15 Surprising Facts About David Tennant

Colin Hutton, BBC America
Colin Hutton, BBC America

Though he’s most often linked to his role as the Tenth Doctor on the legendary sci-fi series Doctor Who, David Tennant is much more than that, as audiences around the world are beginning to discover. Born David John McDonald in West Lothian, Scotland on April 18, 1971, the man who would become David Tennant has spent the past 30-plus years carving out a very particular niche for himself—both on the stage and screen in England and, increasingly more, as a Hollywood staple. To celebrate the Good Omens's star's birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about David Tennant.

1. He took his name from the Pet Shop Boys.

As a teenager, the budding actor learned that because there was already a David McDonald in the actors’ union, he needed to come up with an alternate moniker to pursue a professional acting career. Right around the same time, he read an interview in Smash Hits with Neil Tennant, lead vocalist for the Pet Shop Boys, and "David Tennant" was born.

Today, he legally is David Tennant. “I am now actually Tennant—have been for a few years,” he said in 2013. “It was an issue with the Screen Actors' Guild in the U.S., who wouldn't let me keep my stage name unless it was my legal name. Faced with the prospect of working under two different names on either side of the globe, I had to take the plunge and rename myself! So although I always liked the name, I'm now more intimately associated with it than I had ever imagined. Thank you, Neil Tennant.”

2. He became an actor with the specific goal of starring in Doctor Who.

While a lot of young kids dream of growing up to become astronauts or professional athletes, Tennant set his own career goal at the tender age of three: to star on Doctor Who. It was Tom Baker’s version of The Doctor in particular that inspired Tennant to become an actor. He carried around a Doctor Who doll and wrote Who-inspired essays at school. "Doctor Who was a massive influence," Tennant told Rolling Stone. "I think it was for everyone in my generation; growing up, it was just part of the cultural furniture in Britain in the '70s and '80s.”

On April 16, 2004, just two days before his 34th birthday, Tennant achieved that goal when he was officially named The Tenth Doctor, taking over for Christopher Eccleston. “I am delighted, excited, and honored to be the Tenth Doctor,” Tennant said at the time. “I grew up loving Doctor Who and it has been a lifelong dream to get my very own TARDIS.”

3. Though becoming The Doctor was a lifelong dream, there was some trepidation.

Though landing the lead in Doctor Who was a lifelong dream come true for Tennant, the initial excitement was followed by a little trepidation. When asked by The Scotsman whether he worried about being typecast, Tennant admitted: “I did remember being thrilled to bits when I got asked and then a few days later thinking, ‘Oh, is this a terrible idea?’ … But that didn't last very long. Time will tell. The only option is you don't take these jobs when they come up. You've got to just roll with the punches.”

4. He made his professional debut in a PSA.

While most actors have some early roles they’d prefer to forget, Tennant’s first professional gig didn’t come in some otherwise forgettable movie, TV series, or play. When he was 16 years old, he booked a role in an anti-smoking PSA for the Glasgow Health Board, which played on television and was shown in schools. Thanks to the power of the internet, you can watch his performance above.

5. He married the Fifth Doctor's daughter, who once played the Tenth Doctor's daughter.

Confused? In 2011, Tennant married Georgia Moffett, who played his artificially created daughter, Jenny, in the 2008 Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Daughter.” In real life, Moffett really is The Doctor’s daughter; her father is Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor from 1981 to 1984.

6. His first movie role had him acting opposite Christopher Eccleston.

In 1996, Tennant landed his first movie role in Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, where he played the very descriptive “Drunk Undergraduate.” His big scene had him acting opposite Christopher Eccleston—the man who, less than a decade later, would hand over the keys to the TARDIS to Tennant.

7. He avoids reading reviews of his work.

While it’s hard to imagine that Tennant has ever had to deal with too many scathing reviews, it doesn’t really matter to the actor: good or bad, he avoids reading them. When asked during a livechat with The Guardian about one particularly negative review, and whether he reads and reacts to them, Tennant replied: “The bad review to which you refer was actually for a German expressionist piece about the Round Table called Merlin. It was the first extensive review I'd ever had, and it was absolutely appalling. Not that it's scarred into my memory in any way whatsoever. I try not to read them, these days. Reviews aren't really for the people who are performing, and—good or bad—they don't help. You always get a sense if something you're in has been well received or not, that's unavoidable. But beyond that, details are best avoided.”

8. He hosted Masterpiece Theatre.

In 2007, Masterpiece Theatre reinvented itself. In addition to dropping the “Theatre” from its title, the series announced that it was splintering into three different seasons—Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary. Unlike the days of the past, when Alistair Cooke held court, each of the new series had its own host, Tennant among them. (He was in charge of Masterpiece Contemporary.)

9. He got a lot of younger audiences interested in Shakespeare.

Tennant has logged a lot of hours with the Royal Shakespeare Company over the years. In 2008, while still starring in Doctor Who, he took on the role that every actor wants in the RSC’s production of Hamlet, which ended up being one of London’s hottest (and hardest to get) tickets. The Guardian reported that hundreds of people were lined up to buy tickets, with some even camping out overnight outside the West End theater. Within three hours of the tickets going on sale, all 6000 of them were sold out.

Hamlet is a very popular play,” a RSC spokesperson said at the time. “It's the most famous. But obviously there's the factor that David Tennant is in it and the good news is that he's bringing a lot of younger audiences to Shakespeare."

10. He was on a Royal Stamp.

In 2011, the Royal Mail paid tribute to Royal Shakespeare Company’s 50th anniversary with a series of stamps featuring images from a handful of the RSC’s productions, including Tennant as Hamlet.

11. He almost played Hannibal Lecter.

Though it’s easy to see why Bryan Fuller cast Mads Mikkelsen in the title role of his television adaptation of Hannibal, Tennant came pretty close to playing the fava bean-and-chianti-loving, flesh-eating serial killer at the heart of Thomas Harris’s novels. Fuller was so impressed with Tennant’s dark side that he tried to make a guest appearance happen during the series’ run.

“I’m a huge fan of David Tennant, and we’ve been trying to get him on the show for quite some time,” Fuller said. “He’s such a spectacular actor. He brings such an effervescence to every performance. I would love to have David on the show. Or just write for David! I would kill and eat somebody to work with David! He’s my favorite Doctor.”

12. He is Jodie Whittaker's favorite Doctor.

David Tennant stars in 'Doctor Who'
Adrian Rogers, BBC

Fuller isn’t the only one who puts Tennant at the top of their Favorite Doctor list. Jodie Whittaker, who recently made her debut as the Thirteenth Doctor—and is the first woman to take on the role—told The Sunday Times that “David [is my favorite Doctor] of course, because I know him.” (The two spent three seasons co-starring in the British crime drama Broadchurch.)

When asked about Whittaker’s casting at the New Orleans Wizard World Comic Con, and whether he had given her any words of advice, Tennant said that, “We had a wee chat, yes. It is quite a unique job, because it's a show that has so much history to it. And it has a reach that's quite unlike other things. It's a bit of a kind of cultural thing—Who's going to be the Doctor?—it's a news story, really. So to find yourself in the middle of that is a bit overwhelming. I think inevitably, you sort of look to people who'd been there before to go, 'What is this like? What is this madness I entered into?' And that's certainly been the case with Matt and Peter, and now with Jodie. I know that Jodie's talked to Peter, and she's talked to Matt. You just for a little support group. You go, 'What is this madness? Tell me about it.' And of course, you know, she's a little trepidatious, but she's basically really excited. She's such a fantastic choice for it. You see it in just those 30 seconds that she did at the end of the last episode. You just go, 'Oh my god, she's all over it. Brilliant. It's great.’”

13. He's dying to work with Aaron Sorkin.

When asked by Collider if there’s ever been a television show he’s watched and wished he was a part of, Tennant copped to being a huge fan of The West Wing.

The West Wing is finished now [but] that’s the one that I would have loved to have been part of," he said. "I’d love to work with Aaron Sorkin on something. Just the way he writes, he has no fear in writing people that are fiercely intelligent, and I love that. I love the speed of his stuff, and the way people free-associate and interact. That kind of writing is very exciting. It’s hard to have that kind of clarity of voice, especially in a world where there’s a million executives listening to everything you do and having an opinion and trying to drive everything towards the lowest common denominator because that’s what happens when things are made by committee. So, to have someone who’s got a strong individual voice that is allowed to be heard is quite increasingly rare. These people need to be cherished.”

14. He has earned a lot of fan accolades, including "Coolest Man on TV."

David Tennant in 'Jessica Jones'
Linda Kallerus, Netflix

In addition to his many professional acting accolades—including a couple of BAFTAs and a Daytime Emmy and an Olivier Award nomination—Tennant has earned a number of less official “awards” over the years. In 2007, a Radio Times survey named him the Coolest Man on TV. The National Television Awards named him Most Popular Actor of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010. In 2008, he was one of Cosmopolitan’s Sexiest Men in the World. In 2012, British GQ readers named him the third Best Dressed Man (behind Tom Hiddleston and Robert Pattinson).

15. the royal shakespeare company sold his pants.

On April 17, 2018, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stitch in Time fundraiser, the organization auctioned off more than 50 original costumes worn during RSC performances. Among the items they had on offer? The black trousers Tennant wore in Hamlet, and the white robe he wore in Richard II.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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