One of the saddest parts of running a blog which tries to trace the birth and death dates of every credited cast member in Doctor Who history, is when I have to update an actor's entry with their passing. Whether it's a big name guest star, or a bit-part player who only appeared for one week, or one scene, each and every performer to put their name to the developing legend of Doctor Who deserves recognition.
I'm adding birth and death dates to the blog all the time, based upon ongoing research and generous contributions from dedicated readers. And it's not just recent deaths that get added, it's also deaths from years ago, which only now get uncovered or confirmed.
So I thought I'd look at some of the actors who died soon after making their final Doctor Who appearance. Which actors died closest to the day their last episode went out? As I discovered, there have been a surprising number of actors who've died very close to the transmission of their episodes (both classic series and new), and there is one particular performer with a very tragic demise who passed away before their episode had even been shown on TV.
Eleven actors have sadly died within a year of their final Doctor Who appearance, starting with:
366 days between transmission and death (one leap year)
Last appearance: Torbis in The Curse of Peladon Episode One (January 29th 1972)
Died: January 29th 1973
Henry Gilbert had the sad misfortune of dying exactly one (leap) year after his first, last and only appearance in Doctor Who, as Torbis, Chancellor of Peladon, in the first episode of The Curse of Peladon. It's doubly tragic that the last we see of Gilbert is his death scene, when he is killed by the monstrous Aggedor. After Doctor Who, Gilbert appeared in two other productions in 1972 (Get Charlie Tully and the TV movie Inferno), before passing away at the age of just 59.
359 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Gaptooth in The Smugglers Episode 4 (October 1st 1966)
Died: September 25th 1967
Jack Bligh is thought to be the earliest-born actor to ever appear in Doctor Who. On the day he recorded his scenes as Gaptooth in Riverside Studio 1 on July 29th, 1966, Bligh was 76 years old, having been born on New Year's Eve, 1889. Bligh would record a good number of further screen appearances after Doctor Who, including the sci-fi classic Night of the Big Heat with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. As with Henry Gilbert, former stuntman Bligh only appeared in the one Doctor Who episode, and would pass away 51 weeks after transmission, at the age of 77.
310 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Geoff Noble in The Runaway Bride (December 25th 2006)
Died: October 31st 2007
Howard Attfield played Donna Noble's father in the 2006 Christmas special, and when it was decided that Donna would become the Doctor's companion for the 2008 series, it was planned that her parents, Geoff and Sylvia, would return too. By the time filming began on Partners in Crime in October 2007 at Lady Mary Allotments in Cardiff, it was clear that Attfield was too ill to continue playing Geoff, and his scenes with Catherine Tate were ultimately reshot in November 2007 with Bernard Cribbins as Donna's grandfather, Wilfred Mott. Attfield died of cancer, aged 60, on the last day of the month that he'd briefly reprised his role of Geoff, and what survives of the footage can be seen in the deleted scenes on the Series 4 DVD box set. Partners in Crime was dedicated to his memory when it was finally transmitted on April 5th, 2008.
255 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Professor Rumford in The Stones of Blood Part Four (November 18th 1978)
Died: July 31st 1979
Beatrix Lehmann had been acting on the stage since the 1920s, and moved in illustrious and sometimes controversial circles most of her life. Lehmann had been a strong, proud gay woman throughout her career (it is believed she had an affair with Hollywood actress Tallulah Bankhead in her twenties) and had been in a relationship with actress Shelagh Fraser (best remembered as Luke Skywalker's Aunt Beru in the original Star Wars) since the early 1960s. Lehmann appeared in one further screen production after her part in Doctor Who (a two-part Crime and Punishment shown in May 1979), but sadly passed away on July 31st, 1979, at the age of 76. Lehmann left her house to Fraser in her will, but Beatrix's sister Rosamond prevented the inheritance.
244 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Coordinator Engin in The Deadly Assassin Part Four (November 20th 1976)
Died: July 22nd 1977
Erik Chitty played Time Lord Engin in all four parts of The Deadly Assassin, but it wasn't his first Doctor Who role – he'd earlier played apothecary Charles Preslin in War of God (the first episode of The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve) in February 1966. Chitty, who was an expert on the genealogy of his surname, managed to record a good amount of further screen appearances after The Deadly Assassin (including the films Jabberwocky and A Bridge Too Far), and his final TV role was as Gabriel Towzer in Midnight is a Place, shown posthumously. Chitty died on July 22nd, 1977, just two weeks after his 70th birthday.
164 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: De Flores in Silver Nemesis Part Three (December 7th 1988)
Died: May 19th 1989
German-born Anton Diffring reportedly only agreed to appear in Doctor Who because filming over the Summer of 1988 coincided with Wimbledon, of which Diffring was a fan. By 1988 he had enjoyed almost five decades in the business, mainly playing villains and Nazis (or villainous Nazis!), so he was pretty typecast in Silver Nemesis, in which he played villainous neo-Nazi De Flores. Diffring recorded one more role after Doctor Who – that of George Mamoulian in the German film Anna – before passing away in May 1989 at the age of 72. Contemporary reports gave the cause of death as natural causes, while others cited cancer, but in an interview in 2002, German actor Arthur Brauss, who starred alongside Diffring a number of times, claimed that he died of AIDS.
139 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: The First Doctor in The Five Doctors (November 25th 1983)
Died: April 13th 1984
It's particularly sad to think that the man who resurrected the First Doctor for the 20th anniversary special had only a few months left to live after the celebrations were over. Hurndall first trod the boards in 1930 at the age of just 20, but recreating William Hartnell's seminal performance as "the original, you might say" in The Five Doctors is probably the role he'll be remembered for most. After filming on the 20th anniversary special ended in Spring 1983, Hurndall recorded just one more role – in an episode of detective series Bergerac, shown on Christmas Eve that year – before dying of a heart attack on April 13th, 1984, aged 73. It has been reported that Hurndall had yet to be paid by the BBC for his appearance in The Five Doctors at the time of his death.
79 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: The Master in Frontier in Space Episode Six (March 31st 1973)
Died: June 18th 1973
Roger Delgado's death is one of the most violent and tragic of any Doctor Who actor, and it was his loss which partly led to Jon Pertwee deciding to leave Doctor Who at the end of Season 11. For years it was reported that Roger, who played the Master in eight stories between 1971-73, died when the car he was travelling in on the way to film the never-completed comedy movie Bell of Tibet in Turkey plunged into a ravine outside Nevsehir. However, in 2015 it came to light that Roger in fact did work on Bell of Tibet. In actual fact, it was a French TV series called La Cloche tibétaine. Roger appears in episode 4 (transmitted December 23, 1974 - find it on YouTube here). The story goes that his plane had to be diverted to another airport due to bad weather. Roger then called for a taxi to take him to the shoot. However, the driver was running late and to save time, took a mountain path. There, the car collided with another and plunged down a ravine, killing the 55-year-old Delgado and a technician. This awful accident took place less than three weeks after his last, somewhat badly edited appearance as the Master in Doctor Who, and two days after transmission of The Green Death Episode 5. Aside from La Cloche tibétaine, Roger appeared in one other posthumous production, an episode of ITC's The Zoo Gang called The Lion Hunt, broadcast on April 26th, 1974. Roger's body was cremated at Mortlake, London.
56 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Styre & The Marshal in The Sontaran Experiment Part Two (March 1st 1975)
Died: April 26th 1975
Just eight weeks separated Australian Kevin Lindsay's final screen appearance in Doctor Who – as Field Marshal Styre and his superior officer – and his untimely death. The two-part story was recorded entirely on location on Dartmoor in the Autumn of 1974, and proved to be the final screen role for Lindsay, who had suffered from a heart condition for many years. Lindsay had appeared in Doctor Who before – as Sontaran Linx in The Time Warrior and as Cho-je in Planet of the Spiders – but his dual roles as Styre and the Marshal were his swansong. He died of a heart attack just nine days after his 51st birthday.
35 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Tall Thin Man in Victory of the Daleks (April 17th 2010)
Died: May 22nd 2010
Jonathan Battersby is an intriguing entry on this list, because he could actually be on it twice. His last credited appearance in Doctor Who (and of his screen career) was as the Winder who denies little Timmy access to the lift after he gets zero in class in The Beast Below, but he was also in the following week's episode, albeit uncredited, as Tall Thin Man in Victory of the Daleks. Battersby, who as well as being an actor was also an admired investment advisor, died of prostate cancer on May 22nd, 2010, just over a month since transmission of his two episodes. He was just 57 years old.
But perhaps the most tragic deaths are those which come before the actor has even had their final performance transmitted. There is only one such death in Doctor Who's history, but first, an honourable mention for one of the programme's best-loved actors, who, all agree, was taken from us far too soon...
474 days between transmission and death
Last appearance: Sarah Jane Smith in The End of Time Part Two (January 1st 2010)
Died: April 19th 2011
Elisabeth was one of Doctor Who's greatest legends, and one of its best-loved and most respected. After playing companion Sarah Jane Smith alongside both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker between 1973-76, she returned to the franchise time and again, for her own spin-off K-9 & Company in 1981, the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors in 1983, and the 30th anniversary two-parter Dimensions in Time in 1993. Sladen reprised the role of Sarah Jane again for the relaunched series in 2006, and off the back of that landed her own, second spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures. This was a huge hit on CBBC and ran for five series between 2007-11. Although there was a gap of well over a year between her final Doctor Who appearance, in David Tennant's swansong, and her passing, when it comes to her own show, the gap was much shorter. Sladen died of pancreatic cancer on April 19th, 2011, 182 days after The Sarah Jane Adventures series 4 had ended. But by a twist of fate, the production team had already recorded three of the six stories slated for series 5 on the end of the series 4 recording block. These formed a curtailed series 5 and were transmitted posthumously in October 2011, six months after Sladen's death at the age of 65. The Doctor Who episode The Impossible Astronaut was dedicated to Sladen on its transmission, and BBC Four repeated her 1976 departure serial The Hand of Fear.
And the one actor to die before their episode was even transmitted, between recording and broadcast, is…
29 days between recording and death
Last appearance: Woman in the Woods in The Waking Ally (December 19th 1964)
Died: November 14th 1964
Jean Conroy has the tragic distinction of being the first Doctor Who actor to die, and the only actor (to date) to have their episode broadcast posthumously. It's a terribly sad statistic for an actor whose death only came to light a few years ago. Conroy played the younger of the two conniving women who Barbara and Jenny visit during episode 5 of The Dalek Invasion of Earth (the one who goes off to get the Dalek). Conroy recorded her scenes with Jacqueline Hill, Ann Davies and Meriel Hobson on October 16th, 1964, but the episode wasn't transmitted for another two months. Between recording and transmission, Conroy was involved in what we only know to be an "accident in the street" on Saturday, November 14th, 1964, and sadly died, aged just 29 (mere weeks before her 30th birthday).
Other actors who died within two years of their final Doctor Who appearance include Hamilton Dyce (Spearhead from Space), Simon Lack (The Androids of Tara), Denis Carey (Timelash), Rashid Karapiet (The God Complex), Peter Cartwright (The Power of Three) and Neil Fingleton (Before the Flood), while Doctors 1 and 2 – William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton – aren't far behind. There may be others, but not every actor's death date has been captured... yet.
The principal aim of the Doctor Who Cast and Crew blog is to record and remember the contributions, however large or small, of each and every credited actor to appear in Doctor Who, from 1963 to the present and beyond. It's not an easy task, and additions and corrections are being made all the time, but through this diligent research, we can remember those who donated some of their magic to make the series we love the legend that it is.
~ Steve (April 2018)