REG WHITEHEAD RIP – The First Cyberman dies, but his legacy encompasses more than his Doctor Who milestone…
Reg Whitehead, the actor who played Krail, the Cyberman who explains their origins during episode two of The Tenth Planet (1966), has died at the age of 83. He played another Cyberman – Jarl – later in the story, as well as featuring in the famous close-up which was our first view of the silver giants at the end of the opening instalment. He played Cybermen again in The Moonbase (1967) and Tomb of the Cybermen (1967) and also took centre stage for another popular monster’s debut by being the man inside the suit of the first Yeti to appear at the climax of the first part of The Abominable Snowmen (1967).
“The first ones were terrible – they chafed you, they were totally impractical. You couldn’t bend down. They were the most uncomfortable, smelly, disgusting costumes that ever the Beeb managed to make,” he told me a few years ago with a chuckle. And he should know – he was the “Ground Zero” Cyberman, working with designer Sandra Reid as she tried the costume out on him before the suits were finalised and filming began.
Discomfort aside he enjoyed working with both of his Doctors. William Hartnell, on his swan song, had a little fun with the young thespian. “He wasn’t a well man but he did have a lovely thing that he did with me. He said to me ‘Call yourself an actor? ‘I said ‘I try to become one Bill’. He said ‘Alright, if you can do this I’ll call you an actor.’” Reg laughed as he recalled Hartnell tap-dancing across the studio and back again, landing back in his starting position. “‘Can you do that?‘ [asked Hartnell]. I said ‘Not a chance,’ and he said ‘Well that’s the trouble with you youngsters today.’” He enjoyed working with his successor Patrick Troughton whom he described as “a lovely guy and – even up till now – one of the very best Doctor Whos there was.”
Despite his input into their original creation he was happier with the more streamlined and less cumbersome costumes that were created for the Cybermen in their second and third stories. “There was no question that they would have to redesign them, [for The Moonbase] but it [the discomfort] was still dire, it really was.” Having been a monster in Doctor Who he felt it difficult to be taken seriously by the production team as an actor outside of the costume but he did make a friend on The Moonbase. He and Frazer Hines shared a love for horses and the two of them would monitor the racing and betting in between rehearsals. On Tomb of the Cybermen he got friendly with Deborah Watling and took her out on a date.
The Yeti was costume was equally uncomfortable but “for five days we sat in a bus and watched the rain pour down” because there was location filming in Wales. “The day the bus pulled up and we were finally going to do the shoot. It was about 6 o’clock in the morning and there – lo and behold – was a tent which had been pitched during the night. I was told, to go and shake the guy ropes and see what happened. Two German students hurtled out of the thing and ran off as fast as their legs could carry them!”
He didn’t return to Doctor Who after The Abominable Snowmen. “I was doing other things. In the theatre mainly – the theatre was my greatest love anyway so I would always look there for my living” – but even that came to a stop.
“Pure luck,” is how he describes his move into the marketing of executive toys which led to his move away from acting . “A guy parked his van outside my flat and I said “Do me a favour, you couldn’t move your van could you?”. He said “I know you” and it turned out that he was an actor – Simon Prebble – and he came down and said to me, “I’d love to get you involved in this product here [in the van]. Within days I had been to the liquidator who had been involved with the company, Scientific Demonstrations, and I bought the bits and pieces for £500.” The “bits and pieces” included Newton’s Cradle, the famous swinging sphere construction used to illustrate the conservation of momentum and energy and which went on to decorate many a corporate desktop. “Five years later we sold it to the Americans. It’s responsible for pretty much everything you can see around you,” he said, indicating his handsome Newbury home, filled with charming, well-chosen paintings emphasising his enjoyment of the countryside and equine pursuits.
With a newfound financial freedom he managed to combine his love for racing with his business acumen and became a celebrated and successful racehorse owner. He still missed acting, though: “You never lose it – to walk away from it, it’s horrid.”
Born in Warwickshire in December 1932, he had got into the business when, having been in Canada for four years he entered a talent competition. The prize was a year’s drama training in London which he saw as a free ticket home. Having done that training he worked in rep and eventually broke into television, where his other credits included two consecutive episodes of Z-Cars as Detective-Constable Cropper (1963) and roles in the Power Game (1966 ), The Avengers (They Keep Killing Steed, 1968), The Saint (1969) and the Nigel Kneale play Wine of India (1970).
Reg died peacefully at home on March 11th at the age of 83. Stable owner Barbara Coakley paid tribute: “Reg was a lovely, kind man and great character. He was a very loyal owner and a great supporter of the yard, popping in regularly and meeting up in the local on Friday evenings for the racing crack.” There was a thanksgiving service for him a few weeks ago – trainer Richard Phillips was there to bid farewell to his friend, known in their circles as ‘Uncle Waggy’ : “A great character, the church was packed to say goodbye to one of life’s good guys. There were many smiles and laughs, just as Waggy would have loved there to be.”
As for his place in Doctor Who history: “It’s something I don’t bring up too often but it’s incredible how many people come up to me. Kids who were amazed – the look of awe on some people’s faces is amazing. It’s good fun to remind people sometimes – yeah, I was a Cyberman once.”
“I think that it was good television and it stands up well even today”
He is survived by his wife Linkie (who, on a personal note, is a very classy lady who couldn’t have been more charming when I visited them back in 2012) and by Deighton, a son.
REGINALD DEIGHTON WHITEHEAD – 1932-2016
With thanks to John Kelly.