This week saw the loss of renowned British actor David Warner at age 80, from cancer complications, just five days shy of his 81st birthday. Sadly, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting David Warner, as I’d hoped to meet him at a convention a year ago, but he cancelled due to health reasons. I’ve grown up as an admirer of his work for as long as I can remember, as he populated so many of the movies and TV shows I enjoyed in my youth. The actor’s range was his shield from typecasting, and he could play deeply sympathetic characters just as he could play the very embodiment of evil–all with complete believability.
While Warner’s career dates back to the early 1960s, the first role I recall seeing him in was 1976’s “The Omen,” where he played tenacious photographer Keith Jennings. Jennings suspected that the adopted son (Harvey Stevens) of US ambassador Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) was actually the son of Satan himself. The character is an unlikely ally to the cause of good, as his obsession makes him come off as a mite unhinged (Warner’s natural intensity is well-used). Sadly, the character is decapitated after coming this close to outing young Damien Thorn as the AntiChrist. “The Omen” isn’t a particular favorite of mine, though it certainly has moments, and features a terrific cast, including Warner, Gregory Peck, Lee Remick and Patrick Troughton.
Next came one of my all-time favorite roles of Warner’s in Nicholas Meyer’s delightful sci-fi fantasy “Time After Time” (1979). Warner really got to flex his villain-muscles as respected late 19th century London physician Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, who is more infamously known as “Jack the Ripper.” A Scotland Yard inspector in the film wryly describes Dr. Stevenson as “chief of surgery at White Chapel.” Fortunately for ol’ Jack, his author/inventor friend H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) has created a working time machine (the basis for his future novel), which Jack uses to flee justice in 1893 London, landing in the ‘brave new world’ of 1979 San Francisco, where the time machine currently resides in a touring exhibit of H.G. Wells. Since Wells cleverly held onto the vehicle’s return key, he is able to pursue Jack into the late 20th century. Unfortunately, Herbert’s former friend and chess partner is always a step ahead–slaying women with a chilling freedom and ease he never knew in his native country and century.
The beginning of the film sees Dr. John Leslie Stevenson unflappable and respectable; a pillar of London society, and a valued member of Wells’ eclectic circle of friends. Later, as Wells chases him through time, Jack’s facade begins to slip into the psychosis that’s just beneath the surface. In the final act, a visibly unstable Jack finds a valuable hostage in Wells’ newfound American girlfriend (and future-past-ex wife) Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen). Warner plays the cooler Jack like a panther on the prowl, ironically slipping right into the late 20th century far better than his naive futurist friend, Herbert George Wells. This was one of the most memorable villains I would see Warner play, and it is also one of my favorite films of his diverse career.
Warner’s run of villainy continued in another time travel fantasy; writer/director Terry Gilliam’s “Time Bandits” (1981). Graduating in status from a mere time-traveling serial killer, Warner would play ‘Evil Genius,’ aka evil incarnate. In some ways, the movie is a visually imaginative throwback to 1960s Ray Harryhausen fantasies, but with the wonderful silliness one would expect from Gilliam’s longtime association with the Monty Python troupe. The cast would include Gilliam’s Monty Python colleague John Cleese as Robin Hood, Sean Connery as Agamemnon, Ian Holm as Napoleon and Kenny Baker (R2-D2 himself) as one of the titular Time Bandits. While I certainly enjoyed “Time Bandits” when I first saw it, I don’t recall details of it as well as I should. What does stay in my memory is the absolute commitment with which David Warner threw himself into the role. “Time Bandits” affirmed Warner’s early 1980s status as a cult cinematic villain.
Next up would be Warner’s equally villainous role in the revolutionary and groundbreaking Disney foray into the then-new technology of CGI, “TRON” (1982). Warner would play computer game character “Sark,” a character written in the real world by Ed Dillinger, also played by Warner. Dillinger would also oversee the massive upgrade to the game’s “Master Control Program,” which is voiced by Warner as well. Warner’s three roles in “TRON” are arguably shades of the human Ed Dillinger character, yet Warner manages to make each distinct and interesting enough to stand out in a movie that–sadly–gets a bit too mired in its own spectacle. I remember seeing “TRON” only once back in the 1980s, though I would rewatch it on DVD later on with my wife, who enjoys it a bit more than I do. While “TRON” was a visually stunning achievement for its time, it became obsolete rather quickly as CGI rapidly evolved in the decades that followed. Yes, Warner would gain much recognition for the film, but it’s not one of my favorites within the actor’s body of work.
Like “Time After Time”, 1984’s version of the oft-told “A Christmas Carol” is not one of Warner’s more renowned roles, but it is one of my sentimental favorites. This is due to the handsome production’s full-hearted sincerity, and also for a cast-against-type David Warner, who is simply perfect as the good-natured family man, Bob Cratchit. Bob Cratchit, of course, works for the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (George C. Scott), who barely provides enough for Cratchit to take care of his family, let alone his sickly son, ‘Tiny Tim’ (Anthony Walters). Warner plays Bob with a rare dignity not seen in previous (and future) versions of the story, which often portray Bob as a sweet, but sometimes bumbling man. Warner’s Cratchit, despite his poverty, maintains grace and gratitude. Along with his anchor of a wife (Suzannah York), Bob Cratchit does his best to keep his loving family together despite the physical deterioration of his youngest son.
A scene presented by the Ghost of Christmases Yet-to-Come’s sees a grim alternate timeline where Cratchit arrives home late from work, having stopped by his young son Tim’s grave. Warner’s Cratchit takes his youngest daughter upon his knee and tearfully expresses both sorrow for his lost boy, and joyous gratitude for his remaining children. Every year I watch this version of “A Christmas Carol,” and every year, I absolutely tear up during this scene. Warner’s monologue is pure heartbreak–hell, my eyes are getting blobby with tears just typing this paragraph about it! Casting movie ‘villain’ Warner as Bob Cratchit was a genius move on director Clive Donner’s part, and Warner’s performance helps elevate this handsomely-made film into an annual Yuletide event in my own household.
After continuous work throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Warner would return to cinematic villainy in the role of “Spicer Lovejoy,” (an oddly sweet-sounding name). Lovejoy is the ruthless, amoral manservant of fictitious Pennsylvania steel tycoon, Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) in James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997). “Titanic” was the most successful movie of the time, grossing $1.8 billion in worldwide box office, only to be dethroned 12 years later by Cameron’s own “Avatar”. Lovejoy acts as Hockley’s attack dog, doing everything in his power to dissuade Hockley’s fiancee Rose (Kate Winslet) from carrying on her budding romance with penniless artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio).
These fictional characters served as audience avatars into this opulently-appointed, definitive accounting of the legendary 1912 luxury liner’s sinking in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Yes, the movie gets a lot of flack these days from countless armchair historians and online critics, who seem to take great pleasure in dismissing this movie’s incredible success. That said, I am not one of those folks, because I absolutely love “Titanic.” The movie’s box office is not a fluke–it really is that good, and I stand by that opinion. In fact, a full review of “Titanic” is coming to this column in the months ahead. David Warner fits in very well with the movie’s dynamic cast, including Oscar-winner Kathy Bates and the late Bill Paxton.
Note: James Cameron’s “Titanic” wasn’t the first time Warner saw himself aboard the doomed trans-Atlantic vessel. Warner also appeared in the much more modestly-budgeted 1979 TV-movie “SOS Titanic”, playing real-life Titanic passenger Lawrence Beesley, a science teacher who survived the historic sinking. Directed by William Hale (“The Invaders”), the movie includes many TV-mainstays, such as David Janssen (“John Jacob Astor”) and Cloris Leachman (“Molly Brown”). Hardly a definitive account of the famed disaster, but respectably told, all the same.
From 1989 through 1993, David Warner appeared in three distinct roles within the Star Trek franchise. His first was the rather thankless role of burned-out Federation diplomat St. John Talbot in the creatively malnourished “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989), directed by star William Shatner. The role of St. John Talbot was little more than a human chess piece to be manipulated by passionate Vulcan renegade, Sybok (Lawrence Luckinbill). Warner’s underuse in the film is borderline criminal, as he is one of the best actors in it. On the plus side, Warner was at least fortunate enough not to have his face covered in alien-makeup prosthetics, though he wouldn’t be so lucky in his subsequent Star Trek roles–which, ironically, allowed him much greater expression as an actor.
Next up for the actor would be “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). In the film, Warner would play the far more pivotal role of “Gorkon”; a Gorbachev-like Klingon chancellor who opens diplomatic channels with his people’s longtime enemies, the United Federation of Planets, following a Chernobyl-like disaster in Klingon space. En route to a peace summit on Earth, the Klingon leader is assassinated in a shady plot hatched by various conspirators within human, Klingon and Romulan ranks. While Warner’s character is killed off before the story’s mid-point, he is nevertheless pivotal to the subsequent events of the film. “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” is one of my favorite Star Trek movies, and Warner’s benevolent Klingon chancellor was so unlike any other Klingon we’d seen in Star Trek to that date. The movie also reunited Warner with his “Time After Time” director, Nicholas Meyer, who also directed the game-changing “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982).
The actor’s last role in Star Trek would also be the most challenging, as he played brutal Cardassian interrogator, Gul Madred, in the 1993 two-part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Chain of Command.” Madred’s people set a trap for the Enterprise-D’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), and when that trap is sprung, Picard is captured and brutally tortured over the course of the story’s second half. Picard’s torture is much more graphically depicted than was typically allowed on television at that time, and Warner plays Gul Madred with a mix of both cruelty and vulnerability. Madred’s vulnerability, arising from a harsh childhood in abject poverty, would provide the otherwise-broken Picard an emotional shiv to use against his tormenter. By the end of Part 2, Madred sets Picard free, and the broken starship captain gathers the last vestiges of his willpower in a final act of defiance against the gaslighting Madred (“There… are… four… lights!”). While difficult to watch, this powerful episode was easily Warner’s best work for the Star Trek franchise.
So, how do you summarize an actor who could convincingly go from Jack the Ripper to Bob Cratchit, and onto the final frontier? David Warner leapt from villainy to vulnerability with grace and seeming ease. Nimbly avoided typecasting, the actor was truly a chameleonic presence in film and television, and his passing leaves a unique void going forward. I regret that I never had the chance to meet this talented man during my 20-odd years of sci-fi conventions, and my sympathies go to all those friends and family who knew and loved him.
David Warner, July 29th, 1941–July 24th, 2022.