What a legacy! That wonderful woman... the quintessential Doctor Who girl. I give her that title with absolutely no qualms at all.—Katy Manning
She got her start in primary school, although at the time her interest was ballet; in fact, she danced in one production with the famed Royal Ballet Company. Eventually, however, her sights turned to acting, and she made her first stage appearance as a corpse at the Liverpool Playhouse. She was subsequently scolded for giggling while onstage because the actor playing a doctor - one Brian Miller - whispered "respiration nil, Aston Villa two" in her ear. Incidentally, she married that young actor in 1968; they had one daughter, Sadie Miller.
Sladen joined Doctor Who in 1973 as the new companion to Third Doctor Jon Pertwee, following the departure of Katy Manning as Jo Grant. She remained with the programme for three and a half seasons (making her the second longest lasting companion in the show's entire history, and the longest by number of episodes), finally leaving two years into Tom Baker's run as the Fourth Doctor at the end of the serial The Hand of Fear. Her departure made front-page news; this was unprecedented, as until Sladen only a change of Doctors was announced in such a way.
After her departure from Who, Sladen made several one-off appearances as Sarah Jane, including charity specials, K-9 and Company (a pilot for proposed series) and the Big Finish audio series Sarah Jane Smith. She also did a considerable amount of theatre work, but went into semi-retirement following the birth of her daughter, restricting her work to occasional guest appearances on various television programmes.
In 2006, Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies made Sladen an offer she couldn't refuse, and Sarah Jane Smith at long last returned to Doctor Who proper in the episode "School Reunion." (Promoted Fanboy David Tennant, who had grown up loving Sarah Jane, could hardly contain his glee.) Sarah Jane was given the proper 'goodbye' she had been waiting three decades for, and as fanboys and fangirls everywhere wept, the episode was paving the way for yet another generation of children to adore Lis Sladen. The success of the episode all but singlehandedly spawned The Sarah Jane Adventures, an ostensibly Lighter and Softer Spin-Off centered on Sarah Jane as she protects the world from an attic located in a rather lovely house on 13 Bannerman Road, Ealing, London, with the help of a gang of intrepid teenagers. Thanks to Sladen's considerable acting chops and even more considerable charm - and, it must be noted, the also not-inconsiderable acting chops of her fellow cast members - the show is one of the best on television not in spite of its seemingly silly premise, but because of it.
The Sarah Jane Adventures earned critical raves and draws much the same audience as its parent programme; in fact, it regularly draws viewing figures almost unheard of for its time slot. Thank you, Russell T. Davies.
It should also be noted that Sladen was quite attractive. Sarah Jane is a fixture on "Sexiest Companion" lists (in addition to "Best Companion" lists, of course), and she only seemed to get more attractive with each passing year.
The fandom's collective hearts were almost audibly broken when, after fighting cancer, she died suddenly on 19 April 2011, barely two months after friend Nicholas Courtney fell to the same disease. She is survived by her husband and her daughter, and will be missed by millions of fans worldwide. The BBC dedicated the premiere of Series 6 of Doctor Who to her, and produced a special tribute to her: My Sarah Jane: A Tribute to Elisabeth Sladen.
Incidentally, after her death two fans known only as Gemma and Karen set up a JustGiving page to donate to Cancer Research UK in Lis Sladen's name. Within two weeks after her death, donations had topped £6,000 ($10,000).
Her autobiography, titled simply Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography, was released on 7 November 2011, with a foreword by David Tennant.
Sarah Jane's impact - and by extension, Sladen's - on British culture and on Doctor Who as a series is difficult to overstate. She is arguably the most iconic and beloved Companion in history. In the same way that co-star Tom Baker will always be the archetypal classic Doctor even to those who have never seen an episode in their lives, Sarah Jane Smith will always be the archetypal classic Companion; as seen in the quote above from Katy Manning, even her contemporaries will relinquish that title to her. Her career resurgence is a testament not only to the lasting impact she had on the series and its fans, but to the talent and charm that made her departure headline news. Lis Sladen is gone, and yet never gone. Her legacy lives on forever in the episodes she did, in the mark she made on the series, and in the hearts of all who loved her. We are her legacy. In a quite literal sense, she is our Sarah Jane.
Rest in peace, Lis. Never will you be forgotten.
And the story goes on... forever.