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Obituary: David Warner, acclaimed stage actor of the 1960s who went on to play wildly varied characters on the big screen


David Warner had parts in The Omen and Titanic

David Warner had parts in The Omen and Titanic

David Warner had parts in The Omen and Titanic

David Warner, the actor, who has died aged 80, was one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s widely acclaimed discoveries of the 1960s in its heyday under Peter Hall.

Tall, lean, gangling, long-faced, he triumphed first in one of Shakespeare’s least-known roles, Henry VI, which he brought to life in the RSC’s quatercentenary cycle, The Wars of the Roses, and again with a resolutely “contemporary” interpretation of Hamlet.

But within a decade of those early glories, which he achieved in his early 20s, Warner was drawn increasingly to the cinema.  

Hall considered Warner “potentially one of the greatest stage actors”, possessing “that authentic quality that makes you hang on to their every word, understand their every thought, note their merest gesture”. 

He found ready employment before the cameras, going on to amass more than 200 credits. Success might have been sporadic, but he was lauded in neurotic-comic roles such as the failed artist in Karel Reisz’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966); the trusting bombardier in Jack Gold’s The Bofors Gun (1968), and the crazy cultivator of psychedelic mushrooms in Hall’s Work is a Four-Letter Word the same year.

He also played the domineering banker Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House (1973), and had satisfying moments as an astrophysicist in Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977), as well as in three films by Sam Peckinpah, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs and Cross of Iron.

David Hattersley Warner was born in Manchester on July 29, 1941, the son of Herbert, a Russian Jew who owned a nursing home, and Ada Hattersley. He was born out of wedlock and was initially shunted between parents, eventually settling with his father and stepmother.

He attended several schools and after working as a bookseller and newspaper vendor, he trained at the

Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), where his contemporaries included John Hurt and Ian McShane.

After small parts in plays including Much Ado About Nothing in Coventry, he appeared in David Rudkin’s play about Black Country fruit-pickers, Afore Night Come, in the RSC’s experimental London season, then joined the company.​​​​​​ 

As the 1960s progressed, Warner turned increasingly to film work, and after 1973, when he developed stage fright during an ill-fated run of I, Claudius, he spent most of time on screen.

“He just disappeared from view,” Peter Hall recalled. “And the next thing we knew he was in Hollywood, doing bits in movies.” 

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He made his film speaking debut in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), while on the small screen he appeared with Bob Dylan in the BBC play Madhouse on Castle Street.

Three years later came the role that established his reputation for playing slightly unhinged characters, as the artist Morgan Delt in Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment. He also developed a penchant for playing villains, in films such as The Thirty Nine Steps (1978); Time Bandits (1981), in which he was a malevolent being suitably named Evil; and one of the first films to depend heavily on CGI, Tron (1982).

In The Omen (1976) he was the hapless journalist Keith Jennings, who ends up decapitated by a sheet of glass. In 1987 he decamped to Los Angeles, where he remained for 15 years.

His parts during that time were wildly varied. He played a professor in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), while in 1997 he was Spicer Lovejoy, Billy Zane’s valet in James Cameron’s Titanic.

In 2001 he made a much-heralded return to the stage, as Andrew Undershaft in a Broadway revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, then four years later was back on a Shakespearean stage, as King Lear at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

David Warner was twice married and divorced, to Harriet Lindgren (1969-72) and Sheilah Kent (1981-2002). He is survived by his partner, the actress Lisa Bowerman, and by a daughter and son of his second marriage. 

(© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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