIS. He starred as the nameless protagonist alongside Richard E Grant’s Withnail in the eminently quotable Withnail and I. From “we’ve come on holiday by mistake,” and “we want the finest wines known to humanity” to “don’t threaten me with a dead fish!” and many others we couldn’t possibly repeat here, it’s a story of two struggling actors seeking to escape their squalid flat for a weekend which has remained a comedy favourite for generations of students. And McGann gives his half of the duo a sensitivity which grounds the drama no matter how absurd the events become.
Honourable Mentions: The Monocled Mutineer, as the notorious WWI disguise artist and con man Percy Toplis in the role that launched McGann’s career, and Holby City as a neurological consultant who becomes dangerously obsessed with his experiments.
Christopher Eccleston – Matt Jamison, The Leftovers
Christopher Eccleston is a one of those Doctor Who actors whose career is so packed with prestigious roles that it’s difficult to pick one above the others. But across the three seasons of The Leftovers, Eccleston gives an electrifying performance as Matt – a pastor searching for hope and purpose after 2% of the population of the Earth mysteriously disappears. In an astonishing powerful series, Eccleston provides many of its greatest moments as Matt moves through euphoria, rage, despair and hope as this changed world continues to find new ways to beat him down.
Honourable Mentions: The Second Coming as Stephen Baxter, the new messiah in Russell T Davies’ drama about a world rocked by the advent of a Third Testament, and Cracker as DCI David Bilborough, the long suffering senior detective trying to keep Robbie Coltrane’s mercurial profiler in line, whose final scenes sent shock waves through audiences.
David Tennant – Crowley, Good Omens
Like many Doctor Who actors, Tennant’s decades on screen are littered with outstanding roles, making it hard to pick just one. But if we had to single one out, the demon Crowley in Neil Gaiman’s apocalyptic comedy Good Omens would have to be at the top of the list. Literally the snake in the Garden of Eden, Crowley may make commuting hell, but he doesn’t want the world to end. In a career that’s seen Tennant establish himself as an award winning dramatic actor, the return to spirited, quick-talking fun has made Crowley a solid favourite with fans.
Honourable Mentions: Broadchurch as DCI Alex Hardy, the troubled and gloriously grumpy senior detective in Chris Chibnall’s small town crime drama, and Des as real-life serial killer Dennis Nielsen in a role which rightly brought Tennant critical acclaim.
Matt Smith – Prince Philip, The Crown
Netflix’s epic dramatisation of the life of Queen Elizabeth II has been one of the most talked about shows of the past decade. And the first two series of The Crown gave Matt Smith possibly his greatest post-Doctor Who success as the young Prince Philip, as he struggles with his place in the shadow of his wife. Though by no means an impersonation, Smith’s sometimes brittle, sometimes wry Philip was one of the foundations of the show’s success. And it proved beyond doubt that Matt Smith was one of those Doctor Who actors with versatility; there was clearly more to him than hand-waving wackiness.
Honourable Mentions: Party Animals in his first starring role as Danny, the beleaguered researcher for a stressed-out government minister, and Last Night in Soho as the seductive and sinister Jack in the dark time-bending horror tale of a modern woman who becomes linked to a murder in 1960s London.
Peter Capaldi – Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It
Like many Doctor Who actors, Peter Capaldi’s career is long and varied, but his turn as the foul-mouthed, volcano tempered, spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the four series of The Thick of It is simply iconic. The show was loosely scripted and then improvised by the actors, with many of Tucker’s most hilarious insults Capaldi’s own. Of all the Doctor Who actors, he’s probably done the most swearing! (On screen, at least.)
But the actor’s greatest achievement in a part that could easily have become a one-note comic character is the nuance, with Tucker’s stress, fear, and even his loneliness in a life empty of everything but politics, never far beneath the surface.
Honourable Mentions:The Crow Road as Uncle Rory, the charismatic black sheep of the McHoan family who appears throughout the adaptation of Iain Banks’ novel as an imaginary guide to his nephew Prentice, and Neverwhere as the Angel Islington, part of the mythical world of London Below in Neil Gaiman’s first television series.
Jodie Whittaker – Beth Latimer, Broadchurch
Broadchurch was a television sensation, and one of the most talked about shows of the decade. And it was also one that featured a lot of Doctor Who actors!
And while David Tennant and Olivia Colman’s detectives Hardy and Miller hunt for a killer dominated the twists and turns of the plot, Jodie Whittaker as Beth – struggling to hold her family together in the aftermath of her son’s murder – was the drama’s beating heart. It was Whittaker’s brave, raw, performance as the grief-stricken mother that kept audiences glued to their screens for three series as much as Tennant’s dour cynicism. Whittaker, like many Doctor Who actors before her, showed off her incredible versatility.
Honourable Mentions – Venus as Jessie, the young woman who finds herself in a complicated friendship with Peter O’Toole’s dying actor in first screen debut, and Adult Life Skills as Anna, a woman in the throes of a quarter life crisis following her twin’s death, in what was a true passion project for Whittaker.
And there’s more…
So far, we’ve discussed the main series leads of Doctor Who – the Doctor Who actors who’ve been awarded that status of being known as “the Nth Doctor.” But there have been other Doctor Who actors to step through those Police Box doors down the years on a more ad hoc basis. And sometimes that combination of special event and short term commitment has secured some of the Doctor Who universe’s most high profile Doctors of all…
Peter Cushing – Van Helsing, Dracula
Like many of the Doctor Who actors, Cushing was charming, gentle, famously kind and, above all, fantastically talented, enjoying a career littered with roles so iconic we could make an entire article on them alone. But it’s the combination of steel and intellect he brings to six of Hammer Horror’s series of Dracula movies that we’ve selected here.
Cushing was particularly proactive in shaping the character of Doctor Van Helsing, with it not uncommon for him to demand script revisions when he thought the story wasn’t on par, and even choreographing his and Christopher Lee’s fight scenes. And despite both being fantasy heroes who fight evil with their wits and knowledge, Cushing’s Van Helsing couldn’t be further from the jovial, absent-minded, scientist “Dr. Who” that he played in Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD. Although, in a delightful twist for Who fans, Cushing recycles his entire Dr. Who costume (sans false moustache and wig) for Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires.
Was he the first of the Doctor Who actors to wear his costume in a completely different role…?
Honourable Mentions – Star Wars as Grand Moff Tarkin, where it’s a testament to Cushing’s ability to dominate a scene that despite having only nine minutes of screen time, and sharing most of those with Darth Vader himself, the icy and ruthless Tarkin is still remembered decades later as one of Star Wars’ greatest villains. (He’s also one of the few Doctor Who actors to have also appeared in Star Wars.)
And then there’s Nineteen Eighty-Four where he plays Winston Smith, the party member who makes a doomed attempt at self-expression against a totalitarian dystopia in the early BBC adaptation of Orwell’s most famous novel.
Richard Hurndall – Lanyon, I, Monster
On Doctor Who, character actor Richard Hurndall was given most of the intimidating jobs of any Doctor Who actors. The Doctor had been recast many times, but Hurndall was called upon to specifically recreate William Hartnell’s First Doctor in ‘The Five Doctors.’ Like some of the other Doctor Who actors on this list, his resume is otherwise made up largely of supporting roles, but I, Monster stands out. In that new take on Jekyll and Hyde he played one of a trio of close friends, the others played by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, little realising that Lee’s character has invented a serum which turns him into a monstrous villain.
Honourable Mentions – Like many Doctor Who actors, Hurndall appeared in Blake’s 7. He played Nebrox, Avon’s cellmate in the episode ‘Assassin,’ and The Prince and the Pauper, as the Archbishop in the climatic coronation scene of the big budget adaptation starring Oliver Reed and Charlton Heston.
Michael Jayston – Peter Guillam, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Michael Jayston’s Doctor Who villain, the Valeyard, was ultimately revealed to a projection of the future Doctor, somewhere between the Twelfth and Thirteenth incarnations (whatever that means) making him one of the rare Doctor Who actors to have portrayed an ‘in between’ Doctor.
But to 1980s TV audiences he was probably best known as Peter Guilliam, right hand man to Alec Guinness’ spymaster George Smiley in the seminal mini-series based on John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the same part later played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie remake.) This also led to Jayston providing the narration for the audiobooks of Le Carré’s books about Smiley and the so-called ‘Circus’ of British Intelligence.
Honourable Mentions – Only Fools and Horses as James Turner, Del Boy’s father-in-law who despite guest starring in only one episode appears in one of the most repeated moments, as his knowledge of antiques reveals the Trotters have unknowingly been millionaires all along, and Nicholas and Alexandra as Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, alongside Tom Baker’s Rasputin.
A whole host of Doctor Who actors! The ‘Curse of Fatal Death’ Doctors
Doctor Who actors aplenty! The 1999 Comic Relief comedy episode is a special case in that one of its main gags is just how famous the faces playing the Doctor are. So you get Rowan Atkinson (Blackadder, Mr. Bean. Johnny English) as the Ninth Doctor, Richard E Grant (Withnail and I, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Can You Forgive Me) as the Tenth, Jim Broadbent (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Only Fools and Horses, The Duke) as the Eleventh, Hugh Grant (Four Weddings and a Funeral, About a Boy, A Very English Scandal) as the Twelfth and Joanna Lumley (The New Avengers, Absolutely Fabulous, Sapphire and Steel) as the Thirteenth Doctor!
That’s a lot of Doctor Who actors…
Richard E Grant – Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie
Ordinarily, Withnail and I might be listed as a highlight of the career of Richard E Grant, who returned after ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’ to play the Doctor again in the 2003 animated mini-series ‘Scream of the Shalka.’ But since we’ve already touched on that, let’s pick instead one of his most recent roles, as the inspiration drag queen Loco Chanelle in hit musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. It’s a role that plays to one of Grant’s great strengths as an actor, combining a deadpan seriousness with a sly wit and a sense of huge depths beneath the surface – a trait many of the Doctor Who actors share.
Honourable Mentions – Loki, as Classic Loki – a version of Tom Hiddleston’s Asgardian god from an alternate timeline where he survived Thanos’ attack, effortlessly stealing every scene he’s in, and Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life as Franz Kafka, in the Oscar winning short film directed by a certain Peter Capaldi about the great writer’s attempt to write his masterpiece Metamorphosis despite increasingly bizarre interruptions.
Sir John Hurt – John Merrick, The Elephant Man
John Hurt is one of those Doctor Who actors who could arguably be described as a bona fide legend, and any one part on his CV would be the crowing achievement for many other actors’ careers. But to single one out, it has to be the role that got him a nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars, as well as winning him a BAFTA – the tragic John Merrick in The Elephant Man. The sensitively told true story saw Hurt acting through heavy prosthetics as Merrick, the man struggling to find acceptance and friendship in Victorian society despite prejudice against his deformities. Hurt was certainly a versatile performer, much like the other Doctor Who actors on this list.
Honourable Mentions – The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York as Quentin Crisp, another real life figure whose unbreakable will to express his homoesexuality made him a legend of the LGBT rights movement, and Alien as Kane, crewman about the spaceship Nostromo and the star of possibly the most famous single science fiction horror scene of all time. And in animation, Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, along with a brace of the most scarring children’s films ever – Watership Down and The Plague Dogs.
Jo Martin – Max McGerry, Holby City
One of the newer Doctor Who actors! Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor has guest starred in a handful of episodes since her jaw-dropping reveal in ‘Fugitive of the Judoon.’ But she’s actually better known for played neurosurgeon Max McGerry in the last three seasons of the BBC’s medical drama Holby City. Brusque, rude, and combative, Max made waves from among the staff of the UK’s most famous fictional hospital when she was appointed CEO, while in her private life she was forced to reconcile her own conservative views with her relationship with her transgender son Louis.
Honourable Mentions – The Crouches as Nathalie Crouch, matriarch of the argumentative but loving Crouch family for two seasons of the BBC sitcom, and The Real McCoy, in various roles in the anarchic sketch show.
Which of these Doctor Who actors’ roles is your favourite? And what else have you seen Doctor Who actors in? Let me know in the comments below!
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