Prolific character actor David Warner passed away on July 24th, just five days shy of his 81st birthday. I think that my fellow blogger A Middle Aged Geek summed up Warner’s appeal on his own retrospective:
“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.”
Warner was born in Manchester, England on 29 July, 1941. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and in 1962 joined the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner’s stage work brought him acclaim, but due to a case of stage fright in the early 1970s he made the decision to shift his career to movies & television, where he would work regularly for the next four and a half decades.
Warner is one of the first actors who I became aware of, as he was regularly appearing in movies that I saw in the theater and on television when I was a kid in the early 1980s.
Acting opposite Malcolm McDowell as novelist H.G. Wells, Warner played John Stevenson aka Jack the Ripper in Time After Time (1979) directed by Nicholas Meyer. His identity as the infamous serial killer uncovered in Victorian England, Stevenson flees to then-modern day San Francisco via Wells’ time machine, with the author pursuing him in the present in an effort to finally bring the Ripper’s killing spree to an end.
Warner played the physical embodiment of Evil in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure Time Bandits (1981). A year later he appeared in the triple role of Ed Dillinger / Sark / the voice of the Master Control Program in the groundbreaking sci-fi virtual reality movie Tron.
Also around this time, in the 1979 horror movie Nightwing, Warner was cast in the somewhat more sympathetic role of scientist Philip Payne, who assists Nick Mancuso as Native American police officer Youngman Duran in fighting a swarm of vampire bats infected with the bubonic plague.
Having seen Warner in all of these, I was subsequently very pleased whenever he would turn up in a particular movie or television show.
Warner was cast as the human diplomat St. John Talbot in the underwhelming Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and as such he was quite surprised when he was then asked to appear as a different character in Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country (1991) by Nicholas Meyer, who had previously directed him 12 years earlier in Time After Time.
Years later Warner would jokingly suggest that everyone had simply forgotten he was in Star Trek V when they asked him to appear in the next one, and truthfully I barely recall him from it. In contrast, his performance as Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI, who Meyer conceived as a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev, was incredibly memorable. Warner brought genuine dignity & compassion to the role of Gorkon. As a result, it carried a real impact when the Chancellor was assassinated, and with his dying breath begged Captain Kirk not to let the peace negotiations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire die with him.
Warner made one last Star Trek appearance a year later when he played sadistic Cardassian interrogator Gul Madred in the two part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.” Warner made Madred a figure of quiet menace. It was such a powerful, sinister performance, and it was surprising to learn that Warner had only been cast shortly before filming began when another actor dropped out at the last minute. As he explained to The A.V. Club in 2017:
“So I took over with three days notice. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but there was a lot of dialogue in it. And I said, “Look, I’ll do it, but I’ve got three days, and I can’t learn that kind of dialogue in three days.” So they wrote it all up on boards for me to read. So if you ever see it again, you won’t see my eyes moving, but I read every single line that I spoke, because I just couldn’t learn it in time.”
Also around this time Warner appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze as Professor Jordan Perry, the scientist who was indirectly responsible for the Turtles mutating. Now, I was a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books at the time, but even so I’ll readily admit The Secret of the Ooze was quite a silly movie. I feel Warner brought a touch of class to the proceedings. He apparently enjoyed working on it, as he told The A.V. Club:
“It was just great fun being in a movie like that. You know, for kids. I didn’t often do kids pictures… it was just great fun to be on the side of the good guys!”
From 1992 to 1995 Warner voiced Batman’s immortal adversary Ra’s al Ghul on Batman: The Animated Series, reprising the role on Superman: The Animated Series in 1999 and Batman Beyond in 2000. Voice director Andrea Romano made some brilliant casting decisions on Batman: The Animated Series, and Warner as Ra’s al Ghul was absolutely one of them. The first time I saw an episode with Ra’s and heard him speak I knew that Warner, with his rich, theatrical voice, was the perfect casting. To this day whenever I read a comic book in which Ra’s al Ghul appears I “hear” Warner’s voice in my head whenever I read the character’s dialogue.
Another solid performance by Warner was archeologist Aldous Gajic on the Babylon 5 episode “Grail” (1994). Gajic comes to the B5 space station in search of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be alien in origin.
In his later years Warner became associated with the British science fiction series Doctor Who. He acted in several of the Big Finish audio plays, including two, “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Masters of War,” where he played an alternate-reality incarnation of the Third Doctor who, instead of being exiled to Earth in 1970, arrives in 1997, where in his absence events have taken a definite turn for the worse. Warner also voiced the villainous Lord Azlok on the Doctor Who animated serial “Dreamland” in 2009.
Warner at last had the opportunity to appear in a live action episode of Doctor Who in 2013, guest starring in “Cold War” as the lovably eccentric, pop music obsessed Soviet scientist Professor Grisenko. “Cold War” was definitely one of the best episodes from Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, and I feel that’s at least partially due to Warner’s presence. Grisenko and Clara had some good scenes together, with Warner and Jenna Coleman playing off each other very well.
All of this is only just a small portion of Warner’s career. Following has passing earlier this week, his career was covered in a number of retrospectives, and on several occasions while reading them my reaction was literally “Oh, I forgot he was in that one!” The IMDB lists 228 acting credits for him.
Warner leaves behind an impressive body of work. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.