Elisabeth Sladen

d. April 19, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen, 65, British actress who played Sarah Jane Smith on Doctor Who during that long-running show’s peak of popularity in the 1970s, died from cancer April 19 in London.

Sladen and her Sarah Jane character were widely considered the favorite of the Doctor’s many companions over the years, so much so that she returned to the role several times, most recently more than 30 years after leaving the series.

She joined Doctor Who in 1973, when the beloved science-fantasy serial was already 10 years old and Jon Pertwee was in his final year playing the Doctor. Pertwee’s witty portrayal of the character, the switch to shooting in color, and the show’s appearance in syndication in the United States made Doctor Who more popular than ever, and the series soared to new heights when Tom Baker replaced Pertwee in 1974. Baker was almost unanimously acclaimed the best of the seven actors to play the Doctor during the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989 and Sladen was almost equally as popular, continuing as his sidekick until 1976. The show’s fortunes began to slide after Baker left in 1981.

Sladen went on to numerous roles in British television but never escaped Doctor Who. She appeared in the 1981 BBC pilot for K-9 and Company, which would have seen the weekly adventures of Sarah Jane and the mechanical dog constructed by Tom Baker’s Doctor. A series was not made, but she and Pertwee returned to Doctor Who in 1983 for the show’s 20th anniversary story, “The Five Doctors.” BBC Radio kept the Doctor alive in the 1990s with various productions, two of them featuring Sladen and Pertwee. She also appeared at Who conventions and contributed to special features on DVD releases of the show.

Doctor Who returned to television in 2005 as a one-hour filmed series, and Sladen was invited to revive Sarah Jane again opposite David Tennant, the second actor to star in the new series. Her return — with K-9 still in tow — proved so popular that the BBC devised a show for her, The Sarah Jane Adventures, that had Sladen battling Earthbound aliens with the help of her own band of sidekicks. It debuted in 2007 and aired its fourth series shortly before Sladen’s death. A fifth series had just started shooting.

Sladen was born in Liverpool, took drama and dance classes from an early age and once appeared with the Royal Ballet. She worked as an extra in the 1965 film “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” shot in Liverpool with pop group Gerry and the Pacemakers, and in repertory in Liverpool and Manchester. She broke into television in 1970 on ITV’s long-running prime-time soap opera Coronation Street.


Above: Sladen with popular new Doctor David Tennant in 2006. Below: On location with Fourth Doctor Tom Baker.

Elisabeth Sladen in 1974 (above); with Third Doctor Jon Pertwee (left); with faithful robo-dog K-9 (below left).