William Russell played Ian Chesterton in 78 episodes of Dr. Who. He was the first person to ask the oft-repeated question “Doctor Who?” after the Timelord introduced himself simply as ‘The Doctor.’ After a very long life, he has passed away of natural cases at the age of 99, just months away from his 100th birthday.

In “Unearthly Child,” and other episodes, William Russell played schoolteacher Ian Chesterton of Coal Hill School. Ian, and colleague Barbara Wright played by Jacqueline Hill) were concerned about one of their students, a charming clever girl named Susan Foreman, who knew more than was expected for a girl her age about science and history, but lacked the basic everyday knowledge of how many shillings were in a pound (twenty, at that time). Being concerned educators, Mr. Chesterton and Miss Wright attempted to make a home visit to Susan’s grandfather. They were more than a little surprised to learn Susan and her grandfather lived in a police callbox in a junkyard. They soon learned the police callbox was bigger on the inside than the outside, and that Susan and her grandfather weren’t from around there. Ian and Barbara soon become the Doctor’s Companions, travelling through time and space.

From 1963 in “Unearthly Child” to 2022 in “The Power of the Doctor,” in 1965 William Russell portrayed Ian Chesterton  achieving the Guinness World Record for the longest gap between TV appearances. Barbara and Ian travelled with the Doctor to the days of the Aztec Empire the Medieval Crusades (Ian was knighted by Richard the Lion-Hearted in “The Knight of Jaffa.”) to Skaros and further. He left the show in 1965, but came back in 2022 for a special “The Power of the Doctor,” reprising the same character.

As a science teacher, Ian Chesterton was able to ride a horse, fight with a sword well enough to impress Richard I, start a fire without matches, cope with bloodthirsty Aztecs, and travel to other centuries and planets without ever losing his stiff upper lip. Rather like Roy Hinkley (the “Professor of Gilligan’s Island) he was a polymath, able to do more than you’d expect of a high school general science teacher. Or maybe TV scriptwriters have a higher opinion of high school science teachers.

William Russell was born William Russell Enoch on 19 November 1924, in Sunderland, County Durham, England. His earliest acting credits were under the name William Enoch. He died June 4, 2024, only a few months before his 100th birthday.

Dr. Who was his greatest science fiction role, but not his only one. In the Oscar-winning Superman (1978), William Russell played one of the Kryptonian Council of Elders.

When he joined the cast of Dr. Who, they considered themselves fairly lucky to have gotten him, as in the Early Sixties he was still well known in England for starring in The Adventures of Sir Lancelot in 1956-57. It rarely shows up in syndication these days, but at the time it was immensely popular. Russel T. Davies wrote: “A fine, nimble, witty, heartfelt actor who absolutely sold the truth of those early years. Before that, he’d been Sir Lancelot on the BBC; it’s often undersold what a star booking he was for Doctor Who. He later went on to marry Rita Fairclough as Ted Sullivan on Coronation Street.” He later appeared in one episode of Robin of Sherwood, “the Pretender” as the Duke of Gloucester. He played Hamlet in London’s West End to great acclaim.

William Russell in WWII

Like most red-blooded men of his generation, William Russell served king and country honorably in the fight against fascism. He served in the RAF, leaving a proud legacy for his children and grandchildren. After the war, he became involved in repertory theatre. In the military, his duties included arranging entertainment to maintain troop morale. When he completed his patriotic duty, he returned to university and then to live theater. Two of his best motion pictures had WWII settings. He starred in The Man Who Never Was (1956) and appeared in The Great Escape (1963), which some critics consider the best war movie ever made, or at least the best POW escape movie. He played Sorren. He co-starred with Sir Sean Connery in The Adventure Story (1961).

William Russell was married twice. He had four children, Alfred Enoch, who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter movies, and Robert, Laetitia and Vanessa. He and his first wife, Balbina Gutierrez, divorced. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Etheline M. Lewis, two sons, two daughters, and four grandchildren. Our condolences and comfort to them.

He co-starred in Harriet’s Back in Town, appearing as Tom Preston in 90 of its 104 episodes. He appeared in the BAFTA-winning show Coronation Street as Ted Sullivan.

Russell is survived by his wife, Etheline. He died on 3rd June 2024.

William Russell lived a long and full life, and we hope a happy one. He’ll be missed.

Susan Macdonald
Susan Macdonald

Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as 26 short stories, mostly fantasy in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress ”, Swords &Sorceries Vols. 1, 2, & 5, “Cat Tails” “Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions,  Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.