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The Almost Doctors – Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy & 12 Other Actors Almost Cast as the Doctor on Doctor Who

This past week it was rumored that Rory Kinnear had been offered the part of the Doctor on Doctor Who, replacing the departing Matt Smith [see our article about it here]. The BBC has now officially denied the rumor, and friends of Kinnear have taken to Twitter to deny it on his behalf.  Assuming Kinnear is not the one to ultimately replace Smith, will we ever know for sure if he was even approached for the role?  Well…

It is a tradition in the UK that actors who audition for the role of the Doctor on Doctor Who simply don’t talk about it, especially if they were offered the part and turned it down.  In general, talking about auditioning for a role you didn’t get presents no benefit to an actor, and talking about having turned down the role somewhat disrespects the person who actually became one of the 11 few to date to have played the Doctor.  So, once we know, officially, who landed the role to replace Smith will we ever know for sure who didn’t get the part, i.e., the actors whose candidacy for the role was more than mere rumor?

For most of the rumored actors, the answer is no.  However, every now and then an actor breaks from tradition and talks about it.  Due to this and the look at internal show memos granted to various authors on books/articles about the history of the show we actually know more than you’d think about the casting process for each Doctor.  The following is a list of 13 actors who we know almost got the role of the Doctor but didn’t and 1 notable actor who despite rumors appears to have never been a real candidate.  This list spans the entire 50-year history of the show from Hartnell to Smith:

1) Hugh David
DWHo Hugh David
The Doctor was almost a Dapper Dan man.

Hugh David was supposed to play the Doctor.  However, this was prior to the BBC appointing Verity Lambert as producer.  Once she came aboard she had a vision of the Doctor as an old man, far older than the 38-year-old David.  So, for a change an actor failed to get the part for being too young, not too old.  Lambert only stayed with the show for two seasons, but her notion of the Doctor as an old man would influence all future producers when casting new Doctors until over a decade later when the slightly younger Tom Baker was cast but especially when the much younger Peter Davison was cast.

William Hartnell, who was in his mid-50s, got the part of the first Doctor. David later transitioned into directing, and worked on Doctor Who as a director of “The Highlanders” and “Fury from the Deep.” David did not get the chance to actually turn down the role, but Alan Webb and Cyril Cusack are said to have been offered the role only to turn it down. So, Hartnell, aka nobody’s favorite Doctor, was far from the show’s first choice for the role.

2) Michael Hordern
DWho Hordern
He even kind of looks like William Hartnell, just with less hair, thus explaining why he was approached to replace him.

Patrick Troughton, who replaced William Hartnell in 1966, on the other hand was the show’s first choice for the role.  However, it was never a guarantee Troughton would say yes.  So, as a back-up plan the show’s producers approached Michael Hordern, an actor with nearly 20 years of film/tv and theater experience at that point.  The same year that Troughton premiered as the Doctor Hordern starred as Senex in the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Hordern was not the only back-up plan.  Also approached were Rupert Davies and Valentine Dyall.

3) Ron Moody
DWho Ron Moody
This is actually a pose often held by the Hartnell version of the Doctor, who was, well, not a nice man.

The experience with Michael Hordern was rather illustrative because when it came time to replace Troughton in 1969 the producers would need their back-up plan after their first choice turned them down.  They offered the role to Ron Moody, who at that time was fresh off playing Fagin in Oliver!, but he declined the chance to play the Doctor.  So, the actual 3rd Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was a back-up plan.

4) Fulton Mackay
DWho Fulton
His facial reaction to the news that he couldn’t play the Doctor because a comedy pilot he shot had been picked up for a full series.

In 1974, Jon Pertwee was replaced by Tom Baker, whose immense popularity over a 7-year-run somewhat singularly defined the role until probably David Tennant and Matt Smith in modern Who.  However, Baker was far from the first choice.  Fulton Mackay, even though he had been in the 1970 serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” was approached, but became unavailable after a comedy pilot he had filmed was picked up for a full series.  The series?  Porridge, which ran for 3 years and 20 full episodes.

5) Graham Crowden
DWho Graham Crowden
Pictured here from “The Horns of Himon,” Crowden could certainly have equaled Tom Baker’s oddness and bizarrely bugged eyes.

Graham Crowden, on the other hand, had no such competing project when approached about replacing Pertwee.  He simply turned them down because he didn’t want to take a leading role. He did make an eventual guest appearance on the show in 1979 as the villain in “The Horns of Nimon.”

6) Richard Griffiths
Richard E Grant and Richard Griffiths in Withnail & I
From Withnail & I, Richard E. Grant on the left recently appeared as the Great Intelligence on modern Doctor Who and Richard Griffiths on the right was almost the Doctor…twice.

Harry Potter’s despicable Uncle Vernon and Richard E. Grant’s incredibly strange Uncle Monty in Withnail & I, Richard Griffiths, was considered to replace the Doctor…twice.  First, Griffiths was among the candidates to replace Tom Baker, and was considered a very likely replacement for Sylvester McCoy had the show returned in 1990. I can’t quite figure out how to talk about it without seeming indelicate, but if your first thought is that Griffiths would have been too large to run down all those corridors allow me to remind you that he wasn’t always as big as he was in Harry Potter.  Of course, he was also never a particularly small man either.

The part of Tom Baker’s replacement went to Peter Davison who was then succeeded by Colin Baker, who famously wished to play the role, well, forever.

7) Ken Campbell
DWho Campbell
This man’s audition disturbed the Doctor Who producers – the same producers responsible for the combative, rainbow themed-suit wearing Colin Baker. Wow.

Forever, for Colin Baker, was a mere two seasons, and he holds the distinction of being the only actor to be fired from the role, as opposed to leaving voluntarily.  He was replaced by Sylvester McCoy.  However, another potential Colin Baker replacement was Ken Campbell, who was also approached.  Had he been picked he would have been our first bald Doctor.  His audition was said to have been rejected because his interpretation of the role of the Doctor was deemed too disturbing.  Don’t you just want to see that audition right now?  The same producers that gave us Colin Baker’s horrifyingly rainbow-colored suit found Campbell too disturbing!

8) Chris Jury
DWho Chris Jury
Jury – clearly looking far too dim-witted to be the Doctor.

Chris Jury, most known for his role as Eric in the long-running BBC show Lovejoy, also auditioned to replace Colin Baker.  Unlike Campbell, Jury was asked back to guest on the show in the 1988 serial “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” in which he played the role of Kingpin.

9) Liam Cunningham
DWho Liam Cunningham
Seriously, Liam – it’s absolutely for the best that you didn’t get the role in the horrible 1996 TV movie. You can stop with the glowering stare now.

He just appeared as the ship captain in the season 7 episode “Cold War,” and is currently battling the Red Priestess Melisandre for Stannis Baratheon’s soul on Game of Thrones, but Liam Cunningham was almost the Doctor.  He auditioned in 1996 for the Fox TV movie/back-door pilot which was meant to relaunch Doctor Who as a new series in America.   The part went to Paul McGann.  Other actors who reportedly auditioned for the part include Mr. Bean himself Rowan Atkinson, Eric Idle, Billy Connolly, and…

10) Anthony Stewart Head
DWho-Giles
Considering that Anthony Stewart Head went on to appear regularly on BBC’s Merlin, this picture from Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed appropriate.

Oh.  My. God. Giles was almost the Doctor?  Giles!  Holy shit, why didn’t that happen?  Well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer hadn’t quite happened yet, I guess, because if they had seen his work as Giles on the show they would known he would have been the PERFECT Doctor.

Hi.  I’d like to apologize real quick for letting my Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom take over for a second there.  I realize now that I have offered no real explanation as to what I am talking about.  So, let’s start over.

Anthony Stewart Head, who would a year later gain fame as the librarian/vampire slayer watcher Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, auditioned for the role in the 1996 TV movie.  As if it actually needs to be said, he didn’t get the part, and their loss was Joss Whedon’s gain.

11) Hugh Grant
DWho-Grant
Hugh Grant as the Doctor in the charity special “The Curse of the Fatal Death”

If self-effacing humor was an Olympic sport, Hugh Grant would be a gold medalist. Who else could get away with explaining marital infidelities by joking, “Well, I was a very bad boy, and there you have it.” So, when Grant admitted that he was actually approached about for the role in the re-launched show – the role which went to Christopher Eccleston –he did so with his characteristic charm, “I was offered the role of the Doctor a few years back and was highly flattered. The danger with those things is that it’s only when you see it on screen that you think, ‘Damn, that was good, why did I say no?’ But then, knowing me, I’d probably make a mess of it” (StarPulse).

Of course, Hugh Grant actually played the Doctor in the 1999 Doctor Who spoof “The Curse of the Fatal Death,” which was made for charity and featured the Doctor regenerating multiple times throughout the special thus allowing Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, and Joanna Lumley to all play the Doctor.  The writer of “The Curse of the Fatal Death?”  Steven Moffat.

To be fair to Grant for turning down the role, at the time that Doctor Who was re-launched it no longer had a fantastic reputation in the UK, thought of by many as somewhat of a national embarrassment due to its notoriously cheap special effects.  It took the Russel T. Davies version of the show to return it to glory.

12) Bill Nighy
DWho Nighy
It’s like looking into a mirror. Bowties are, indeed, cool.

At the time that Eccleston was cast in the re-launched show, Bill Nighy was the Rory Kinnear.  He was the guy rumored to have been offered the role, and even claimed by some sources to have been cast in the role.  Who knows what will become of Kinnear, but in the case of Nighy it turns out the speculation was correct except for the part where he was cast.

He later admitted, “I was offered the role once, I won’t tell you when because the rule is that you’re not allowed to say you turned that job down because it’s disrespectful to whoever did it. I will say that I was approached. But I didn’t want to be the Doctor. No disrespect to Doctor Who or anything. I just think that it comes with too much baggage” (HuffPo).

13) Eddie Izzard
DWho Izzard
This fan-made image is the closest Izzard is likely to ever get to playing the Doctor.

If Nighy is the guy everyone was talking about who turned out to actually be up for the role then Izzard is the one widely mentioned who was not really up for the role.  When casting for the re-launched show began, Tom Baker mentioned Izzard as being an ideal choice for the role, “Eddie would bring an alien quality to the part. He is so mysterious and strange and seems like he has a lot of secrets.”

Thanks to being endorsed by the most popular Doctor to date at that point, Izzard’s name was a hot item in the press from that point forward. However, based upon comments from Izzard in 2008 it does not appear he was ever approached for the role, “I would accept the part if it was offered to me.  I think David [Tennant] is doing a great job in the role. He may become even more popular than Tom Baker, who I thought was the best ever Doctor. Tom actually put my name forward for the part when the BBC brought the show back four years ago” (WhatsonTV).

14) Russell Tovey
DWho Tovey
Russell Tovey from “The Ends of Time, Part 2,” just about to fall to the charms of Captain Jack Harkness.

When Russel T. Davies left the show, he endorsed Russell Tovey as a potential replacement for the departing David Tennant.  Of course, Davies was to have nothing to do with re-casting the role of the Doctor, and the choice was entirely up to new Executive Producer/Head Writer Steven Moffat and the BBC.  Even so, Tovey’s was a name which just would not go away during the speculation as to who was to replace Tennant. As it turns out, Tovey did actually audition for the role.   In April of this year, Russell Tovey told The Independent that he auditioned to replace David Tennant, but was relieved when Smith beat him for the role because “I don’t know what I would have done with all the attention.”

So, there you have it.  The information about the actors from 1963 up until 1989 comes from the bbc.co.uk archive, and the information about the 1996 TV movie mostly comes from the Philip Segal/Garry Russell book Doctor Who: Regeneration.  The information from 2005 on comes from individual interviews conducted by the involved actors.  You can read more about this at Wikipedia.org.  There are various other actors mentioned in those sources, but I tried to pick those – with the exception of Izzard – with the most concrete evidence in fact (which is why Robert Carlyle wasn’t mentioned because I can find no evidence that he was ever actually approached to replace David Tennant).

So, what do you think?  Only ever heard of maybe half of these people?  Struggle to imagine Hugh Grant doing anything other than foppishly dropping his sonic screwdriver as the Doctor – a joke I owe to WeMinoredInFilm’s Julianne Ramsey?  Can’t imagine Bill Nighy being the person to first say, “Nice to meet you, Rose Tyler.  Now, run for your life!” and not Eccleston?  Still don’t get why some people really want Tovey as the Doctor?  Let us know in the comments.

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