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David Warner, who played villains in ‘Titanic’ and ‘Tron,’ dies at 80

The actor died of a cancer-related illness on Sunday in London, his family said.
Billy Zane, David Warner, Titanic 1997.
Billy Zane and David Warner in 1997's "Titanic."Alamy

David Warner, the English actor who gave memorable performances on the big screen, in a key role in “The Omen,” and as villains in “Time After Time,” “Time Bandits” and “Tron,” has died. He was 80.

The actor died of a cancer-related illness on Sunday in London, his family told the BBC. “Over the past 18 months he approached his diagnosis with a characteristic grace and dignity,” his family said in a statement shared with the public broadcaster.

“He will be missed hugely by us, his family and friends, and remembered as a kind-hearted, generous and compassionate man, partner and father, whose legacy of extraordinary work has touched the lives of so many over the years. We are heartbroken,” the statement continued.

Warner was Emmy-nominated for playing Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi official who was a key architect of the Final Solution, in the landmark 1978 miniseries “Holocaust,” and won an Emmy for playing the sadistic Roman political opportunist Pomponius Falco in the 1981 miniseries “Masada.”

He reprised the role of the Nazi Heydrich in the 1985 telepic “Hitler’s S.S.: Portrait in Evil.”

Recently, Warner appeared in Disney’s “Mary Poppins Returns” in 2018, “You, Me and Him” in 2017 and on Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” as Professor Abraham Von Helsing in 2014. He was among the large cast of James Cameron’s 1997 epic “Titanic” but was wasted in the role of a thug-like butler. He played a simian senator in Tim Roth’s 2001 reimagining of “Planet of the Apes” and a doctor in the 2005 hit comedy “Ladies in Lavender.”

The mid ’70s and to mid ’80s probably represented the zenith of the actor’s career.

In 1976’s “The Omen,” one of the seminal horror movies of the 1970s, he played Jennings, the photographer who develops images on which the specific manner of death for the individuals depicted is superimposed. He was subjected to a memorable decapitation in the film.

He played Stevenson, a friend of H.G. Wells, who turns out to be a chilling Jack the Ripper, in the excellent 1979 thriller “Time After Time,” which posits that Wells actually created the time machine he described in his book; Wells (played by Malcolm McDowell, who himself usually played villains) must follow Warner’s Jack the Ripper into the future, to contemporary San Francisco, in an effort to defeat him.

The same year Warner starred with Nick Mancuso in killer-bat horror film “Nightwing” (the New York Times said: “Mr. Warner is quite funny — intentionally, I suspect — when he attempts to explain his fanaticism. He fairly shakes with moral indignation as he describes a typical bat cave with ‘millions of bats wrestling, fighting, mating, hanging upside down…They are the quintessence of eeevilll!’”

Tron, David Warner, 1982.
Warner in 1982's "Tron."Everett Collection

In 1982’s “Tron,” boasting then-state-of-the-art special effects, Warner is a villain named Dillinger who steals the plans for some video games and breaks down our hero, played by Jeff Bridges, into the ones and zeroes that represent life within the computer, where the two battle in a landscape within that world that was unlike anything that had been seen before.

Other significant credits from this period include Terry Gilliam’s 1981 “Time Bandits,” in which Warner played a villain simply called Evil, and 1985’s “The Company of Wolves,” director Neil Jordan’s exploration into the Red Riding Hood fairy tale in which Warner starred with Angela Lansbury.

The actor made three films with director Sam Peckinpah: “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970), in which his performance as a somewhat eccentric minister marked one of his first feature appearances, 1971’s “Straw Dogs” and 1977 WWII thriller “Cross of Iron.”

Warner was also tied to various franchises, including “Star Trek.” He played two unrelated roles in “Star Trek” movies. In “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989), he played St. John Talbot, the broken-down, cigarette-smoking Federation ambassador to Nimbus III, who, like his Romulan and Klingon counterparts, comes under the influence of the renegade Vulcan Sybok; in “Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country” (1991), he played Gorkon, chancellor of the Klingon High Council, who pursued peace with the Federation but was murdered.

The Omen, David Warner, Gregory Peck, 1976.
Warner in "The Omen." Everett Collection

And on TV, in the two-part “Chain of Command” (1992), the only truly disturbing episode in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Warner gave a tour de force performance as Gul Madred, a Cardassian intelligence officer who tortures a captured Captain Picard both physically and psychologically.

The actor was also tied to the U.K.’s iconic “Doctor Who” series, voicing Lord Azlok in the “Dreamland” miniseries in 2009 and appearing as Professor Grisenko in 2013.

He played ruthless businessman Thomas Eckhardt in David Lynch’s seminal “Twin Peaks” series in 1991. In the similarly enigmatic miniseries “Wild Palms,” he played Eli Levitt, a former history professor who’s founder of libertarian movement the “Friends” and is imprisoned for terrorism. More recently he recurred on the popular “Wallender” mystery series, starring Kenneth Branagh, as Wallender’s father in 2008-10.

David Warner was born in Manchester, England. His father changed jobs frequently, which meant the family moved from town to town, and David from school to school, where he performed poorly. His parents separated, and years went by before he saw his mother again — and then only on her deathbed.

He receiving his training as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in London.

Warner made his professional stage debut at the Royal Court Theatre in January 1962, playing the minor role of Snout in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Tony Richardson. In March at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, he played Conrad in “Much Ado About Nothing,” and in June he appeared as Jim in David Rudkin’s “Afore Night Come” at the New Arts Theatre in London.

He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1963, playing Trinculo in “The Tempest” and Cinna the Poet in “Julius Caesar”; in July he played Henry VI in the John Barton adaptation of “Henry VI,” Parts I, II and III. At the Aldwych Theatre, London, he reprised the role of Henry VI in the complete Wars of the Roses history cycle in 1964. Returning to Stratford in April, he performed the title role in “Richard II,” Mouldy in “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry VI.” At the Aldwych in October 1964, he was cast as Valentine Brose in Henry Livings’ play “Eh?,” reprising the role in the 1968 film adaptation “Work Is a Four-Letter Word.”

He played the title role in “Hamlet” at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1965. His “Hamlet” was revived in the 1966 Stratford season, and he played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in “Twelfth Night.” At the Aldwych in January 1970, he played Julian in Edward Albee’s “Tiny Alice.”

Warner’s other theater work has included “The Great Exhibition at Hampstead Theatre” and “I, Claudius,” both in 1972.

The actor made his big screen debut with a supporting role in 1963 film “Tom Jones,” starring Albert Finney.

Warner starred with Vanessa Redgrave in Karel Reisz’s 1966 feature comedy “Morgan — A Suitable Case for Treatment,” in which he played a man obsessed with Karl Marx and gorillas who resorts to all sorts of bizarre tactics to prevent his upper-class ex-wife from remarrying. At Cannes the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and Redgrave was nominated for an Oscar.

In Sidney Lumet’s 1968 Chekhov adaptation of “The Sea Gull,” he played Konstantin, the writer son of Simone Signoret’s Arkadina. The same year he appeared in a Peter Hall-directed adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Lysander.

After “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” in 1970, he starred with Jane Fonda in Joseph Losey’s 1973 adaptation of “A Doll’s House.”

In 2001 he made his American stage debut — and returned to the theater after decades away — playing Andrew Undershaft in a Broadway revival of “Major Barbara” that also featured Dana Ivey and Cherry Jones.

Back in the U.K., he subsequently appeared in “A Feast of Snails” at the Lyric Theatre in 2002 and “Where There’s a Will” at the Theatre Royal, Bath. In 2005 he played the title role in “King Lear” at Chichester Festival Theatre.

He returned to Stratford for the first time in more than four decades in August 2007, as an RSC Honorary Artist, to play Sir John Falstaff in the Courtyard Theatre revival of “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part 2.”

Warner was also a voiceover artist who contributed to animated series including “The Legend of Prince Valiant” (as Duke Richard of Lionsgate), “Batman: The Animated Series” (as Ra’s al Ghul), “Gargoyles” (as Archmage), “Freakazoid” (as the Lobe), “Spider-Man” (Herbert Landon), “Toonsylvania,” “Superman,” “Batman Beyond,” “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command,” “Men in Black: The Series” and a variety of videogames.

The actor was twice married and divorced, first to Harriet Lindgren (1969-72), then to Sheilah Kent (1979-2005).

His survivors include his son Luke and daughter-in-law Sarah and his partner Lisa Bowerman.