Wednesday, February 23, 2011

RIP - Nicholas Courtney

Sad news from the world of Doctor Who. Nicholas Courtney, the actor who played fan favourite character Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, has died at the age of 81 following a long battle with cancer.

Courtney first played Lethbridge-Stewart in 1968, appearing opposite Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor in The Web of Fear. He was a regular army Colonel then, but he returned later that season in The Invasion, newly promoted to Brigadier and heading up an international organization called the United Nations Intelligence Task Force, or UNIT.

When Troughton left the series and the Doctor regenerated into his third incarnation, played by Jon Pertwee, it was decided that the character would be Earth-bound for a time, and would work with UNIT. Courtney became a series regular during this era, his formal and somewhat pompous military bearing creating a good contrast to the Doctor's eccentricities. Over time, he would be brought back again and again, to fan delight. He appeared opposite all of the classic series Doctors, with the exception of Colin Baker's sixth Doctor (although he did appear opposite the Sixth Doctor in audio productions and a charity special).

Oddly enough, The Web of Fear was not his first appearance in Doctor Who. He had first appeared on the series in The Daleks' Master Plan, a 1965 serial starring William Hartnell as the Doctor.

Courtney was born in Egypt in 1929, the son of a British diplomat. As his father was a member of the foreign service, he moved around quite a lot growing up, and he would spend time in France and Kenya. After his National Service, he attended drama school, and by the mid 1960s he would be making appearances in numerous television series and acting in repertory theatre all over the country.

Director Douglas Camfield cast Courtney as Security Agent Bret Vyon in The Daleks' Master Plan, and liked the actor. Three years alter, when casting The Web of Fear, he remembered Courtney and cast him as Captain Knight. however, when the original actor cast as Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart had to drop out, Camfield asked Courtney to take over the role.
Courtney and Jon Pertwee

In 1970, when Courtney became a regular, his instant chemistry with Jon Pertwee made him an effective and enjoyable foil, and his witty and fun repartee with the Doctor, combined with his action heroics, created the beloved Brigadier that all fans embraced. His figure still looms large over the series. 

The Brigadier has often been mentioned in the series since the revival, and Courtney finally reprised the role in 2008, forty years after the Brigadier debuted, when he appeared in two episodes of the spinoff series The Sarah Jane Adventures. In the story, he aided former comrade Sarah Jane Smith against her enemies.

Courtney was also a favourite on the convention circuit. He was renowned for his approachability, and genuinely kind and open nature. He would often tell legendary stories with wit and warmth, and was universally beloved by colleagues with whom he worked, even decades after they worked with him.

Fourth Doctor Tom Baker had this to say about his longtime friend: Of all the characters in Doctor Who there is no doubt he was the most loved by the fans for his wonderful portrayal of the rather pompous Brigadier...

Actor and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss called him a childhood hero and the sweetest of gentlemen.

Courtney in his final appearance as Lethbridge-Stewart
Married twice, Courtney leaves two children from his first marriage, Philip and Bella. A true legend in the fan community, he will be very much missed.

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