Doctor Who could well have had a very different trajectory, following the news that The Eighth Doctor was almost played by a different actor.
Paul McGann plays the time-travelling alien in the 1996 TV movie, but the role was reportedly first offered to Harry Van Gorkum (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones).
In an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, the actor recounted how his life very nearly changed overnight.
“There are only two roles in the world where, if the phone goes, and you’ve got it, overnight your life has changed,” he said. “There’s James Bond and Doctor Who.”
His audition for the TV movie went well, and as he recalled: “An hour later the phone goes. My agent says, ‘Harry, I’ve got some news for you. You’ve got Doctor Who. Everyone loved you. Everyone said, ‘This is fantastic – we’ve found him.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I remember I fell to my knees in my trailer and kind of collapsed. I had a bit of an emotional moment. It was the turning point in my career. I thought, ‘My God, I’m going to play Doctor Who in America…’
However, as Van Gorkum put it, “then the nightmare started”.
Universal and Fox had already signed off on his casting, but they had yet to convince the BBC about the unknown actor.
“Geoffrey Sax and Philip Segal said, ‘Now we’ve got to sell you to the BBC.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘We called up the BBC and said, ‘We’ve finally found Doctor Who.’ And Alan Yentob [controller of BBC One] said, ‘Well, who is it?’ They said, ‘Harry Van Gorkum.’ And he said, ‘Harry who? Never heard of him!’ So I had to put myself on tape for the BBC, so they could agree that I was the right person for it.
“I was ready to fly from England straight to Vancouver,” he explained. “And then around two days before Christmas I got a call from Philip Segal. He said, ‘This is the worst phone call I’ve had to make. This is going to happen a few times in your career, because you are very good but you haven’t got the name behind you. You haven’t had your big break yet.’”
The BBC instead opted for Paul McGann, who by then had already starred in Catherine the Great, The Importance of Being Earnest, and the film Withnail & I.
“So that was it. I was absolutely crushed. I flew back to America and not to Vancouver,” Van Gorkum told Doctor Who Magazine.
“I’m not bitter about it at all,” he added. “I was mortified at the time, but that’s the career I’ve picked. You get close to parts. Until you get that big break, until you get on that A list, it doesn’t matter how good you are, it’s a case of ‘Do the people want to come and see you or not?’”
The full interview is available in Doctor Who Magazine now. Doctor Who is available to stream on BBC iPlayer. Check out more of our Sci-Fi and Fantasy content or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.