Tall, dark-haired and with steely grey eyes, the actor Anthony Ainley was a charismatic figure both on and off the screen. Best known to millions of television viewers for his satanically accomplished performance as The Master in the BBC long-running sci-fi series Dr Who, he became a household name and cult figure during the eighties.
One of the most popular of all villains in the series, The Master was the Doctor’s most redoubtable adversary. The part had originally been played by Roger Delgado from 1971 until the actor’s untimely death in a car crash in 1973. Ainley reprised the role in 1981 and with his black-hearted, cruel manner, sneering smile and cunning nature quickly became the man that viewers loved to hate.
Ainley himself came from a distinguished theatre background. His father was the great Shakespearean actor Henry Ainley (1897-1945) famed for his beautiful speaking voice, good looks and charm. His brother Richard had enjoyed a successful career acting on stage in Britain and in Hollywood films. Later he became a notable drama teacher.
Born in London on August 20, 1932, Ainley’s first taste of acting came at the age of 11 when he sang in a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Although he had a keen interest in showbusiness, his first job was as an insurance clerk.
Later he decided to follow his family into the theatre and he studied at RADA, where he won the Fabia Drake Prize for Comedy. After graduating he worked in repertory at the Liverpool Playhouse and made his television debut as a police sergeant in the series It’s Dark Outside (1964).
On the West End stage he appeared in The Right Honourable Gentleman (Her Majesty’s) and Justice (St Martin’s Theatre), as well as several fringe productions, including the title role in Macbeth.
With his villainous, saturnine looks he quickly became something of a fixture in horror films and thrillers such as Naked Evil (1966), Satan’s Skin (1970) and Assault (1971) but he was equally at home playing officials and military types.
On television he starred in series such as Elizabeth R (1971), opposite Glenda Jackson, and Clouds of Witness (1972) but it was his appearance as the Rev Emilius in Anthony Trollope’s The Pallisers (1974), which eventually led to his joining Dr Who.
“The Rev Emilius was a rather smarmy and devious character,” Ainley recalled. “The producer John Nathan-Turner was working on it and remembered me when he took over Dr Who. Later he asked me to play The Master. There was a similarity between the two characters. Both wore a superficial air of charm and dignity which concealed a wicked and sly nature underneath.”
Ainley wore little make-up for the part, which he completely made his own. He appeared as The Master for nine years, opposite a succession of different Dr Whos and enjoyed a particularly good rapport with the actor Tom Baker. Ironically, Ainley’s family had a number of connections with the series. His father had been Jon Pertwee’s godfather, while his brother Richard was Baker’s drama teacher. He himself had been coached in an amateur production of Rookery Book by William Hartnell, the first Dr Who.
After leaving the series he continued to appear on television and also spent much of his time attending Dr Who conventions throughout the world, where he was frequently mobbed by fans, much to his amusement and enjoyment. A gifted cricketer, he was a popular member of the London Theatres Cricket Club for more than 40 years.
He died on May 3 in London. He is survived by his brother Tim.