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Best Of British Biographies – David Warner

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It was quite sad to hear, today, of the death at the age of eighty of David Warner. To be honest, though, most people with only a passing interest in cinema might say “David who?” But it would only take a quick look at a photo of him in one of his many film roles for those people to then say “Aww, that’s a shame. He was good in…” and then reel off one of the many pivotal roles he played in some of the biggest films of the last fifty years.

That might sound like crass hyperbole but, as I progress, I will be reminding you of what those roles were and what films he was in. By the time I’ve finished I’m confident that you will be agreeing with me about the level of his contribution to the dramatic arts. He has played romantic leads, villains, a rogue AI, an ape, and a Klingon. Range was never his shortcoming.

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David Warner – Early Days

In 1963 at the RST in Stratford on Avon with Ian Holm and Ian Richardson – so much talent in such a small place.

Born in Manchester in 1941 his early life could generously be described as unsettled. Rather scandalously for the time, his parents were unmarried and he spent time between them. Warner himself described his childhood as “troubled” and “messy”. His Russian-Jewish father packed him off to a variety of boarding schools and his mother disappeared altogether during his teens. Despite all this upheaval, he managed to get himself a place at RADA and eventually went on to join the RSC. 

Breaking Through

At the beginning he wasn’t confident of his success as an actor as he was tall, and unsure of his looks and ability. However, this didn’t stop him being cast as the lead in a 1965 RSC production of Hamlet and he rapidly became regarded as the finest stage Hamlet of his generation. The following year saw him getting the title role in Karel Reisz’s Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment for which he was nominated for a best actor BAFTA. 

1966 – Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment

He spent most of his time on the stage during the sixties and took his Hamlet in a direction which may have upset some of the traditionalists. Warner played Shakespeare’s prince as a student radical; while it may have ticked off the older generation it resonated with the younger theatre goers. He said “I thought surely kids today were the same as I was, not wanting Shakespeare shoved down their throats. I wanted to make them come back again, of their own free will.” Unfortunately, a disastrous production of I, Claudius in 1973 meant that Warner developed stage fright. He focused on film acting and it was just short of thirty years before he returned to the stage.

From Stage To Screen

Most people will know him from the horror classic The Omen (1976) in which he played the ill fated photographer Keith Jennings; never has the phrase “just a little off the top, please” been more appropriate! However, just because he is most recognised from that role doesn’t mean he was limited to the genre. David Warner’s cinematic credits see him appearing in many genres: westerns, war films, romances, comedies, drama, fantasy, sci-fi, Shakespeare adaptations, children’s films, historical epics, and many many more.

1976 – The Omen with Gregory Peck

Five years prior to making The Omen he had an uncredited part in what was, to my memory, an even more infamous and scandalous film…Straw Dogs. Straw Dogs was the film that fourteen year old me was desperate to sneak into. It was an ‘X’ certificate, after all! Director Sam Peckinpah had just come off making The Wild Bunch, which often finds itself on the lists of the worlds most violent films, and The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, which ran into all manner of problems; David Warner had a part in the latter which I don’t think counts as a problem.

Here, There…Everywhere!

David teamed up again with Sam Peckinpah for Cross Of Iron. In this he played Hauptmann Kiesel. 1978 saw him in a remake of The Thirty Nine Steps, it’s the one which has Robert Powell as Richard Hannay. The following year he was in an episode of the, now dead, Airport franchise: he played Peter O’Neill in The Concorde…Airport ’79. 

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1981 – Time Bandits with Derek Deadman and Jerold Wells

It may seem strange but 1981 saw him in two very different films. Firstly he teamed up with maverick Monty Python member Terry Gilliam to play the part of Evil in Time Bandits. Then he teamed back up with the director who gave him one of his earliest big screen breaks; Karel Reisz cast him as Murphy in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Redefining Variety

Then came the film that I, probably, first saw David Warner in…I never did get to see Straw Dogs in the cinema, the nearest I managed was reading the paperback. So, the first film I saw him in was 1982’s TRON. In this he played a number of roles, some human, some software. The next couple of films I saw him in were some years after their release. Remember this was the time when cinemas thought they were quite big if they had two screens and the internet was only used by academics and the military.

1982 – TRON

I’m talking about seeing films on video. Ah yes, younglings. Sit at my feet while I tell you of the horrors of the format wars. It was dog eat dog. First to fall was, ironically, the best quality…V2000. That lasted a mere decade from 1979 to 1989. Next to fall was Betamax. This lasted a bit longer. Actually longer than you probably think; you could still buy blank Betamax tapes up until 2016. This left the VHS format as the winner despite it being, arguably, the poorest in image quality. Just as “Video Killed The Radio Star” so DVD killed off tapes and downloads have, inevitably, seen off DVDs.

Home Viewing

As a result some films never made it out to the provinces and you didn’t get to see them until they turned up on a rental shelf in the newsagents.  The next two films I saw David Warner in were in the comfort and luxury of my very own living room. The first was the Steve Martin vehicle The Man With Two Brains. This was recommended to me by a friend at the time.  I admit I did smile a few times and there were a couple of amusing sections but, in all honesty, I’ve never felt the need to go back for a second look.

1983 – The Man With Two Brains with Steve Martin

The next film of Mr Warner’s that I saw on tape was The Company Of Wolves. As if trying to tick off yet more genres, The Company Of Wolves is a British made gothic fantasy horror. This was a relatively low budget affair coming in at under half a million pounds. Although ostensibly based on a short story by Angela Carter it was, to my eye anyway, a retelling of the old fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. Still, quite enjoyable and still stands up reasonably well.

It was 1989 before I saw David Warner on the big screen again. This time he was playing St John Talbot in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Incidentally, such is the peculiarity of the English variant of the English language that “St John” is sometimes pronounced “Sin Gin”. Don’t ask me why. At least it’s not as bad as Cholmondeley or Featherstonhaugh…pronounced ‘Chum-lee” and “Fan-shaw” before anyone asks.

1989 – Star Trek V – The Final Frontier with Nichelle Nichols, Charles Cooper, and Cynthia Gouw

This was his first appearance in the Star Trek universe. First of three appearances. Each time as a different character! First time out and he is the human ambassador to the Federation, the aforementioned St John Talbot. Next time is in the very next Star Trek film. He plays Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. This time out he’s a Klingon who is pivotal to the development of the story. 

To Boldly Go…

David’s final Star Trek outing was in the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He plays the part of Gul Madred, a Cardassian. As everyone knows, this series stars the very wonderful Patrick Stewart. What a lot of people may not know is that this was not the first time Messrs Warner and Stewart worked together…they had both been in that 1965 production of Hamlet! Despite David being cast at the last minute (due to the original actor dropping out at the eleventh hour) and having to have all his lines written on cue cards, he said that this was his most enjoyable Star Trek outing as he got to work with Patrick again.

1991 – Star Trek VI – The Undiscovered Country with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley

A Few Examples…

David Warner is one of those actors whose name may pass you by but his presence never will. After all the Star Trek appearances he went on to appear in many more films and TV shows. If you check his IMDb page he has over 250 on screen credits.  He has appeared in (deep breath)… Perry Mason, Dinosaurs, Murder She Wrote, The New Adventures Of Superman, Babylon 5, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Scream 2, Total Recall 2070, Buzz Lightyear Of Star Command, Batman Of The Future, Men In Black: The Series, What’s New Scooby-Doo, Midsomer Murders, Doctor Who, Penny Dreadful, Inside No.9, Wallander, Lewis, and Ripper Street. 

1997 – Titanic with Billy Zane

Some Epic Features

Admittedly, some of those appearances were just as a voice. In fact his last credit was a voice part in one of my granddaughter’s favourite TV shows, Teen Titans Go!, but he had also kept up on his on-screen performances too.  He was the delightfully brutal enforcer Spicer Lovejoy in Titanic. Rejoining forces with James Cameron, he played Joseph Lau in Avatar. He also popped up inTim Burton’s much maligned remake of Planet Of The Apes.

2001 – Planet Of The Apes with make up maestro Rick Baker

Final Bow

His list on screen credit was in Mary Poppins Returns as Admiral Boom. I went to see that as a family treat over the Christmas/New Year break. Of course I remember David Warner being in it. I just didn’t know it would be his last role. One of his obituaries today said “With the rigour of his classical training, his style and his fine voice, Warner boosted the IQ of any movie he was in.”

2018 – Mary Poppins Returns with Jim Norton

So very true. RIP David Warner.

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