On this day in history : 7th July 1919 – The birth of Jon Pertwee – best known for his portrayal of the Third Doctor in Dr Who – and for his role as Worzel Gummidge….
Born in Chelsea, London, John Devon Roland Pertwee – ‘Jon’ – came from a theatrical family…. (The ‘h’ in his name was dropped in the 1930s after a playbill incorrectly spelt his name)…. His father, Roland Pertwee, was an actor, playwright and screenwriter – and his mother, Alice Schultz, an actress…. He was also a distant cousin of actor Bill Pertwee, known for his role as ARP Warden Hodges in the sitcom ‘Dad’s Army’….
Jon’s parents separated when he was very young and although his father remarried he was mainly raised by his paternal grandmother…. He was educated at Frensham Heights School, in Farnham, Surrey – which is where he had his first taste of the theatre, in a school stage production of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’…. He then went to Sherborne School, Dorset – after a few intermediate Schools in between, from all of which he was expelled….
Young Jon was rebellious in nature – but from an early age he had been encouraged by his family to pursue an acting career…. This was despite being told several times by his teachers that he would never be successful as an actor on account of his partial lisp….
In 1936, on finishing school, he was accepted into RADA – only to be expelled again…. His refusal to play the part of a Greek ‘wind’ – because he thought it a waste of time – coupled with his writing rude things about his tutors on the lavatory walls earned him his marching orders….
Nevertheless, at the age of 18 he was contracted to the BBC and had a varied career in the repertory theatre and music hall – mainly as a comic actor…. During WW2 he was to serve in the Royal Navy, which in turn was to help his own career after the War…. In December 1945 he joined the BBC armed forces radio comedy ‘Mediterranean Merry-Go-Round’ – which went on to have a spin-off show ‘Waterlogged Spa’ in 1948…. This saw him awarded his own radio series ‘Puffney Post Office’ in 1950 – but his biggest radio success came in 1959 with ‘The Navy Lark’…. Acting alongside several others who were already – or about to become – household names, such as Lesley Philips, Ronnie Barker, Dennis Price and Michael Bates, the series ran for 18 years….
Meanwhile his stage and film career was doing well and in 1955 he had married actress Jean Marsh…. However, they divorced in 1960 and in the same year he married Ingeborg Rhoesa with whom he had two children, a daughter, Dariel and son, Sean – both of whom went on to have successful acting careers….
In 1969 Jon was approached to take over from Patrick Troughton as Dr Who…. He played the role of the Third Doctor as a suave, dapper man of action – who was rather ‘tech savvy’…. In an era influenced by James Bond he was seen to love working on his gadgets in the TARDIS – and drove a vintage yellow roadster called ‘Bessie’ – which reflected Jon’s own love of cars…. As the Third Doctor he was the first Doctor to be broadcast in colour….
In early 1974 he announced that he was stepping down from Dr Who and for a while he returned to his stage career…. Then in 1979 he took on the starring role of Worzel Gummidge in the ITV children’s sitcom based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd…. The antics of the loveable scarecrow who could come to life ran for four series until 1981 and also starred Una Stubbs, Bill Maynard and Joan Sims…. It even made Jon a ‘popstar’ when ‘Worzel’s Song’ reached No.33 and stayed in the UK music charts for seven weeks in 1980….
Jon continued to work on stage, in film and even advertisements…. His last formal TV appearance was on Cilla Black’s ‘Surprise Surprise’ in April 1996…. On the 20th of May 1996 he died suddenly from a heart attack in his sleep at his home in Connecticut…. His sudden death came as a shock to everyone…. He was aged 76….
He was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium – and as were his wishes, a toy Worzel Gummidge was fixed to his coffin…. Ironically his very last film appearance, made just a week before his death, was as Dr Who for an advertisement for Vodafone….