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A Disappearing Act: David Warner (1941-2022)

The classically trained British character actor David Warner excelled at disappearing into his work. Warner’s now best known—or maybe just beloved—for his supporting roles in genre movies like “The Omen” (the tragically decapitated Keith Jennings), Time Bandits (the comically haughty Evil Genius), and Tron (the imperiously vain Ed Dillinger/Master Control/Sark), as well as his instantly recognizable voice-acting performances in cartoons like “Freakazoid” (the deliriously goofy The Lobe) and “Batman: The Animated Series” (the royally vain Ra’s Al Ghul). He defined himself as both a character actor and an “old man actor” when he was 24 years old. Warner also seemed to find genuine satisfaction in his work rather than any formal recognition that came of it. He was 80 years old when he died of a cancer-related illness.

Warner was born on July 29th, 1941 in Manchester, England; his parents divorced when he was a child, so he attended eight separate boarding schools while they “kept stealing me from each other,” according to Warner. He was not a celebrated student, as Warner sometimes recalled during interviews, so his acceptance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) was never a given. Warner also didn’t always consider acting to be his great calling in life, as he joked with The AV Club’s Will Harris during a characteristically exhaustive interview. “My first job was as an extra” he tells Harris, referring to his first film role as a sailor in “We Joined the Navy.” That was in 1962, the same year that Warner made his acting debut at the Royal Court Theatre as Tom Snout in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Warner’s breakout performance as Hamlet was a major milestone for the insatiable performer. He was directed by Peter Hall, who had previously worked with Warner when he played Henry VI in Edward IV, Henry VI, and Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964. Hall says that he cast a then-unknown Warner because he was looking for a performer who could speak to his generation’s “disillusionment, which produces an apathy of will so deep that commitment to politics, religion or life is impossible.” In Jonathan Croall’s comprehensive Performing Hamlet, Hall describes Warner as “the very embodiment of the 1960s student—tall, blond, gangling. He was passive, yet had an anarchic wit.”

“I didn’t really think of it as a Hamlet for our time,” Warner responds. “It was just that people labelled it as that. I think modern, younger audiences appreciate this Hamlet, because it has the nasty side as well as the sympathetic side. He’s a Prince at one moment, and an ordinary man the next.” Warner is also quick to note that the “ordinary” qualities that he brought to his role didn’t originate with him, but rather came about “very slowly” and “intuitively.” “I never went into it with any preconceptions, or thought about it before,” Warner adds before noting that Hamlet was never a role that he had hoped to play.

Still, Warner’s neurotic line delivery and manic energy came to personify Hall’s production. Speaking of Warner’s Hamlet, theater critic Ronald Bryden writes: “This is a Hamlet desperately in need of counsel, help, experience, and he actually seeks it from the audience in his soliloquies.” Bryden adds that “[Warner’s] Hamlet communes not with himself, but with you.” Warner characteristically accepts praise for his performance by shying away from it: “I don’t know whether I learnt a great deal about Hamlet, but I learnt an awful lot about myself.”

Warner also notably starred in “Morgan—A Suitable Case for Treatment,” a 1966 film adaptation of David Mercer’s stage play. In the movie, Warner plays the title character, a mischievous angry young man who continually tries to prevent his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave) from remarrying. Time Magazine celebrated Warner’s performance by saying that, as Morgan, Warner “catches every kink and twitch of a natural misfit who can only sense progress when he is swimming against the stream.”

Some critics sniffed at Warner’s performance since Morgan was obviously meant to speak to (or simply about) his disaffected generation. So it’s not surprising that Warner didn’t receive any awards until the 1980s, when he earned a Primetime Emmy for his supporting role as Pomponius Falco in the TV miniseries “Masada.” Warner would, however, go on to work with great film directors like John Frankenheimer (The Fixer), Joseph Losey (“A Doll’s House”), and Sidney Lumet (“The Sea Gull”). And because good work begets more of the same, those collaborations led to some of Warner’s more iconic on-screen performances.

Speaking with Harris, Warner remembers that Lumet suggested that he work with Sam Peckinpah, and that Peckinpah supposedly delayed the production of The Ballad of Cable Hogue in order to accommodate Warner, who couldn’t bring himself to cross the Atlantic by plane. (Warner suffered from vertigo and panic attacks) Warner would notably collaborate with Peckinpah on two other films, “Straw Dogs” and “Cross of Iron.” They remained friendly until Peckinpah’s death, despite rumors that Warner had his name removed from “Straw Dogs” because Warner disapproved of its content. Instead, Warner claimed that his name wasn’t formally attached to “Straw Dogs” because his agents tried to get him higher billing than his name alone was worth. “‘Oh, to hell with it!’ Warner recalls saying. ‘I want to do the movie. Don’t have me on the credits at all. Don’t have me anywhere. Let’s not fight over it. Just ignore it.’”

That quote is just one of a few great moments in Warner’s interview with Harris, which is itself a fine showcase for the actor’s neurotic sensitivity and consummate ability. In that interview, Warner takes great pleasure in celebrating the mega-stardom of some of his former Stratford-on-Avon co-stars, like Malcom McDowell and Patrick Stewart. He also goes out of his way to dog-ear roles that didn’t originate with him, like when Mick Jagger was originally supposed to play Jack the Ripper in “Time After Time” or when Warner played two roles in the 1993 sword-and-sorcery cheapie “Quest of the Delta Knights.”

Warner also swoons at the memory of working with beloved colleagues, like Jason Robards in “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and Gregory Peck in “The Omen.” And he’s often quick to note that it was impossible to know if a movie would go on to any kind of success (either at the box office or with cultists), like “The Omen” or “Tron,” or a flop, as with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes.” “I don’t think I have any great major disappointments in my career” Warner tells Harris. “I’m very lucky to have had a career!”

Warner seemed to gracefully accept his fans’ admiration, but never seemed to understand it. Speaking to Den of Geek in 2008, he refers to the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” two-parter “Chain of Command” as a “classic,” but hastens to add that “they tell me that anyway!” In that same interview, Warner demurs that science-fiction is “a genre that I don’t understand, but that I have a lot of involvement with.” It’s also nice to see that various obituaries, including this one at the BBC website, recall Warner’s reply when “Sherlock” co-creator Mark Gatiss asked, on the TV docu-series “A History of Horror,” about Jennings’ severed head. “I lost it in the divorce,” Warner quipped. That sort of cheeky self-deprecation may seem like performative humility, but it’s also revealing, in its way.

Whenever critics noticed Warner’s performances, it was generally a reflection of his collaborators’ ingenuity. And if fans praised Warner’s acting, they saw him as his role. “Not being recognized is the greatest compliment for a character actor,” Warner told Cultbox in 2012, “because it means they’ve only seen the character you were playing.” In that same interview, he calls himself the “proud winner of no major acting awards”: “I’m happy with that because I work consistently.”

Warner is survived by his son Luke, his daughter-in-law Sarah, and his partner Lisa Bowerman. He’ll be dearly missed.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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