David Warner: The Nicest Bad Guy on the Planet

At the recent Vulcan Events AWAY MISSION: ORLANDO convention, I thrilled to have the opportunity to meet and listen to the distinguished British acting legend David Warner. Warner’s stardom on the stage began in 1965, when he performed the title role of Hamlet opposite Glenda Jackson‘s Ophelia whilst appearing with the most famous classical theatre company in the world, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Only 24 years of age at the time, he was the youngest-ever member of the RSC to tackle that demanding role, and he continued to successfully embody the revengeful Prince of Denmark for a much-heralded two-year stint.

Warner continued to receive well-deserved acclaim throughout his early acting career, a fact underlined by another headliner appearing at the Orlando convention, Sir Patrick Stewart. Stewart reminded the audience during his own panel that he and Warner, “…go back together to 1966 when David was playing Hamlet and I was just a small-part player in that production. He was a god to me. Oh, David was unforgettable. He was indeed THE Hamlet of my generation.”

David Warner as Keith Jennings in THE OMEN (1976)

Yet despite his early success playing both romantic and tragic leading roles on stage, Warner is perhaps best known to today’s audiences for the more offbeat and menacing characterizations that he created in a long line of dramatic, horror and sci fi films, including the ill-fated photographer in THE OMEN (1976), Jack the Ripper in TIME AFTER TIME (1979), and the evil museum owner in the cult classic WAXWORK (1988). He has appeared in countless other films over the years, such as TRON (1982), STAR TREK V: The Final Frontier (1989), STAR TREK VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), SCREAM 2 (1997), TITANIC (1997) (the 3rd time he has appeared in a film about the sinking of the RMS Titanic), and PLANET OF THE APES (2001).

The strongest impression that I received upon seeing Warner in person was of his decidedly gentle manner and soft-spoken amiability, which definitely offsets his onscreen image of malevolent villainy! In fact, my personal all-time favorite role of Warner’s is his portrayal of the “Evil Genius” in TIME BANDITS (1981), so I was delighted that Warner’s very first question while appearing onstage at the convention was about that particular movie.

David Warner as "Evil" in TIME BANDITS (1981). Note the fingernails!

Remembering his experience on TIME BANDITS: “Truly the most difficult part of acting that role was the elaborate costume. With the long fingernails of my costume on, it was quite difficult to go to the bathroom! And the other thing was that because the costume was so heavy they had to construct something for me to lean against, because I just couldn’t sit down. There was a wooden board set at an angle where in between shots I just leant there and it held me up, and so I could stand there and do things with my fingers and hands. It was very tough physically to make that movie, it wasn’t like a big Hollywood film where we all had fantastic trailers and chefs and wait staff and all.

I do think Terry Gilliam is a fantastic visionary filmmaker. He can put his dreams onto the screen like nobody else can. He’s a cartoon animator, so what he did with his cartoons he also did with us real human beings. He worked with us as if we were his cartoon creations.

Gilliam later told me that they actually had more visual effect in TIME BANDITS than in STAR WARS, but it was before CGI. So everything that was done was actually done with models or it was really done, because CGI didn’t exist. That’s how far back I go – I was actually in a black and white movie once, can you believe it?”

David Warner onstage in Orlando

On his favorite acting role: What I can honestly say is that one of the most memorable and wonderful working experiences for me was working with Sir Patrick Stewart in “Chain of Command I & II” in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” And the reason for that is because we were in theatre way back in 1965-66 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a totally different genre than Star Trek. But I’ve always admired Patrick and I haven’t had a chance since we were doing Shakespeare at that time in 1966 until “Chain of Command” to actually work with him again.

I came in to do “Chain of Command” on three days notice because somebody was ill and had dropped out, (and thus) it came my way. Because I only had three days and because that kind of science fiction genre (technobabble) is quite difficult to learn, I hadn’t time to learn so much dialogue in just three days. There was a lot of dialogue. So what the crew did, with Sir Patrick’s great cooperation, was write all the dialogue around the set. Everything! I mean, if you have this episode on DVD, have a look at that section because I read every single line from what we call an “idiot board.” Some actors can’t learn lines and they’re idiots, well I’m one of them! In that particular incidence, we would rehearse it and I would look there (points down), and the line would be written down on the ground, or I would look up and the line would be written there (points up). (audience laughter) So yes, that was one of my favorites!”

Warner as retired Senator Sandar in PLANET OF THE APES (1991)

On his preparation for the role of Senator Sandar in PLANET OF THE APES: “On PLANET OF THE APES I did two days work. It was another makeup job. I didn’t go through any rigorous training, but the others did. Yes, there were “ape classes”. We were all supposed to go, but I didn’t do that, because I decided to play my part sitting down (audience laughter), and I didn’t have to walk around much. It was rather like on TITANIC, where there were “etiquette classes” about which knife and fork you had to use.

I’m not very good at that type of preparation. I’m certainly not a method actor. If any of you remember Jack the Ripper (his role in TIME AFTER TIME), how do you prepare for that? How does a method actor prepare to play Jack the Ripper? Think about it!”

Warner as Sark in TRON (1982)

On his role as the command program Sark in TRON: “My role in TRON wasn’t really an acting job, it was more a “standing around looking stupid” job. (audience laughter) In TIME BANDITS with the elaborate costume and fingernails it was bad enough! In TRON you had to wear all this stuff. You had to hit your marks, (there was a) blue screen in the back – it was a technical exercise, it was CGI again. If you look at it now it does look kind of crude and basic visually, but people have said to me that they prefer the first one to the second one.”

On doing voicework compared to stage or screen acting: You’d be surprised how actors who do theatre and film and television work LOVE doing voicework. First of all, as a man, you don’t have to shave, you don’t have to dress in any particular way, and you DON’T HAVE TO LEARN THE LINES! (audience laughter) That’s the most important thing! So we all love it!

We take it seriously, even when you’re doing cartoons, be it Batman (Batman: The Animated Series) or whatever it may be. My favorite job of voicework that I did in the United States was a thing called FREAKAZOID. (audience applauds) I played “the Lobe”, (Freakazoid’s archenemy, a super genius whose entire head is a giant brain).

The Lobe

Oh, I remember it well.  One thing we did was a pastiche of “Hello Dolly,” I remember it well, I’m almost tempted…how many people have heard of FREAKAZOID? (audience applauds hopefully) Oh all right! There’s this huge brain with tiny little legs, doing Barbra Streisand, coming down this staircase… (Warner breaks into a strut and a song) ‘Hello Lobey, well Hello Lobey…’ and there this cartoon brain doing all the moves of Barbra Streisand in the movie, so yes, I LOVE voicework, I love doing SINGING voicework!” (the audience applauds riotously) (Watch the clip from Freakazoid on YouTube here!)

Later in the autograph room after most graciously signing my TIME BANDITS movie still, Warner and I spoke about his presentation that day, and he confirmed that the Vulcan Events con was indeed his very first onstage convention appearance. In that remarkably luxurious and deep voice of his, he went on to describe his previous appearances at several Collectormania signing events in the UK.

“There not only do actors and sports celebrities work long hours in enormous rooms doing all-day signings for fans, but surprisingly even the occasional porn star is booked for autographs. It’s definitely an interesting experience sitting next to a porn star at one of those events (!), but they certainly have their legion of fans as well.

So when I was approached to do a science fiction convention in America I thought, what the heck? It can’t be any more grueling than those signings in the UK. As it turns out, the organizers here have done a fine job, and it’s a smaller event compared to those I have done in the UK, and thus quite a relaxed and painless experience here in Orlando. The fans have all been so kind and truly interested that it’s simply been a pleasure to chat with so many of them.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed doing the presentation and Q&A with the audience earlier today. As I said previously, I don’t give lectures in the UK and I don’t talk about acting or teach, so I truly didn’t know if I could do it, as I hadn’t ever done it before. This was truly my first one! But based on this first experience, I would definitely do another one of these events in the US. And of course, I suppose now I’m on “the circuit”, so you may even see me again someday here in Orlando!”

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