David Warner, the Jewish actor who played antisemites and other villains, passes at 80

David Warner, who appeared in ‘Morgan,’ ‘Time Bandits,’ and a lost film with Bob Dylan, has died at age 80.

By Benjamin Ivry, The Forward

The English actor David Warner, who died July 24 at age 80, proved that Jewish family tsuris can inadvertently serve as inspiration for a stellar performance career.

Warner played screen villains in “The Omen,” “Time Bandits,” “Titanic,” “Star Trek V, VI and The Next Generation” as well as an atypically benign character in “Mary Poppins Returns.” Yet his employment over the past six decades was based on an indefinable aura of being ill at ease, not fitting in. In most roles, Warner imported his own personal dislocation and torment, so that when his hulky silhouette appeared onscreen with hunched shoulders, audiences immediately sensed a certain disquiet.

Warner’s father was a Russian Jewish-born proprietor of a nursing home in northern England, and with excessive trust in the benefits of institutional care, Warner was sent to eight different boarding schools, where he failed academically. Warner’s father and mother, soon estranged, never married and were constantly feuding. “My parents kept stealing me from each other, so I moved across England a lot,” he told The Guardian. “There was no theatrical tradition [in my family] but plenty of histrionics.”

Small wonder that eccentricity and Yiddishkeit were hallmarks of his performance experience from the start. In 1963, a television play, “Madhouse on Castle Street,” had him costarring with a young Bob Dylan who contributed a new tune, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and other songs to this story about an English boarding house where a lodger locks himself in his room, declaring that he has retreated from the world until changes occur.

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Unfortunately, the BBC did not preserve programs after broadcast, and “Madhouse on Castle Street” was scrapped in 1968. A few audio scraps of Dylan singing are all that remain of this tantalizing achievement.

Warner would achieve prominence in a film by the Czech-born Jewish director Karel Reisz, one of the children rescued from the Nazis by the humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton (born Wertheim). Reisz, whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz, directed “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment,” a 1966 film in which Warner played a daydreamer who wears an ape suit (Warner himself, ever practical-minded, would only wear an ape suit in future when remunerated for it, in 2001’s “Planet of the Apes”.)

Next was a role in Sidney Lumet’s 1968 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull,” where he played the son of a histrionic mother, incarnated by the French Jewish actress Simone Signoret (born Kaminker). Given the familial discord during his formative years, it is unsurprising that Warner coped with galling parental figures convincingly onscreen, and would do so again in Alain Resnais’ 1977 family drama “Providence,” where he played an astrophysicist with an impossible father figure, a dipsomaniac novelist portrayed by John Gielgud.