Tom joined the National Theatre in 1968 and started with an understudy part in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead followed by small parts in The National Health by Peter Nicholls directed by Michael Blakemore. It was the start of a busy period when he was also finding small parts in television series such as Softly, Softly, Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars and Thirty Minute Theatre.
Tom plays a horse
It was playing the horse, however, at the National Theatre in The Travails of Sancho Panza directed by Joan Plowright that brought Tom to the attention of Laurence Olivier who cast him as the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice with Olivier playing Shylock and Jonathan Miller directing. The play ran for more than a hundred performances and audiences found Tom very funny.
Nicholas and Alexandra
It was while Tom was playing a Russian in The Idiot that Olivier suggested him to Sam Spiegel for the part of another famous Russian – Rasputin, the mad monk, in Nicholas and Alexandra. The feature film was shot in Spain with Janet Suzman and Michael Jayston in the lead roles.
Then came two more roles with the National Theatre, Sir Frances Acton in A Woman Killed With Kindness and Filippo in The Rules of the Game before Tom’s contract with the National Theatre came to an end.
Towards the BBC
After the excitement of being whisked off to America to promote Nicholas and Alexandra, life became more mundane although there was a steady flow of small parts in television and fantasy films such as Frankenstein: the True Story, The Mutations, Vault of Horror, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and the part of the Wife of Bath’s husband in Passolini’s film The Canterbury Tales. It was during this time that Tom worked for the director who would later change his life completely. Bill Slater directed him in the role of Dr Ahmed el Kabir, with Maggie Smith playing Epifania, in The Millionairess a BBC Play of the Month.
Working on a building site
There were frequent periods out of work when Tom earned a living doing other things such as teaching English as a Foreign Language. Even playing Macbeth at the Shaw Theatre for six weeks did not revive his career or his low spirits. To deal with this depressing time, Tom went to work as a labourer on a building site. Operating the Kango drill soon numbed his anxieties and he was soothed by the friendship of the small company of builders run by Arthur Cordes and his brother.
Tom is cast as Doctor Who
It was then that Tom remembered Bill Slater who had directed him a few years before in The Millionairess. Tom wrote to Bill Slater desperate for work and it so happened that his letter arrived on the very day that Bill, about to become Head of Serials at the BBC, was due to attend a meeting with Barry Letts, the Producer of Doctor Who, to discuss the casting of the new Doctor because Jon Pertwee was leaving. They had a look at Tom in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, summoned him to a couple of meetings and quickly realised they’d found the next Doctor.