Tue, 1 March 2011
William Nicholas Stone Courtney (16 December 1929 – 22 February 2011) was a British television actor, most famous for playing Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who.
Courtney was born in Cairo, Egypt, the son of a British diplomat and educated in France, Kenya and Egypt. He served his National Service in the British Army, leaving after 18 months as a private, not wanting to pursue a military career. He next joined the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, and after two years began doing repertory theatre in Northampton. From there he moved to London.
Prior to Doctor Who, Courtney made guest appearances in several cult television series, including The Avengers (1962, 1967), The Champions (1968) and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (1969) and as a racing driver in Riviera Police (1965).
Director Douglas Camfield originally considered Courtney for the role of Richard the Lionheart in The Crusade (1965), a role that ultimately went to Julian Glover, and kept him in mind for future casting. Courtney's first appearance in Doctor Who was in the 1965 serial The Daleks' Master Plan, directed by Camfield, where he played Space Security Agent Bret Vyon opposite William Hartnell as the Doctor. Camfield liked Courtney's performance, and when the director was assigned the 1968 serial The Web of Fear, he cast Courtney as Captain Knight. However, when David Langton gave up the role of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart to work elsewhere, Camfield recast Captain Knight and gave the part to Courtney instead.
Lethbridge-Stewart reappeared later that year in The Invasion, promoted to Brigadier and in charge of the British contingent of UNIT, an organization that protected the Earth from alien invasion. It was in that recurring role that he is best known, appearing semi-regularly from 1970 to 1975. Courtney made return appearances in the series in 1983, and his last Doctor Who television appearance was in 1989 in the serial Battlefield (although like many other former cast members, he returned to the role for the charity special Dimensions in Time). Coincidentally, he appeared with Jean Marsh in both his first and last regular Doctor Who television appearances.
Courtney has played Lethbridge-Stewart, either on television or in audio plays, alongside every subsequent Doctor up to and including Paul McGann, as well as substitute First Doctor Richard Hurndall. He did not appear in the revived series. While he has acted with Tenth Doctor actor David Tennant in the Big Finish audio dramas Sympathy for the Devil and UNIT: The Wasting, Tennant was playing a different character, Colonel Ross Brimmicombe-Wood, on both occasions.
The character is referenced in the Series 4 episode "The Poison Sky" and is said to be "stuck in Peru". Fifteen years after Dimensions in Time, Courtney returned as Lethbridge-Stewart (now, Sir Alistair), freshly returned from Peru, in "Enemy of the Bane", a two-part story in the Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures aired in December 2008, starring Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. The story pitted Sir Alistair and Sarah Jane against Commander Kaagh and Mrs. Wormwood who try to wake Horath using the Tanguska Scroll. It was intended by the Sarah Jane Adventures production team that Courtney would reappear in the following year's The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith so that Lethbridge-Stewart would meet the Tenth Doctor, but Courtney was recovering from a stroke and unable to take part.
After Doctor Who
Courtney continued to act extensively in theatre and television after his main Doctor Who appearances, guest-starring in such popular television programmes as Minder (1984), All Creatures Great and Small (1980, episode "Matters Of Life And Death"), Only Fools and Horses (1988) and Yes, Prime Minister (1986). In 1982 he was cast alongside Frankie Howerd in the World War II-set comedy series Then Churchill Said to Me but the series remained untransmitted for over a decade due to the outbreak of the Falklands War. He also had a regular role in the comedy French Fields between 1989 and 1991. He has also appeared in the Big Finish Productions audio drama Earthsearch Mindwarp, based on a James Follett novel, broadcast on the digital radio station BBC 7.
He also appeared in an episode of the long-running BBC TV series The Two Ronnies alongside Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett as the character of 'Captain Dickie Chapman', a fellow prisoner-of-war (POW) in Colditz during World War II, in a sketch based on the original BBC TV series, Colditz.
Courtney starred as Inspector Lionheart opposite fellow Doctor Who actor Terry Molloy in the audio series The Scarifyers, from Cosmic Hobo Productions. The first two Scarifyers adventures, The Nazad Conspiracy and The Devil of Denge Marsh, were broadcast on BBC 7 in 2007; the third, entitled For King and Country in 2008, and fourth, The Curse of the Black Comet, in 2010.
He regularly made personal appearances at science fiction conventions and was also from 1997 the honorary president of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. His theatrical agent was former Doctor Who actress Wendy Padbury.
In 1998, Courtney released his autobiography, titled Five Rounds Rapid! (ISBN 978-1852277826) after an infamous line of dialogue the Brigadier had in the 1971 Who serial The Dæmons. He recorded his memoirs, subtitled A Soldier in Time for release on CD in 2002 by Big Finish. An updated autobiography, Still Getting Away With It (ISBN 978-1871330731), was published in 2005, with co-author Michael McManus. Until his death, he lived in London with his second wife, Karen.
Nicholas Courtney's death was reported by SFX and The Stage early in the morning of 23 February 2011. The exact nature of his death was not given in these early reports. Doctor Who audio play producers Big Finish, with whom Courtney had worked on several releases in his continuing role as the Brigadier, confirmed the date of his death as 22 February 2011. The BBC reported that he had "died in London at the age of 81". According to his official web site, he died following a long battle against illness. Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss called him "a childhood hero and the sweetest of gentlemen". Former Doctor Tom Baker also paid tribute, having visited him on the Friday before his death. Baker wrote "We shall miss him terribly" in a newsletter on his website, in which he also indicated that Courtney had been battling cancer.