BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It sounds stereotypically British, but actor David Bradley's career began with a cup of tea. The man most Americans know as the caretaker at Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films or Walter Frey in Game of Thrones is epitomizing that English persona with his role as the first Doctor Who in An Adventure in Space and Time.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the definitive sci-fi series — its first episode aired in England on Nov. 23, 1963, the day after Kennedy was assassinated — BBC America is offering a drama about the creation of Doctor Who by actor William Hartnell, the first in a long line of flamboyant "Doctors." Bradley plays Hartnell.
But back to the cup of tea. Bradley was 15, son of a laborer in the blue-collar town of York, and bored out of his skull. He wasn't interested in school, found soccer a mild diversion and joined a boys' club — equally boring, he thought.
"There wasn't much to do there either; there were no girls there," says Bradley, 71. "The guy who ran the club asked me to take a cup of tea to the cellar to the guy who was in the drama room. I didn't know there was a drama room there. There was this guy who ran this drama group, and there were about a half- dozen boys down there. And I took a cup of tea down, and this guy says — I didn't know what they did, presumably some kind of show, and they were rehearsing a play — and the guy said, 'Thank you, boy. Come here, boy, read this.'
"So I read it — I still remember it. It was, 'Oh pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth since I am meek and gentle with these butchers.' Of course it's Marc Antony from Julius Caesar, but I didn't know that. I didn't understand the lines, but I knew I liked saying it. They're great words — he's talking about Caesar's dead body — 'thou bleeding piece of Earth.'
"I read it and he said, 'Marvelous, the part's yours.' I said, 'What part? I just came down to bring you a cup of tea.' But he touched on my flattery bone. So we were rehearsing a couple of nights later ... . Another young boy comes down with a cup of tea. He took the tea and then he says, 'Boy, read this.' And it was the guy who tells Caesar to beware of the Ides of March. And he read it absolutely terribly. The guy said, 'Marvelous. The part's yours.' I thought, 'I've been conned.' But it was too late."
Bradley might have been hoodwinked, but there was little hope he could ever afford drama school, so he worked for eight years making optical instruments in a factory. His friends there kept reminding him of job security.
"You get your two weeks holiday in August. You get Christmas and a week at Easter on pay. And then you get a little pension at the end of it, and you can afford a house. And you knew exactly how much you were going to earn for the rest of your life. And you knew the sort of house you could have and you could have 2.4 children or whatever. I just knew there was something else. But I only realized that when I realized how much I enjoyed acting," he says.
He tried three times to get into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before he was accepted on a scholarship. "I had a mentor who ran one of the (amateur) drama groups I was involved in. He said, 'OK, you failed. Let's try again next year.' If it had been up to me, I would've given up."
But he didn't give up until the mid-1980s. "I got ill and not much work was coming in. I had two kids and another on the way and I thought, 'I'm not going to make it. I'm too ill,' and I lost my enthusiasm, really. I started wondering what else I could do? I thought I could move to Italy and do what? I didn't know. I just thought a different climate might do me good."
Then he snagged a part in the TV series Our Friends in the North, filmed in Newcastle.
"I went up there and saw a guy who was a naturopathic healer, and he sorted me out and made me feel so much better. And I got my enthusiasm back, and this was a big TV series, the biggest part I'd been asked to do."
Married to his Italian wife, Rosanna, Bradley is the father of three. His two sons are architects. His daughter is a casting director. It was her boss who recommended Bradley for a part in Captain America: The First Avenger.
"I came in and met the director," he says. "And my daughter arranged the audition and told me where to stand and made sure I had a cup of tea."
'Doctor Who' anniversary
The BBC is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who with lots of programming. For a complete schedule, go to Bbcamerica.com/doctorwho.
Marathon: Past seasons of Doctor Who will air all day through Nov. 23.
'Doctor Who Explained.' Interviews with actors who have played the Doctor and his companions. 8 p.m. Nov. 22.
'An Adventure in Space and Time.' 9 p.m. Nov. 22
'Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor.' Global simulcast of the 50th anniversary special episode. 2:50 p.m. Nov. 23 (repeats at 7 p.m.)
■ The special will be broadcast in 3D in movie theaters nationwide at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 25 (later times available). Area theaters are Regal Hamburg Pavilion 16, Cinemark Fayette Mall and Cinemark Richmond Centre. $12-$15. Fathomevents.com.