David Warner: a fiercely charismatic actor who raised the IQ of his movies

From Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment to one of movie history’s most shocking death scenes, Warner’s classical training, style and fine voice gave character to any role

David Warner was a distinguished English Shakespearean actor, in fact one of the great stage Hamlets of his generation but, in movie terms, and especially as he got older, his strong, intelligent face and equine handsomeness almost made him the English Max von Sydow, eminently castable in supporting character roles as troubled or darkly villainous people in scary films.

It was Warner’s destiny to have one of the most macabre and shocking death scenes in movie history in the classic 1976 chiller The Omen, a stomach-turningly horrible coup which he endured in the role of Keith, the long-haired and wild-eyed photographer who notices that there is something very wrong with the cherubic baby adopted by the US ambassador and his wife: Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. The climatically gruesome moment comes when Peck soft-heartedly refuses to use the special antichrist-killing daggers on the child and throws them away. Keith defiantly picks them up, saying he will use them himself, at which point dark forces release the handbrake on a builder’s truck parked nearby with an inadequately secured sheet of plateglass in the back. This shoots out, decapitating Keith. I remember literally jumping out of my seat in the cinema when I first saw Warner’s fake prosthetic head spinning up into the air, and at the dawn of the VHS age, this horribly ingenious spectacle was repeatedly savoured by generations of horror fans on pause and rewind.

Macabre … Warner and Gregory Peck in The Omen.
Macabre … Warner and Gregory Peck in The Omen. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

Warner was also to have an iconic horror presence in Anthony Hickox’s 1988 movie Waxwork, playing the sinister Mr Lincoln, who owns a creepy wax museum whose horrifying exhibits can enfold unwary visitors into their own hellish reality. In John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Warner is the consulting psychiatrist Dr Wrenn, to whom the hero John Trent, played by Sam Neill, recounts his disturbing story: at this stage in his career, Warner is perhaps assuming the father-confessor role.

It wasn’t true to say that the movies didn’t give Warner a leading role. He was nominated for a Bafta for Karel Reisz’s fascinating Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment in 1966, an angrily-unhappy-young-man role for the times: the mercurial leftwing artist whose wife has left him for a smoothie art dealer. Warner is gangly and tall, awkward, fiercely charismatic, voluble, with a mop of fair, a little like the young Rhys Ifans. It was the kind of interesting, textured lead role that an actor like him could expect to get in the theatre or in TV drama (Morgan was developed from a television play), but maybe not so much in the movies. Four years later, Sam Peckinpah cast Warner as the itinerant preacher Reverend Joshua Sloane in The Ballad of Cable Hogue and for Alain Resnais he was John Gielgud’s troubled son Keith in Providence, released in 1977.

Perhaps Warner’s most interesting role came in the 1979 cult sci-fi mystery thriller Time After Time by Nicholas Meyer. Warner plays 19th-century surgeon John Stevenson who is suspected of being Jack the Ripper; meanwhile HG Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell) reveals to his associates that he has invented in reality the kind of time machine featured in his work. Stevenson uses this invention to evade the police and escape into the future and Wells follows him to the deeply strange and alien world of the late 1970s. The role is perfect for Warner: disturbing, intelligent, alienated. Meyer also directed Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in 1991 and made Warner the stately and sympathetically presidential-looking chancellor of the Klingon high council.

Gangsterish … in Steven Lisberger’s Tron.
Gangsterish … in Steven Lisberger’s Tron. Photograph: Disney/Allstar

As the years went by, Warner carried on doing outstanding character work. He was the Prussian covert agent Sir Edmund Appleton in the 1978 version of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps; and was interestingly used as the unprincipled software executive in Steven Lisberger’s Philip K Dick-esque VR movie Tron, with the gangsterish name of Dillinger who steals the work of Jeff Bridges’s programmer Keith Flynn. Later he was the ex-Pinkerton’s gumshoe on board the Titanic in James Cameron’s epic who keeps an eye on Kate Winslet’s headstrong young heiress, and Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins Returns, the crusty old seadog who had a habit of firing a cannon from his balcony.

With the rigour of his classical training, his style and his fine voice, Warner boosted the IQ of any movie he was in.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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