Sylvester McCoy was born on 20 August 1943, in Dunoon, Scotland. His father was killed in the Second World War a couple of months before he was born, and he was brought up by his mother, his grandmother and aunts.
He attended St. Mun's, a local Dunoon school. The headmistress was keen that her young charges obtain decent jobs upon leaving the school and so organized regular talks from people in all manner of professions. McCoy expressed an interest in every job, and as a result eventually found himself given an afternoon off school to go to see a local priest about entering the priesthood. He joined Blair's College, a seminary in Aberdeen, and between the ages of twelve and sixteen trained to be a priest.
It was while at Blair's College that he realized that there was more to life than could be found in Dunoon. He discovered classical music and history, which fascinated him. He eventually decided to become a monk and applied to join a Dominican order, but his application was rejected as he was too young. He went instead to Dunoon grammar school, where he discovered the delights of his female fellow pupils and quickly decided that he didn't want to be a priest or a monk after all.
On finishing his education he took a holiday down to London, from which he never returned. McCoy approached a youth employment center looking for a job and impressed by the fact that he had attended a grammar school, they instantly found him a job in the City working for an insurance company. He trained in this job and stayed there until he was twenty-four before deciding that it wasn't really for him.
With the help of a cook at London's Roundhouse Theatre, McCoy gained a job there selling tickets and keeping the books in the box office. Eventually, he joined the Ken Campbell Roadshow. Along with Bob Hoskins, Jane Wood, and Dave Hill, McCoy started performing a range of sketches with the umbrella theme of "modern myths." McCoy found himself for a while in a double-act with Hoskins before Hoskins left to pursue his film career.
During a break from one of their UK engagements, the Roadshow team were discovered busking on the street by Joan Littlewood, who invited them to go onstage as a curtain up before her production of "The Hostage." Littlewood invited McCoy to join her world-renowned "Theatre Workshop." Numerous engagements followed.
McCoy was starring at the National Theatre in "The Pied Piper", a musical play written especially for him, when he learned that the BBC was looking for a new lead actor to replace Colin Baker in "Doctor Who" (1963). He later won the role as the seventh Doctor.
Following "Doctor Who," McCoy continues to work extensively in theatre, films, radio, opera, and on television.