An old story goes that if you don't know what Tom Baker looks like, all you need to do is close your eyes and think of the Doctor... and that's him. Curly hair, floppy hat, long multicoloured scarf and toothy grin. Instantly recognisable. Even today, forty years since leaving the role, he's generally accepted as being the best-known of any of the fourteen actors to have played it to date and has only now been surpassed in popularity by David Tennant; even newer and/or younger Whovians, for whom Tennant is their iconic Doctor, list Baker as the Classic Doctor. Certainly he was the longest-serving (seven seasons in total), so he is embedded in the public consciousness better than most of the others.
Born in Liverpool to a merchant seaman father and a devout Catholic mother, Baker studied to become a religious brother with the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Jersey and later in Shropshire, but left the monastery after losing his faith six years later; he stated that he wanted to break the Ten Commandments in order, so he left before doing something serious. He gravitated towards acting, mostly as an understudy with the Royal National Theatre. He gained plaudits for his portrayal of Grigori Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra, and this led to several other film and television roles, among them the Evil Sorcerer Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
Nevertheless, the forty-year-old actor was working on a London building site as a bricklayer (and, by his own account, was of "no fixed abode") when he got lucky. Very lucky. Being known socially to the head of BBC drama and his wife (no sniggering at the back, please), Baker's name came up in discussion as a possibility when the producers of Doctor Who were looking for somebody to replace the departing Jon Pertwee in 1974. A meeting was arranged between Baker and the two men who were in overall charge of the series, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, both of whom took an immediate liking to the actor.
At the time of his casting, Baker was by far the least-known actor ever to have played the Doctor. William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Pertwee had all been much-loved character actors, even before playing the role, whereas Baker had largely been a supporting artist; this, combined with the immense popularity of Pertwee's portrayal of the Doctor, led to Baker spending much of the early period of his run as a staunchly contested successor, with many criticizing him simply because he wasn't Pertwee. It's somewhat ironic, therefore, that Baker ended up being the longest-serving and best-known Doctor of them all. His portrayal of the Doctor was and remains iconic: Baker himself attributes his success to having played the role as that of a Manchild, similarly to Harpo Marx (of whom Baker continues to be a huge fan) — this characterisation was a contrast to the more august former incarnations and became popular in later ones. To this day, Baker stands as the definitive archetype for the Doctor, with all later portrayals being a direct reaction to what made his take on the role so popular.
In 1981, Baker left Doctor Who, handing over the reins to Peter Davison. Accounts vary on exactly why he left. One popular story is that Baker tendered his resignation to the new producer of the series as a joke, believing that his massive popularity with the public would never see it accepted, only to be surprised when the producer snapped back, "Sure! When do you want to leave?" Commentary in the "New Beginnings" DVD boxed set suggests that John Nathan-Turner, the new first-year producer of the series, wanted to put his own personal stamp on the series and felt Baker had become impossible to rein in. For his part, Baker wasn't fond of the changes Nathan-Turner began making and threatened, as he had done with other producers in the past, to resign if he didn't get his way. Oops. An account from the documentary "A New Body At Last" from the "Logopolis" DVD tends toward a synthesis of both explanations, claiming that Baker's threats to leave had become almost a yearly tradition on the Doctor Who set (the idea being that the producers would acquiesce to Baker's demands as the show was at the height of its popularity) and that Turner, desiring to be free to put his own mark on the franchise, finally called Baker's bluff.
He maintained his Doctor persona off-screen to a large extent, never smoking or drinking in public and being on his best behavior around children. The pressure eventually led to endless in-fighting and even a few live television crack-ups. Later actors testified that the Doctor, not unlike Sherlock Holmes, is a tough character to get inside of and an even tougher one to get out of; extended time there can take its toll. Along with the risk of typecasting, Baker's example is probably a major consideration in most actors (and, in the case of his successor, the exact stated reason) for leaving the role after three or four years. It doesn't help that like Jeremy Brett, the actor who got Lost in Character playing Sherlock Holmes, Tom Baker suffers from bipolar disorder (which was not diagnosed until well after he left the role).
He subsequently took on roles as diverse as Oscar Wilde (that must have been a sight to see◊), Redbeard Rum in Blackadder, Sherlock Holmes (in a production so bad that the BBC publicly apologized for it), and an elf druid in the Dungeons & Dragons (2000) movie, as well as the role of Puddleglum in The BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis. He had a regular role as Donald MacDonald in the later seasons of Monarch of the Glen. He has found a niche as a voice actor in recent years (that's him doing the narration in Little Britain, the opening cutscene of Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising and the Bendu in Season 3 of Star Wars Rebels), but he will forevermore be remembered as the Doctor.
A good decade after the other actors who played the character, he finally reprised the role in Big Finish Doctor Who, and now speaks fondly of his time as the Doctor. He also appeared at the end of "The Day of the Doctor" as a museum curator, implied to be a future incarnation of the Doctor who willingly regenerated into Baker's form again — making him share the rather unique distinction with David Tennant of having played two distinct incarnations of the Doctor.
He married one of his former Doctor Who co-stars, Lalla Ward (who played companion Romana II), shortly after they both departed the series. The marriage didn't last very long. Neither wishes to elaborate further (though Baker contends that their relationship lasted a whole year, which is rather good if one adopts a long perspective). Its generally thought that each fell in love with the character the other was playing, and not the actor behind the role. They seemed to have patched things up and are on cordial terms now, though, even working together for the audio plays. Lalla Ward has also mentioned, on several occasions, that it really annoys her when people blame Tom for the marriage ending and that it was not because he was abusive and it was not solely his fault.
Note: Tom is no relation to Colin Baker, who later played the Sixth Doctor, or to Bob Baker, who wrote or co-wrote several of his stories.
Tom Baker was exceptionally fond of Elisabeth Sladen. When she died, he cried muchly. He still cries muchly mentioning her, even to this day, in interviews.
Filmography on TV Tropes:
- Dixon of Dock Green (2 episodes, 1968) as Man/Foreman
- Z Cars (1 episode, 1968) as Harry Russell
- Arthur of the Britons (1 episode, 1973) as Brandreth/Gavron
- Doctor Who (1974–81) as the Fourth Doctor
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1982) as Sherlock Holmes
- Remington Steele (1 episode, 1984) as Anatole Blaylock
- Jackanory (1 episode, 1985) as Storyteller
- The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1 episode, 1986) as Father Ferguson
- Blackadder II (1 episode, 1986) as Captain Redbeard Rum
- Cluedo (6 episodes, 1992) as Professor Plum
- Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) (2000–01) as Professor Wyvern
- Strange (1 episode, 2003) as Father Bernard
- Little Britain (2003–05, 2019) as Narrator
- Monarch of the Glen (2004–05) as Donald MacDonald
- Marple (1 episode, 2007) as Frederick Treves
- Star Wars Rebels (2016–17) as Bendu
- Cold Winter as John Grey
Tropes associated with this actor include:
- The Casanova: In an interview he reminisced on his time at a monastery, saying it did not work out because of his "LUST!". Both Douglas Adams and Matthew Waterhouse have been quoted as saying "Tom Baker was the randiest actor in Equity". This was, admittedly, in the '70s; he's settled down since.
- Cheshire Cat Grin: His Doctor is very famous for his.
- Creator Backlash: He holds his final season on Doctor Who in low regard, attributing it to both a perceived bloat in cast size per episode (leading to what he saw as stories that relied far too much on the Doctor alone to drive the plot forward) and the irreconcilable Creative Differences between himself and then-new producer John Nathan-Turner. Baker has gone on the record stating that in hindsight, he feels he should've left with Nathan-Turner's predecessor, Graham Williams, at the end of Season 17.
- Creator Breakdown: Baker has admitted in interviews that when his personal life was collapsing all around him in the mid-'70s, the idea of actually becoming the Doctor became more appealing. It eventually led to lots of stress— certainly exacerbated by him struggling with undiagnosed bipolar disorder— which eventually caused his famously curly hair to go straight and have to be permed prior to filming. Although it made him a lot more difficult to work with behind the scenes, for a majority of stories he always turned in his best work, the only major exception being Season 18, where it is obvious that Baker is really burned out from being in the series for that long.
- Creator Recovery: His much more stable personality later in life is clear when listening to him reprising the Doctor role for Big Finish... it's still distinctly the Fourth Doctor, but he plays him just that much nicer, much more considerate of the feelings of other characters and more obviously affectionate towards Leela. Some fans mourn the Fourth Doctor's spiky intensity, but others much prefer the cuddlier version.
- Creepy Blue Eyes: Promotions for Nicholas and Alexandra (in which he played Rasputin) made much of his large, mesmerizing, compelling, shockingly-coloured blue eyes. The cinematography in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad lavished attention on them to indicate his character's Black Magic powers, and even built whole visual effects around them. And as the Doctor he boggled them constantly out of his head to make himself look alien, which the scripts exploited by bringing Hypnotic Eyes and Mad Oracle powers to the character's repertoire for the first time.
- Friend to All Children: Although his prima donna behavior on set during his later years on Doctor Who is the stuff of legend, Tom was always on his best behavior when meeting his child fans. In numerous interviews during and after his stint on the show, he says the best thing about the role was that it made him the only man in Britain to whom "Don't talk to strange men" did not apply.
- I Am Not Spock: Tom Baker will always be the Doctor, and the Doctor will always be him. He made steps to distance himself from the iconic role during the 80s and could be brutally short with any member of the public who tried to talk to him about it, but he has long since reconciled himself with the fact the he will always be the Doctor.
- Iconic Item: The scarf. Just the scarf. Consider that even people who have never seen classic Who recognize the scarf, and some still wear it to cosplay, even as other Doctors. Even the other Doctors wear it at events, such as Matt Smith.
- Irony: Tom spent a lot of his run alongside a tin dog that he routinely mocked. During an unfortunate encounter with a real dog, it bit him, and he was forced to wear an unsightly plaster in promotional photos. The very obvious mark on his lip during filming was explained away by the Doctor faceplanting on the TARDIS console during a particularly difficult landing. Yes, really.
- 1979 saw the American business computer manufacturer Prime Computer showing a series of adverts in Australia and New Zealand featuring Baker and Lalla Ward in character as the Fourth Doctor and Romana. They are notorious in fandom for the ad "Dr. Who Meets His Match", which depicted the relationship between the two characters as overtly romantic (Baker and Ward were a Creator Couple at the time and would marry the following year... for all of 16 months).
- Baker also did a series of advertisements in-character as the Doctor for New Zealand Superannuation Services in 1997, which impressed the company so much that they incorporated the TARDIS set into their offices for visitors to tour. These ads would later be compiled on the Doctor Who Season 18 Blu-ray set as a bonus feature.
- Large Ham: Even his eyes are hammy. Especially in Blackadder.
- Lost in Character: Tom Baker claims he never feels real unless he's fictional. For the better part of his life, he suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which has occasionally metastasized into this. While playing the lead in Macbeth, he developed a delusional conviction that he, like Macbeth, was destined to die and that this would happen when the run of his play was over, systematically giving away all of his money and his possessions before then (leading to the famously dire financial situation he was in just before taking the role of the Doctor). The line between himself and the Doctor became famously blurry for him, to the point where not only was he declaring himself the sole authority on the character and insisting on doing things his way, but he was also experiencing powerful urges to fight injustice and save people who were suffering in the real world, and tormented himself with his inadequacy at doing this compared to the Doctor. He even claims in his autobiography he 'began to think that the entire BBC was colonized with hostile aliens who were slyly spreading a hideous and incurable virus'.
- Meta Casting: The Fourth Doctor's personality was based on his own - and he adjusted his own to be more like the Doctor in turn. Most of his roles from the mid 90s onwards were similarly based around getting Baker to play himself.
- Quirky Curls: In the 60s and 70s he had a great big curly mop of hair. He cut it all off after he finished being the Doctor and was upset to discover that no-one recognised him any more. Usually keeps his hair short as an old man, but he grew it out into a smaller mop for the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who celebrations. Illness and burnout during Season 18 actually caused his hair to lose its curl, requiring him to have a perm before "State of Decay" was filmed.
- Took a Level in Kindness: By all accounts, his time as a voice actor with Big Finish Productions became one, as he had patched up his relationship with Louise Jameson and a majority of the other actors he originally worked with on the show. Behind the scenes, he apparently told funny stories to keep everyone's spirits up, rather than shouting angrily at the director or co-actors as he frequently did on the show. Most of the audio writers were also aware of Tom's old habit of making his own changes to the script, so they accommodated for some space in their script for Tom to say something Doctor-y. He has on occasion Lampshaded how bad-tempered he was, looking back to his time on the set of Doctor Who. This realisation may have been the reason why he became nicer as time went on.
- Typecasting: His performance as the Doctor was so iconic and beloved that he struggled and failed to be anything other than the Doctor for the rest of his life. His feelings towards his involvement with the role have gone up and down over the years.
- Wag the Director: Behind the scene footage of Tom on the set of Doctor Who revealed he was very foul-mouthed and bad-mannered when he didn't get his way, but was very protective of the character. He still wagged the directors later in life at Big Finish, but primarily just to disagree with something with the script, as when the Fourth Doctor says something uncharacteristic, or to add a funny aside. Other than that, he was apparently better behaved in the recording booth than he was on the studio floor.
- Working with the Ex: His Fourth Doctor audios for Big Finish have seen him reunited with the second Romana, still played by now ex-wife Lalla Ward. Albeit, they always record their dialogue separately.
- Written by Cast Member: During the time when both of them were regular Doctor Who cast members, he and Ian Marter wrote a speculative script for a Who cinema film, Doctor Who Meets Scratchman. Over forty years later, the script was novelised as Doctor Who: Scratchman - as Marter had died during the intervening years the novel was co-written by Baker and frequent Doctor Who Expanded Universe prose writer James Goss.