Nicholas Courtney was a longtime working actor in England, portraying dozens of leading and supporting roles in theater, television, and movies -- but he was most well known around the world, as well as in England, for playing Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart on the long-running BBC series Doctor Who. The son of a British diplomat, he was born in Cairo, Egypt. His father had been a career military man before entering the diplomatic service, and one of his uncles was an Air Chief Marshall in the Royal Air Force -- and although Courtney never aspired to a military career, he did observe their respective behavior, which served him well later in life. Courtney turned to acting after 18 months in the British army. With extensive stage experience behind him, he made his television debut in 1957, and quickly moved into motion pictures as well. He was busy in film and, especially, television over the next decade, including a role in a 1965 episode of Doctor Who as Space Security Agent Bret Vyon, working alongside original series star William Hartnell. That performance impressed the producers sufficiently so that, when planning the series' 1968 run, as a result of a last-minute shift in another actor's availability, Courtney inherited the part of Colonel (later Brigadier) Lethbridge-Stewart.
This proved to be the role of a lifetime, as the co-star of one of the BBC's most popular series. Courtney brought his acting experience, as well as his recollections of his father's and uncle's approaches to their respective careers to his portrayal. The brigadier is the head of a top-secret military division known as UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), organized to investigate and deal with threats that fall outside of the range and experience of the conventional military and intelligence services. Courtney symbolized cool British professionalism and efficiency, bringing a good deal of humanity to the portrayal and never letting the character of the brigadier turn into caricature. He proved extremely popular with both the viewers and the producers, and went on to portray the UNIT leader in dozens upon dozens of episodes of the series across the next decade or more. Courtney ultimately played hundreds of roles in a career of nearly 50 years on the stage, in films, and on television -- including regular work in such popular series as The Two Ronnies, and appearances during the 1960s on The Champions and The Avengers -- but it would be Lethbridge-Stewart by which he would be best known around the world. And his fame was sufficient to justify his writing an autobiography, Five Rounds Rapid (1998), which he updated in 2005 as Still Getting Away With It. He passed away in 2011 after a long illness.