Julian Sands obituary: British star of A Room with a View and Arachnophobia

Sands cut a romantic dash in period films and horror, with a taste for adventure and the adventurous.

29 June 2023

By David Parkinson

Julian Sands as George Emerson in Merchant-Ivory’s 1985 film of A Room with a View

Just when you thought you had him figured, Julian Sands would consistently confound expectations. The 65 year-old actor, whose remains have been found after he went missing on a California mountain hike in mid-January, had the blonde, chiselled looks of a screen idol. But, as he told the Guardian in 2018, “I didn’t want to become a Hollywood actor.” Consequently, he sought more exotic and adventurous projects. “Things that took me out of myself,” he explained. “I think I found myself a little boring.”

Born in Otley, Yorkshire on 4 January 1958, Julian Richard Morley Sands was one of five boys, who were divided when his parents separated in the early 1960s. Raised in the Dales, Sands variously compared his childhood to Huckleberry Finn and Swallows and Amazons. It sparked a lifelong love of the outdoors, but mother Brenda’s connection with an amateur dramatic society fostered a growing interest in acting that prompted Sands to apply for the Central School of Speech and Drama after appearing in some Gilbert and Sullivan productions at Lord Wandsworth College, a boarding school in Hampshire. 

While still a student, Sands befriended Derek Jarman, who asked him to substitute for David Bowie as the Devil in the promotional video for Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English album. Jarman’s assertion that Sands could be devilish proved prescient, as he played the black-clad, pony-tailed son of Satan with malevolently insouciant relish in Warlock (1989) and its sequel, Warlock: The Armageddon (1993). Initially, Sands had dismissed the script, but he forged a darkly comic rivalry with Richard E. Grant as the witch hunter. He considered the film a Shakespearean experience, telling the Decider website: “The warlock himself was a classical, whimsical stage villain in a rich, nuanced way. His use of language, his smile, his movement, his random wickedness… It was a great treat to play.”

Such demonic glee was a far cry from the poetic zest for life that Sands had displayed as George Emerson in A Room with a View (1985). Prior to this point, he had done his own rowing in the university sports drama Oxford Blues, played a short-fused war photographer in The Killing Fields (both 1984), and cavorted with Twiggy in The Doctor and the Devils (1985). He had also missed out on the chance to play Tarzan, when the financing fell through on what would eventually become Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). 

With Natasha Richardson in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986)
MGM/Park Circus

Indeed, one of the co-producers had threatened to cancel Merchant-Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptation unless Sands was replaced by John Travolta. It’s doubtful, however, that he could have captured George’s wit, passion and subversive intelligence with the same disarmingly free-spirited awkwardness, whether kissing Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch in a Tuscan field, skinny-dipping with the chaps, or hailing “Beauty! Liberty! Joy! Love!” before falling out of an olive tree.

For many smitten viewers, Sands cut a romantic dash in the search for “the eternal yes” that would also preoccupy him off screen. Yet, he resisted the kind of pin-up roles he seemed destined for. Thus, having switched between foppish and sinister as Percy Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), he turned down the lead in Merchant-Ivory’s Maurice (1987) and left to try his luck in America. 

Having subjected himself to a spider facial as a doomed entomologist in Arachnophobia (1990), Sands essayed the shape-shifting centipede who masquerades as Swiss gay man Yves Cloquet in David Cronenberg’s disturbingly surreal take on William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1991). Staying with horror, Sands was romantically predatory in Shimako Sato’s Tale of a Vampire (1992) and wraithishly menacing in Dario Argento’s The Phantom of the Opera (1998). Similarly, with his characteristically offbeat line readings, he exuded baleful charm as the surgeon who turns an abducted woman (Sherilyn Fenn) into a quadruple amputee in order to control her in Jennifer Lynch’s enduringly controversial Boxing Helena (1993).

The Painted Bird (2019)

Lucky to have survived an expedition to the Andes in the mid-1990s, Sands appeared in eight films for Mike Figgis, notably threatening Elisabeth Shue as a vicious Latvian pimp in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and administering New Age relief as a smug masseur in the split-screen experiment Timecode (2000). The same year saw Sands give a display of glacial regality as Louis XIV in Vatel, which was one of many continental assignments in a career spanning 80+ features. 

Television began taking up more of his time from the turn of the century, with standout turns including Russian villain Vladimir Bierko in 24 (2006) and Jor-El in Smallville (2009). He also convinced as Laurence Olivier and John Le Mesurier in the BBC teleplays Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore (2005) and We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story (2015). Between increasingly obscure indie outings, the ever-busy Sands found time for guest slots in blockbusters like Ocean’s Thirteen (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), as well as prestige dramas like Terence Davies’ Siegfried Sassoon biopic, Benediction (2021), in which he played the chief medical officer. 

To the end, however, Sands remained capable of taking critics and audiences aback with roles like Garbos, the insidiously sadistic paedophile who offers to shelter an orphaned Jewish boy in Václav Marhoul’s provocative adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s Second World War novel, The Painted Bird (2019).

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