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David Warner actor bio

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David Warner (1941 – 2022): “I Know I Have to Deliver

Remembering David Warner

David Warner never intended to be an actor, he had no creative aspirations as a youth.  He only turned to acting as a way to escape “…a messy childhood,” a safe space away from his dysfunctional family.  But it worked out quite well for him.  He made his stage debut in 1962, appeared in his first film in 1963, and by the next decade was one of the most sought-after character actors in the business.

His success surprised even him:  “There were certain young actors I had trained with at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who had always got the big parts and I was always the spear-carrier. Suddenly the roles were reversed and I couldn’t understand why, and nor could they.”

With his scarecrowish physique, a look that even when he was young came off as haggard and wasted, and a silky voice, he was cast as a villain more often than not, but there seemed nothing he couldn’t play.  He could be a glib Lucifer in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), Jack the Ripper in Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (1979), goof around in Carl Reiner’s slapsticky The Man With Two Brains (1983), and cop a Supporting Actor Emmy for playing an effete and callous Roman official in the mini-series spectacle Masada (1981).  Sci-fi or period piece, comedy or drama, his repertoire seemed endless.

David Warner

And whether it was on the big screen or small, providing voices for cartoons or being a part of one of the biggest movies of all time in Titanic (1998), Warner always brought his A-game:  “I know that some actors take acting terribly seriously. I take it seriously in that if someone pays me to do it, I know I have to deliver.”

He was a favorite of Sam Peckinpah who appreciated Warner’s ability to apparently do anything.  He first used him in the sweet-natured The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) as a glib, womanizing frontier preacher, then as the mentally handicapped accidental killer of Straw Dogs (1971), and finally in the WW II actioner Cross of Iron (1977) as a cynical but humane German officer.

But oddly, for me, when I heard he’d passed, what I remembered was a single moment in Time After Time.  It’s in the final scene.  Malcolm McDowall’s H.G. Wells has just bargained for Warner’s Ripper to release his lady love (Mary Steenbergen), Warner climbs into Wells’ time machine but then sees Wells reaching for the “vaporizing equalizer” that can send Warner into oblivion.  They exchange a look and Warner gives a barely perceptible movement of his head – Yes, do it, it’s ok.  It’s a surprisingly poignant moment for a serial killer and is the kind of master class artistry, the ability to deliver those subtle shades, that made Warner such an in-demand screen commodity.

Actors like David Warner are the movies’ infantry.  They don’t get the girl, they rarely win, but still, they work and work and work.  “It’s all out of one’s hands,” he told an interviewer.  “One goes and does one’s best.”

And the best is what he always did.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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