David Warner obituary: prolific British character actor known for hissable villains

Warner, who has died aged 80, was a Shakespearian actor who came to specialise in dastardly villainy in everything from Tron to Titanic.

26 July 2022

By David Parkinson

David Warner at his London home in 2005 © Cambridge Jones/Getty Images

One of the drawbacks of having 228 screen credits is that a short obituary can’t hope to do justice to the scale and scope of the achievement. And that’s before mention has been made of any theatrical triumphs. David Warner, who has died at the age of 80, produced memorable performances on stage, television and film. Self-effacingly, he called himself “a letterbox actor”, because he did whatever script landed on his doormat. But he improved everything he was in, from Shakespeare to schlockers.

A pawn in the war between his feuding parents, the Manchester-born Warner endured a peripatetic childhood before finding his niche at RADA. He made his mark as Henry VI in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s War of the Roses cycle in 1964. But it was his scarf-wearing student prince in Peter Hall’s 1965 staging of Hamlet that made his name, as he encapsulated baby-boomer disillusion with the older generation. 

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

This countercultural edginess led to Warner being recruited for Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), in which his proletarian artist hares across London in a bid to dissuade upper-class wife Vanessa Redgrave from divorcing him. The BAFTA-nominated turn led to a teaming with Cilla Black in Hall’s Work Is a Four-Letter Word (1968). But then came Sam Peckinpah’s invitation to play a wandering preacher in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), which delivered Warner from typecasting, the prying press after a Rome balcony fall, and a bout of stage fright that would last for three decades. 

Warner reunited with Peckinpah on Straw Dogs (1971) and the Second World War drama Cross of Iron (1977), although he would summon greater depths of Nazi depravity as Reinhard Heydrich in both the acclaimed miniseries Holocaust (1978), which earned him an Emmy nomination, and Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil (1985).

Occasionally, he landed leads like the 1920s teacher whose wartime pacifism causes a stir in provincial Canada in Alan Bridges’ Age of Innocence (1977). For the most part, however, Warner was content to take character parts like the photojournalist who meets a shocking end in The Omen (1976), the scientist who declares bats “the quintessence of eeevilll!” in Nightwing (1979), and the eccentric Dr Alfred Necessiter in The Man with Two Brains (1983). Continuous employment mattered more than accolades, although Warner did win the best supporting actor Emmy as the opportunistic Pomponius Falco in Masada (1981), a four-part account of the epic Roman siege of the eponymous Judean stronghold. 

Time Bandits (1981)

With his imposing presence and disarming intensity, Warner came to specialise in villainy. Indeed, in Time Bandits (1981), Terry Gilliam even named his character Evil. He was the surgeon stealing H.G. Wells’ (Malcolm McDowell) time machine in Time After Time (1979), while in Disney’s pioneering experiment with computer animation, Tron (1982), he proved a triple threat as an ENCOM executive, the lookalike Sark security system avatar, and the voice of the Master Command Program. 

Down the decades, Warner became a horror stalwart. But there was never anything generic about his performances, whether he was playing a sinister showman in Waxwork (1988) or cameoing in John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and Wes Craven’s Scream 2 (1997). 

Taking fanboy fodder as seriously as the classics, Warner respected the audience with his off-kilter wit and intelligence, hence his frequent casting in video games and comic-book spin-offs like Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1996) and Spider-Man (1995 to 1997). 

His versatility also meant that he could play different roles within the same franchise. He adopted a human guise as Federation ambassador St John Talbot in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) before cropping up as Gorkon, the chancellor of the Klingon High Council, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). The following year, he guested in the two-part ‘Chain of Command’ episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation as Gul Madred, the Cardassian intelligence officer who tortures Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). He brought similar gravitas to a number of performances in Doctor Who episodes and audio plays.

Titanic (1997)

In later years, he became synonymous with hissable snobbery to a new audience as valet Spicer Lovejoy in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). This was his second voyage on the liner, having appeared in the 1979 teleplay, S.O.S. Titanic. It was also Warner’s second appearance in a best picture winner, as he had been Albert Finney’s despicable half-brother in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963).

The fact that latter-day credits include Planet of the Apes (2001), Ladies in Lavender (2004), The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018) says much about Warner’s penchant for unpredictability. He also reconquered the stage and scored small-screen hits like Conviction (2004). Yet, he was most pleased by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), as it meant he could look his daughter’s friends in the face. 

  • David Warner, 29 July 1941 to 24 July 2022
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