Every Doctor Who fan â€“ male fan, that is â€“ naturally wants to play the Doctor. Barring that, the next part everyone wants is that of the Master.
One actor lucky enough to have had that pleasure is Eric Roberts. Already a Hollywood star when cast in the 1996 Doctor Who tv movie, Roberts seemed perfect for the part. Tall, dark and intimidating, he was the antithesis of the charming and cheeky Doctor as portrayed by Paul McGann.
When we first met him, the Master, played by Roger Delgado, was suave and almost likeable. He was absolutely the perfect adversary for Jon Pertweeâ€™s Doctor â€“ it was almost a Holmes / Moriarty relationship.
After fighting back death only by stealing the body of Tremas, the father of the fifth Doctorâ€™s companion Nyssa, the next regular incarnation of the Master we saw was portrayed by Anthony Ainley. This Master was more theatrical and it seemed he would prefer to humble and put down the Doctor rather than actually get rid of him. Even the Doctor himself, when held at gun point by the Master, retorted: “Kill me? And not humiliate me first? Thatâ€™s not your style at allâ€¦”
Most recently, the Master as played by John Simm appeared to have a lot more fun than before. He had been resurrected by the Time Lords and given another chance, albeit to help them fight the Time War. Instead of taking his place on the front line he decided to scarper and disguise himself as Professor Yana. When he once again hatched his despicable plots, he seemed to stand back and snigger at the chaos he had caused. He was sarcastic and witty.
Eric Robertsâ€™ Master was the nastiest weâ€™ve seen. From the moment he stole the body of a paramedic called Bruce, he was cruel and cold and his sarcasm came through a sneer rather than a smile. He thought nothing of dispensing with anybody who might have got in his way. His first victim was Bruceâ€™s wife, the neck of whom he broke. The same fate befell Chang Lee who, up until then, he had tricked into helping him. He also threw Grace Holloway, the cardiovascular surgeon who had operated on the soon-to-regenerate Doctor, over a balcony in the TARDIS. For the first time we also saw him actually fight the Doctor. He mercilessly beat and kicked the Doctor in their final show-down.
Was Roberts aware beforehand of what a big part the Master would be, and of how popular the character is with Doctor Who fans?
“Not at all. I was new to that world, which made it fun in a particular kind of way. The Master is up there in popularity with the Daleks. Isnâ€™t that cool? Playing the baddest baddie in the universe I could really break free because this guy loved causing problems for other people. You had to go way outside the realm of human boundaries to play him.”
How did he approach the part?
“I got the offer to do Doctor Who and, as I looked into it and saw its popularity, I got very excited about doing it. I did as much research as I could. There was more available than I had time for, but I did immerse myself. Paul (McGann) was great. A great guy and a very giving actor.”
The TV Movie was set in San Francisco on New Yearâ€™s Eve 1999, but if Eric Roberts wasnâ€™t earth-bound and he had his own TARDIS, where would he goâ€¦?
“Oh wowâ€¦so many places. Iâ€™d love to see the far, far future if we find peace and solutions to things like the common cold and those few unwanted extra pounds. Iâ€™d love to see the medium future and there are many times in the past Iâ€™d love to see. See what things really felt like and smelled like back in the days of elegant wardrobe. I wish I could go back and teach lessons from the future.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Eric Roberts would somehow have a career in show business. His father was a director of a childrenâ€™s theatre where Eric was bitten by the acting bug, and he went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London as well as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
His big break came in 1976 when he landed the part of Ted Bancroft in the daily soap Another World. This led to a role in the film King Of The Gypsies and then a television movie called Paulâ€™s Case.
In the 1986 film Blood Red (although it wasnâ€™t actually released for another three years), he played opposite his sister Julia who was making her film debut. Julia, of course, went on to become well-known for her parts in Sleeping With The Enemy, Pretty Woman and Notting Hill among others.
Eric has worked almost constantly since, earning Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Runaway Train, and further Golden Globe nominations for King Of The Gypsies and Star 80. He won a Golden Satellite Award for Less Than Perfect in 2002.
He has also recently played the part of the mysterious Mr Thompson in the popular tv drama Heroes, and will be in the next Batman film, The Dark Knight, as a Gotham City Mafioso.
Treading the boards certainly is a family affair as, aside from Julia, Eric has another actress sister, Lisa Roberts Gillen. Ericâ€™s daughter Emma Roberts is also making her way in the business, having played the title role in the film Nancy Drew.
“I donâ€™t talk about Emma,” says Eric, “because she prefers to have her career remain independent, but I hope the Roberts name has helped her. The family I love to talk about are my stepkids, Keaton Simons and Morgan Simons.”
Keaton is a musician who was a finalist in the 2007 John Lennon Song Writing Contest, and Morgan, after graduating from the California School of Culinary Arts, founded a catering company with many high-profile clients.
“I would appreciate it very much if you would check them out on keatonsimons.com and acateringco.com,” plugs Eric shamelessly. But, hey, why notâ€¦?
Is there anything in acting that Eric hasnâ€™t done that heâ€™d like to do?
“Iâ€™d like to settle into a long-running television series that has real flavour, like Tell Me You Love Me.”
What about away from acting?
“Iâ€™d like to visit the Amazon and Iâ€™d like to live a while in France. Also Iâ€™d like to do more child abuse prevention work. And keep reading books, my favourite pastime.”
So there we have it. The Master is, after all, a nice guy.
“Thank-you. Iâ€™ve loved being in England this month and a half. Itâ€™s been heaven.”
As long as he doesnâ€™t start calling himself Mr Saxon and trying to become Prime Minister again, I think weâ€™ll be all rightâ€¦
(c) Nick Brown