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William Russell (1924-2024)

Ian Chesterton, one of the original companions from 1963! Composite by Blogtor Who

William Russell who played original companion Ian Chesterton has died, aged 99

It’s almost impossible to describe how important William Russell was to the success of Doctor Who. The actor was one of the show’s original cast members. He appeared in 77 episodes across the first two seasons as the dependable, tough, but good humoured science teacher Ian Chesterton. As such, he’s been in more Doctor Who than any of the modern actors to enter the TARDIS. But more than that, he was a crucial element in ensuring that there’s still a show today at all.

Fans joke that the BBC should have called that first season in 1963/4 “Ian” and they’re not exactly wrong. It was Russell’s gentle humour and humanity, and ability to sell the danger and drama in even the most low budget menaces that, as much as anything, brought viewers back for more, week after week.

 

Ian and the Doctor slowly learning to trust one another was one of the defining dynamics of early Doctor Who (c) BBC The Doctor and Ian stand facing each other, looking argumentative, while Barbara and Susan look from across the other side of the TARDIS console
Ian and the Doctor slowly learning to trust one another was one of the defining dynamics of early Doctor Who (c) BBC

The Oxford educated actor had already starred in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and Nicholas Nickleby before being cast as Ian Chesterton

Born William Russell Enoch in 1924, but universally known to his friends as “Russ,” the young actor studied at Oxford University and served in the RAF before finding fame. It’s probably hard to appreciate now, but Russell was already a famous face when Doctor Who began. He had played the title role in adventures series The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. There he had gained his reputation as an actor who could handle both action and humour. Attributes that would serve him well on Doctor Who. Similarly, he has also starred as Nicholas Nickleby in the BBC’s prestige adaptation of the Dickens classic.

In many ways, though, Russell’s first love was the stage, and it was a desire to get back to the theatre that led to him leaving Doctor Who near the end of its second season. He was, at various points, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He was also one of the first actors to tread the boards on the reconstructed Globe Theatre, following completion of the replica of William Shakespeare’s own venue.

 

William Russell (centre) as one of Krypton’s elders in Superman: The Movie (c) DC

Decades of notable supporting roles followed Doctor Who, from Superman and The Great Escape to The Black Adder and Poirot

After Doctor Who, Russell rarely took leading roles again. But he still made supporting appearances in several well remembered films and series. He was one of the Kryptonian Elders who unintentionally doom their world by refusing to listen to the warnings of Jor-El in Superman: The Movie. He has a supporting role too as a sardonic member of the team in iconic WWII movie The Great Escape. Meanwhile, he appeared alongside Harvey Keitel in cult 1979 science fiction film Death Watch, as a doctor in a world where death has been all but eliminated. But when he discovers one of his patients is terminally ill he conspires with a producer to use hidden cameras to turn her final days into live reality TV.

On television, too, he continued to be a major guest star in series up until the mid 2000s. These included being the Count of Winchester is classic comedy The Black Adder, a luvvie actor with a secret in Casualty, and as a quintessential English butler in Poirot.

One final cameo came in 2013,. Russell played a BBC Television Centre security guard in docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time. It was an appropriate way to mark the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who’s creation.

 

William Russell (top left) with Jodie Whittaker and other companions past and present in The Power of the Doctor (c) BBC Studios, Photo: James Pardon

William Russell last appeared in Doctor Who in 2022, breaking a Guinness World Record in the process

However, William Russell enjoyed one last Doctor Who hurrah. In 2022 he made a cameo appearance, aged 96, in The Power of the Doctor. It’s a sign of the prestige and affection with which he was held that even though he didn’t share a scene with outgoing Doctor Jodie Whittaker, she made a point of visiting the set to meet him. The appearance also earned him a well deserved place in the Guinness Book of Records. They listed him in their pages in recognition of playing the same television character across a 59 year period.

William Russell may have died a few months short of his 100th birthday, but he has gained immortality of a form. Few television stars of his generation will be remembered as he will be, destined to be rediscovered by future generations of fans for as long as the show he helped launch exists. And beyond.

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