Cinema offered escape for David Warner when he was a child. Literally. His unwed parents repeatedly “stole” him from each other and whisked him off to a new home. In the cinema the young Warner was safe from upheaval and trauma for a while. Frequent changes of home meant frequent changes of school. Warner was no good at academic subjects or sports and did not readily make new friends. But he found some direction in life after being cast as Lady Macbeth in a school play.
At 17 he was accepted into Rada, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in London. And at 24 he caused a sensation as Hamlet, with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was not Olivier, commanding the stage, but rather an awkward, indecisive young man, wearing a long scarf and the angst of a 1960s college student, while spluttering out The Bard’s prose. Then he was cast as the male lead opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the 1966 comedy-drama Morgan – A Suitable Case for Treatment.
Despite falling cinema attendances, this was an exciting time in British cinema, with a new realism in movies and new stars, like Terence Stamp and Peter O’Toole, far removed from the theatrical traditions of the past.
But Warner was no Terence Stamp or Peter O’Toole. Before Morgan, Warner had had a significant supporting role as the unprincipled Blifil in the Oscar-winning romp Tom Jones, with Albert Finney as Jones.
Director Tony Richardson later explained his thinking. “He told me, ‘Now Albert Finney’s young and brown, he gets all the women, and what we want is somebody who doesn’t look as though he could possibly get any.”
Warner’s nose and mouth seemed just a little on the large side, while as a person he was shy and self-deprecating in an age and profession noted for ego and self-promotion. And although Warner got a big, lead role in Morgan, he still did not get the girl. He played a neurotic, unsuccessful artist trying to persuade his wife to come back to him, failing, crashing her next wedding dressed as a gorilla and ending up in an institution.
Romantic leads evaded him, but Warner remained in demand for character parts and villains. He was an ill-fated photographer in the horror classic The Omen – beheaded by a demonic sheet of glass. In Time Bandits he was a character called Evil, trying to steal a map of time from the dwarfs. In Tron he was a computer company executive and a digital character. And he played several different characters in the Star Trek film and television series.
David Hattersley Warner was born in Manchester in 1941 and took his father’s surname as his surname and his mother’s surname as his middle name. His father owned a nursing home and was sufficiently well off to send him to a series of boarding schools. “My parents kept stealing me from each other, so I moved across England a lot,” he recalled. “There was no theatrical tradition but plenty of histrionics.”
Warner teetered on the point of madness to great effect as both Hamlet and Morgan and for a while in the 1960s he seemed almost to embody the restlessness of the age, a mix of the zany and the dangerously unhinged. Reviewing his performance in Morgan, the New York Times said: “He’s no beauty, but he’s a star.”
The legendary Hollywood director Sam Peckinpah cast him as a randy preacher in the 1970 western The Ballad of Cable Hogue. But Warner had a panic attack and refused to fly to California, Peckinpah refused to cast anyone else and rearranged the shooting schedule to allow him to go by ship across the Atlantic and by train across America.
A fall from an upper floor at a Rome hotel resulted in serious injury and prompted rumours of drug abuse. And Warner had a noticeable limp as a man with learning difficulties whose liaison with Susan George’s young temptress ends in tragedy in Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs.
Neither Warner nor Peckinpah was exactly easy to work with, but they obviously hit it off as they worked together again when Peckinpah cast Warner as a German officer in Cross of Iron, at the tail end of the latter’s career. Cross of Iron was a war film set on the Eastern Front and told from the German perspective.
Warner was also in German uniform as Reinhard Heydrich in the mini-series Holocaust and he was in the pay of the Germans in the 1978 version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which starred Robert Powell as Richard Hannay and returned the action to the locations of John Buchan’s source novel in the South-West of Scotland.
He was only slightly less sinister in Titanic, playing Billy Zane’s valet, who tries to frame Leonardo DiCaprio as a thief. And he was hardly any more sympathetic as a gorilla in Tim Burton’s reboot of Planet of the Apes.
But he did also get to play the title character’s father in the popular detective series Wallander. And he was a goodie in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, commenting that it stood him in good stead with his young son’s friends.
“When they ask me ‘What do you do?’, I don’t have to say, ‘I’ve done a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of Chekhov.’ I can say ‘I was in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II.’” And he was seen by a young audience again as a retired admiral, and neighbour of the Banks family, in Mary Poppins Returns.
Warner was married and divorced twice. He is survived by a son from his second marriage and by a long-term partner, actress Lisa Bowerman.
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