Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: David Warner began his acting career in the theater, and although it didn’t take him long to shift his focus to on-camera work in films and on television, he continued to show his roots in the stage by starring in cinematic adaptations of various plays. Over the course of his career, Warner has played plenty of bad guys—even playing the living personification of evil in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits—but his greatest accomplishment has been his ability to slip into any genre, including Westerns (The Ballad Of Cable Hogue), comedies (The Man With Two Brains), World War II dramas (Holocaust), and horror films (The Omen). Just to make sure he’s got all of his bases covered, he’s now added a musical and a kids’ movie in one fell swoop: Warner will soon be seen in Mary Poppins Returns, arriving in theaters next Christmas.
The A.V. Club: The reason this interview came to pass is because it was pitched to you by Lin-Manuel Miranda while you two were chatting on the set of Mary Poppins Returns.
David Warner: Yes, and he was very enthusiastic! We were on the set, and he came over to me, and he started to talk about a film I’d been in, much to my surprise. And then he mentioned you, and he said, “I’m going to try and get Will to talk to you,” and then he explained what you did, and then I said, “Of course I’ll do that.” Now, I don’t always enjoy it. [Laughs.] No, you know, it just starts to get tiring sometimes. But it’s great to have communication with my friends across the ocean, so what can I tell you?
AVC: Let’s talk about Mary Poppins Returns. I realize you can’t say much, but what can you say about your role?
DW: You’re right, we can’t talk much about it. But I can repeat what I’ve read in the papers. [Laughs.] As you know, it’s not a remake, it’s a sequel to Mary Poppins, and it’s set 20 years on. Now, in this film—okay, look, I only saw the original film for the first time about two weeks ago. It wasn’t a film I rushed out to see when it first came out. I was quite busy in the ’60s, and one of the last things on my agenda was going to see Mary Poppins. But in this one, there are only five characters from the original. There’s the two kids, who’ve grown up, and there’s Mary Poppins, who’s come back. But one of the others is an old admiral who fires a cannon every so often. Nobody remembers this character at all when I mention it, but I’m playing him.
AVC: I remember the character. I couldn’t have told you if he had a name or not.
DW: He’s called Admiral Boom.
AVC: Well, that’s appropriate.
DW: Yes, so that’s who I play. More than that, I can’t tell you. But it’s great to be a part of it. To have done the stuff that I’ve done and now to be doing Mary Poppins Returns—that’s a coup for me, at least in my own brain!
AVC: And how many Tron questions did it take from Lin-Manuel before you finally said, “Get out of here, kid, you bother me”?
DW: [Laughs.] No, it was only my embarrassment at not being able to answer all of them! I haven’t seen it recently, and I didn’t know what was going on even when I made it. No, Lin-Manuel’s been great the times I’ve met him, which has only been a few times. But he’s a great personality and he’s a lovely man. So when he mentioned you, and then you followed up with my agent, well, here we are! Now, I just hope you get something good out of our talk…
AVC: We try to go as far back in an actor’s on-camera work as possible, and if IMDB can be trusted, your first role was that of a sailor painting a ship.
DW: That’s correct. I had a non-speaking extra part as an American sailor in a movie called—well, in England it was called We Joined The Navy. I don’t know if it changed its title in the States, or if it even got there. But that is correct—that was my first film appearance.
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place? Was that something you’d always had a desire to do, or did you just fall into it?
DW: Oh, that’s all part of a biography in itself, so I don’t want to go too much into that, but I guess it was just a question of needing to find something in myself as a kid that I could do. Academically I was hopeless, and athletically I was hopeless. In my Wikipedia entry, it says I had a messy childhood, and that’s the truth! But I sort of drifted into the odd school play, and that was one thing that I kind of felt that I had some enthusiasm for, so I was sort of interested. But I never thought I’d ever become a professional actor or anything. I joined an amateur company when I was a teenager in England, and they wouldn’t let me go onstage in the beginning. They just let me paint scenery and stuff like that. But then I did some amateur theater and decided to try and apply for the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts, and—much to everybody’s surprise—I got in! [Laughs.]
John Hurt—the great John Hurt—was one of my fellow students. And Ian McShane, who you may know from Deadwood. Those are the two people I remember during my immediate time there. Bur after I left drama school, that didn’t mean that I immediately started to really act, since—as you just mentioned—my first job was as an extra!
AVC: So what would you consider to be your first job of note? Would it be Tom Jones?
DW: I think Tom Jones was my first speaking part in a movie, yes. And that—as is often the case with some actors like me—came to me when all the other actors had turned the part down. [Laughs.] The common quote that people say is that there are no small parts, just small actors. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but the point I’m trying to make is that I got my break in movies from playing a small part on the stage, because the same director was casting Tom Jones.
AVC: That’s a pretty high-profile picture for your first speaking role.
DW: Well, it turned out that way, of course. At the time we were making it, to be honest with you, it was a pretty chaotic shoot, so nobody knew how it would turn out. A lot of people were surprised when it won the Best Picture Oscar of the year… although I have to be honest—when they told me it won an Oscar, I had no idea what an Oscar was! [Laughs.] But I just wanted to be an actor. I didn’t think about anything else besides that. All that other stuff has never been a part of my life.
The Ballad Of Cable Hogue (1970)—“Joshua”
Straw Dogs (1971)—“Henry Niles” (uncredited)
Cross Of Iron (1977)—“Hauptmann Kiesel”
DW: Ah, yes, The Ballad Of Cable Hogue. Well, that was my first film I did with Sam Peckinpah. You know, I did three films with Sam: The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, Straw Dogs, and Cross Of Iron.
AVC: What did you think of Peckinpah when you first met him?
DW: Well, I’ll backtrack a little bit to start, because Peckinpah has a reputation. But I think you know that. [Laughs.] Well, if you work with somebody three times, that reputation doesn’t matter, if you understand. If you can’t stand each other, you don’t want to work with each other again. We were fortunate that we got on very well, even though we were totally different personalities. But, yeah, The Ballad Of Cable Hogue was my first invitation to go the United States. Do you know the film director Sidney Lumet?
DW: Well, I worked with Sidney, and I got a phone call one day from Sidney, and it wasn’t a usual occurrence that he would call me from New York to London. But he said, “Listen, you’re going to get a phone call from a man you’ve never heard of called Sam Peckinpah. I’ve just seen a reel of his latest movie, and I urge you to work with him.” I said, “Oh! Okay.” So Sidney got off the phone, and half an hour later Peckinpah calls from wherever he is in the United States, introducing himself, and asks me if it would be okay to send me a script. I read the part, and I thought, “Oh, this is great!” It was a Western, and it was with the great Jason Robards… And what an experience to go out to America! And some friends showed me some early Peckinpah movies. This was before The Wild Bunch came out, you see, so he wasn’t quite so well known. So, anyway, I said to my agent, “I’ll do it!”
The day before I was due to fly to Los Angeles, I had a panic attack and said to my agent, “I can’t go. I can’t fly.” He said, “You know you’ll lose the part, don’t you?” I said, “Yes, I don’t care. I don’t care! I can’t fly!” He said, “Okay, I’ll let them know.” So an hour later my agent calls me back. He says, “Okay, this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to get on a train at Victoria Station in London. You’re going to go down to Barcelona in Spain. You’re going to stay the night in Barcelona. You’re going to catch a ship that’s gonna take two weeks to get to New York. You’re going to get on a train from New York to Chicago. You’re going to then go across the United States to Los Angeles. A car will pick you up and take you to near Las Vegas. And they’ll be waiting for you.” I said, “That’ll take about three weeks!” He said, “Yes! They’re going to wait for you!” I said, “What?” [Laughs.]
So this is what happened, and what I’m trying to tell you is this: with all his reputation, Sam Peckinpah had arranged to wait for an English actor that nobody had ever heard of to get himself to the desert. I couldn’t fly, and it took me all that time to get to him, and when I got to this little motel in Echo Bay Resort in Nevada, I went straight to the bar, where I was told that Sam was waiting. And he said, “Welcome to the club!” Which I think meant that he didn’t enjoy flying, either. Anyway, that was my first meeting with Sam Peckinpah. That just shows the kind of guy he was. I immediately felt so at home.
It was a difficult shoot, because it was in the desert, and it was a total culture shock for me, and it was the whole wild experience. But to meet Sam for the first time and then to get to know the great Jason Robards was something that I’ll never forget. How’s that? [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s amazing. So your next film for Peckinpah was Straw Dogs, but you aren’t actually credited in the film.
DW: No, I’m not. You want to know the story about that, don’t you? First of all, about three months before Sam asked me to do Straw Dogs, I had an accident. I won’t go into details about it, but I smashed both my feet and was in hospital, and I had a 50/50 chance of whether I’d walk again. And Sam didn’t really know too much about what was going on, but he offered me a part in Straw Dogs, and I said, “Sam, thank you, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get up and walk,” and I explained that I’d had an accident. And he said, “You’ll get up and walk.” [Laughs.] I said, “Oh, okay, if you’re the director, I will!” Anyway, I was able to hobble. If you see the film, I’m on sticks and I have a limp and can’t walk properly. Well, that wasn’t acting, that was real. And as a result of this accident, it was difficult for me to be insured for the movie. So Sam told me this, and he said, “Listen, I know you promised you’ll be okay, but they won’t insure you. But I’ll cover you, and I’ll cover the production, if anything happens.” That was a gesture of loyalty and friendship, I can tell you. First he waited for me for three weeks without knowing me, and now here he is saying that he’ll pay the insurance if anything goes wrong. That’s not bad!
But you wanted to know about the billing. What happened, evidently, was my agent thought that, having done a film called Morgan! and a couple of other movies, I was worth having my billing of the same size as Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. And that was rejected by their agents. But that’s the way that show business works. So I said, “Oh, to hell with it! I want to do the movie. Don’t have me on the credits at all. Don’t have me anywhere. Let’s not fight over it. Just ignore it.” And that was suggested to Sam, and he said, “Oh, that’s a great idea!” [Laughs.] A few critics over here hated the picture so much that they said, “Well, no wonder David Warner had his name taken off the credits.” But, of course, that isn’t true. My name isn’t even on the cast list. Even though you know I’m in it, it’s not officially on the cast list. So that’s the story of that one.
AVC: We might as well wrap up the Peckinpah trifecta and touch on Cross Of Iron, which flew under the radar at the time but has since become rather well-respected.
DW: I believe it has. I read a quote that it was one of Orson Welles’ favorite war films. Again, it was great to have been asked to work for Sam for a third time. I was a Brit in his repertory company. Because he used the same actors a lot. It was a great privilege. As I said, he had a reputation, but as far as I was concerned, there was a genuine feeling of brotherhood and affection there.
AVC: Did you continue to stay in touch with him after that film?
DW: I did, indeed. Whenever he came to England, he got in touch, and a few times after we’d finished filming, when I was in L.A., we’d meet up occasionally. But his health started to deteriorate, you know, so I didn’t see all that much of him. But he’s one of the very few directors I kept in touch with after filming was finished.
DW: I met Carl Reiner, who—as you know—directed it, and he offered me the part. And I remember phoning him up and saying, “Oh, Carl… Mr. Reiner, thank you so much for casting me in this part.” And he said, “Oh, that’s all right. You were the cheapest!” [Laughs.] That was quite an experience, working with Steve Martin and Carl Reiner. Just lovely. And it was also great for me to play comedy, because I tended to play rather the heavies, you know.
DW: Well, again, that was a non-villainous part. And I had utmost respect for the actors in the turtle suits, because they could only be in those suits for about three or four minutes without getting some sort of water or fresh air. They worked really, really hard. It was just great fun being in a movie like that. You know, for kids. I didn’t often do kids pictures.
AVC: That film was probably requested by more people than any other.
DW: Oh, how wonderful! Well, if you have a chance to thank them, tell them I’m so glad people saw that, because it was just great fun to be on the side of the good guys! [Laughs.]
AVC: I can’t recall—did you have any interaction with Vanilla Ice?
DW: Oh, yes, yes. There was a brief shot of me dancing with Vanilla Ice in the background. You can see me kind of jiving away there. But I didn’t get a chance to have many intellectual conversations with Vanilla Ice. [Laughs.] He kept mostly to himself.
DW: That was a really brief job. I was only on that for two days. And it was great, but, of course, they decided to put me under a lot of makeup, which took four hours to put on. But it was rather a good one, I thought. Rather good makeup, I mean. I have to be honest, I didn’t get a chance to see the movie. I hear it wasn’t all that successful. But it was still interesting to work with Tim Burton, even if it was only for two days. And it was great meeting Tim Roth, who I think is a wonderful actor, and Helena Bonham Carter, of course. But I didn’t really get to know anybody. Because, you know, we were all in makeup, so I didn’t really know who was who! [Laughs.]
DW: All these professors! Yes, that was very nice to be eventually asked to be in Doctor Who. At one stage, when I was younger, people thought I might play the next Doctor. You know how rumors go ’round. But that never happened, and that was fine. But the writer, Mark Gatiss, has been responsible for Sherlock as well, and I’ve been a friend of Mark’s for a long time, because he was in a group called The League Of Gentlemen. I knew he wrote scripts, but I never, ever said to him, “Ooh, I’d like a part in your next script!” I never do that. So it was a lovely surprise to get a message from Mark saying, “I think we’ve got a part for you in an upcoming Doctor Who.” So of course I went in immediately and wanted to do it. I just wanted to be part of it, you know, because I’m kind of lucky to be in the Star Trek group, so be in Doctor Who as well… I like doing all that, even though I’ve done other things. So it was really great when the old professor turned up.
AVC: So what was your Ultravox knowledge going into the episode?
DW: None whatsoever! [Laughs.] I had to ask people, “What is this about? ‘Vienna’? Hungry like the what?” I don’t know anything about that, I’m afraid. I was a Beatles man, and that’s about where it stopped for me.
AVC: Beyond the one episode of the show, you’ve also done quite a bit of Doctor Who narration.
DW: Yes, Big Finish Productions are great. As I’m sure you know, they’ve got the rights to write different stories, and they’ve actually got some of the people who played the Doctor doing them, like Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy, and Tom Baker. They all do these audios, and then they’ve also got other actors, because The Doctor can be anybody. So I’ve done four or five of those, and I love it. I love doing audio.
AVC: Just to jump back to the League Of Gentlemen for a moment, that was another chance for you to do some comedy.
DW: Yes, they were aware of my work, and they were a delightful three guys. Have you ever heard in America of a series called Inside No. 9? It’s a half-hour written by the other two, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. Google it or try to get it. They’re short, scary stories, rather like Twilight Zone or that kind of stuff, but with comedy. I’m just saying that as a sidebar. Try to get your readers to pursue that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Fair enough. Especially since you did an episode of the show.
DW: I did, yes! They invited me to do that, which was a great privilege. But it was a privilege to work with them on Apocalypse, playing this silly character. Those are the delightful working experiences. Not all of them are! But that was lovely. They wrote the part with me in mind, and I willingly did it.
AVC: Having done two films about the Titanic, you must be fairly well versed in the history.
DW: Yes, the other one was S.O.S. Titanic, and I played a real person in that one. The character I played was someone who actually survived the sinking. And it was only years later I found out that, when I was working at Stratford-Upon-Avon, I was working with his grandson! And Spicer Lovejoy… well, he was Spicer Lovejoy, wasn’t he? [Laughs.]
AVC: Another high-profile baddie role for you, too.
DW: Yes, and it was a good job to have, it turned out. Because as I was saying about Tom Jones, when you’re making a movie, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out… and also like Tom Jones, that was another film that won Best Picture!
DW: Wow! Well, that was, of course, a low-budget film which—what’s that called? Mystery Science Theater? It ended up there. [Laughs.] But I had great fun doing it, playing two parts. Originally I was just asked to play one part, and I said, “Would it save you money if I played two parts for the same money?” And they said, “Yes!” So I had great fun changing from a black wig into a gray wig and putting brown contact lenses into my normal blue eyes. It was great fun logistically, so I have great affection for that little low-budget film.
AVC: Richard Kind said that he was honored to get to work with you on the film, but just breathing the same air as Olivia Hussey was amazing.
DW: Oh, yes, well, she was a beautiful young woman! Although I didn’t have much to do with her, did I? Golly, you know, that’s another one where I don’t even know if I ever saw the film! [Laughs.] But I know she was around, and she was delightful.
DW: That was another example of where someone else wasn’t available to play it, so I played it. It was tough, because of the costume. It was a very, very heavy costume. But it was delightful to work with Terry Gilliam, who’s just an extraordinary filmmaker.
AVC: He certainly had an epic vision for that film, but he pulled it off remarkably well.
DW: I think so, too. You know, Orson Welles once called filmmaking “a ribbon of dreams,” and I think that Terry Gilliam comes nearest to putting his dreams on that ribbon. He’s just extraordinary visually, and he manages somehow to get these extraordinary things onto the screen. It’s admirable.
AVC: Your character delivered some particularly great lines. Do you have any favorites?
DW: Oh, I can only ever remember the shorter ones, but… nipples for men. [Laughs.] The speech about how inadequate the Supreme Being was. That bit.
DW: Oh, wow! Yeah, again, the studio originally wanted Mick Jagger for that part.
AVC: I’d never heard that.
DW: Well, I’m telling you now! Nick Meyer, the director, and Herb Jaffe, the producer, came to see me and said, “Look, we’d love you to work with Malcolm again.” Because Malcolm McDowell and I were at Stratford-Upon-Avon. I’ll mention Stratford to you again later, if you don’t mind. But we hadn’t worked together since whenever it was in the early- to mid-’60s. I was playing Hamlet and he had one line. [Laughs.] But we knew each other socially. And then he went off and became famous and became a film star. So to have the opportunity to be working with him was great. Suddenly from a small English town doing theater to Hollywood is quite a leap, as you can imagine.
Anyway, Nick and Herb came to see me in Los Angeles to say, “Listen, we’d love you to play Stevenson—Jack The Ripper—but the studio are gonna want Mick Jagger. But we’re going to fight for you.” And I said, “Well, thank you. Let me know!” And somehow they won the fight, and I got to play it, and Mick Jagger didn’t. But he got a knighthood, you see.
AVC: Well, you win some, you lose some.
DW: Yes, exactly. That was his consolation prize!
AVC: When we spoke to Mary Steenburgen for this feature…
DW: Oh, that film would be a dangerous subject to bring up, I would imagine.
AVC: Actually, she spoke very positively about the film.
DW: Well, I say that because that’s where she met Malcolm, of course.
AVC: Granted, she chose her words carefully, but she said, “He’s been such an important person in my life. I mean, not just as someone I was married to, which is huge, and the father of my children, which is even bigger.”
DW: Oh, of course, of course.
AVC: And in regards to yourself, she said you were a great villain, but after every take you’d pull the knife away and say, “Did I hurt you, love? Sorry! Sorry!”
DW: [Laughs.] Well, of course. Because that’s the kind of person I am, you see. I’m not a method actor!
DW: Well, that, of course, was a stage play, and I created this part called Valentine Brose. And then we made a movie of it, but it wasn’t very successful.
AVC: How was the experience of working with Cilla Black? The film is probably better known these days for her title song than anything else.
DW: Oh, well, this was before she became a grand dame, you know. [Laughs.] She was a naïve, giggly, lovely young woman who I never saw after that. But she was lovely then. Of course, as the years go by… I don’t know how much you know about her in America, really, but she became big as a television presenter. I never saw her after the film, though. But here’s a bit of trivia about Valentine Brose and the play. As I say, I created the part, but it was only later I learned that it was one of Dustin Hoffman’s first parts off-Broadway! I think we discussed it very briefly when we were doing Straw Dogs. But we didn’t dwell on it very much.
AVC: As far as the premise of the film, it couldn’t sound much more of its time, being about psychedelic mushrooms and all.
DW: Oh, yes. It was a crazy, anarchic piece of theater at the time.
AVC: You played Reinhard Heydrich in two projects.
DW: Yeah, that was a difficult one to play. I didn’t want to play it, because he was a real person, and it was just so awful. But if I didn’t play it, somebody else would. And Holocaust was an extraordinary cast and an extraordinary project, and it was something that had to be done. So in the end I just decided that I would do it. But I can honestly say that to play that character was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had as an actor. Just having to be that person, it was really… I mean, at the end of the day, because I was wearing a Nazi uniform all day, I was so upset that I would take it off, put it on the ground, and stamp on it. The poor wardrobe had to clean it every time. But my discomfort was nothing compared to what that man and his colleagues caused, so any distress I might’ve had was nothing. I don’t think we need to go too far into that, but I think you understand what I mean.
And then they asked me to play him again, and… [Hesitates.] You know, there are times when you need to work for various reasons. And that one I did because I needed the work.
Twin Peaks (1991)—“Thomas Eckhardt”
DW: Oh, that was a surprise! I’d never seen the series at all. I was going through that stage in America where, you know, you’ve got a mortgage, so… [Laughs.] I don’t regret it! But nor did I seek out the part. It just came my way. And I knew nothing about Twin Peaks except that it was a TV series. So I just went in blind and did my best. I believe he was a character that people had talked about in other episodes before he arrived, wasn’t he? But I had no idea about him, so I just went in and did my best.
AVC: If memory serves, David Lynch wasn’t around when you did your episodes.
DW: No, he wasn’t around at all. But I was directed by Diane Keaton! So there we are. I can’t really tell you much more about Twin Peaks, though, because I don’t really know much about it!
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)—“St. John Talbot”
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)—“Chancellor Gorkon”
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1992)—“Gul Madred”
AVC: Was your past connection to Nicholas Meyer anything to do with how you first found your way into the Star Trek universe?
DW: No, I know he directed one of the earlier films with the old blokes, but to my knowledge, when I was in Star Trek V, which was directed by Bill Shatner, he wasn’t involved. I came in out of left field again. But I met Shatner, and they asked me to do it, and I did it. Unfortunately, a lot of my stuff was cut out of that particular one, but that’s the way it is. It was cutting-room floor time. So I was totally surprised when they wanted me to be in Star Trek VI as another species! [Laughs.] Having played a human in V, suddenly they wanted me to be a Klingon.
AVC: Did you have as much of a problem playing a Klingon as Christopher Plummer? He said that he had to cut down on his Klingon because he “couldn’t gargle properly,” and then he talked Nick Meyer into giving him a different brow.
DM: Yeah, I suppose he did. I wasn’t in all those conversations. [Laughs.] I think I was the same as him with the Klingon, though. I cut out as much as I possibly could! As for the brow, I suppose his was smaller. All I remember is the long makeup.
I don’t know how I ended up in Star Trek V and VI. It’s not like Nick said, “Oh, I owe you one.” I said, “Yes, of course I’ll do it,” because I wanted to work with Nick again, but I don’t know how it happened or how I slipped through and did two consecutive Star Treks. I’ve no idea… although I got the impression that they’d forgotten that I was in Star Trek V. But I loved working with Nick again, even though it was another long makeup, and it turned out to be one of the best of the series of the old-guys Star Trek films, I’m told. I think V was the worst and VI was one of the best.
AVC: Yeah, that’s pretty much the consensus.
DW: And then I ended up working with Patrick [Stewart] on Next Generation. I’d also worked with Patrick back at Stratford-Upon-Avon, at the same time as Malcolm McDowell, but I hadn’t worked with him since then. But, of course, I knew him over the years. So I was asked to be in Next Generation, but again I was there because someone took ill! [Laughs.] 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.
AVC: So how many people would you guess have come up to you over the years and informed you that there are four lights?
DW: Oh, everybody always comes up and asks me how many lights there are. And I never remember. [Laughs.] I can’t remember if it’s four or five.
AVC: Well, that’s the perfect cue for the person to go into their Patrick Stewart impression: “There are four lights!”
DW: [Laughs.] Yes! I am so thrilled for Patrick, by the way. As I said, we started out together. He was also in that Hamlet I did at Stratford, and it’s so lovely to see him being the big, big, big, humungous star he’s become.
DW: Oh, yes! My goodness, yes!
AVC: I had a chance to talk to Jay Leno about being in that film, and he said that what he remembered most was being out of his element.
DW: You know, I didn’t even get to meet Jay Leno on that. The one thing I regret about never being on his show was that I would’ve been able to say that we both worked in the same movie and then get him to show a clip of it. [Laughs.] But, no, I never got to work with him, because he was in the Switzerland sections of the film, I think, and I was in the Morocco sections. But that was a great cast and a lovely experience, working on that film. I mean, it’s not a very memorable film, but it’s one of those where you say, “Oh, I really had a great time doing that!”
AVC: Looking at the ensemble, it’s hard to imagine that it would live up to the cast that was assembled, especially since it’s one you rarely hear anyone talk about.
DW: Yeah, you should stick with that. [Laughs.] Don’t bother to actually see it. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw that one, either, so I can’t even really comment on it beyond my enjoyment of doing it!
AVC: You had another opportunity to play multiple roles in Tron.
DW: That’s true. Now, there again, they asked somebody else to play it!
AVC: That one I’m aware of: Peter O’Toole.
DW: That’s correct. It was Peter O’Toole they wanted, but he wasn’t interested, I presume. So, yes, I ended up in it, and I didn’t understand a word I was talking about! [Laughs.] This was before computers were sitting on our desks, let alone on our laps, and I had no idea what was going on. But it turned out to be quite extraordinary.
AVC: And it was definitely an outside-the-box sort of film for Disney at the time.
DW: Oh, absolutely. Now, that one I’ve seen, but only the once, and I didn’t understand it watching it, either. But that’s the way it is with me sometimes. [Laughs.]
AVC: We know how it looks on the screen, but how was it to film?
DW: Well, you may know this, since I know you’ve done your research, but we had to wear leotards or skin suits. I think they were white, if memory serves, with black lines on them. It was way before CGI, of course, but it was blue or green screen, so we’d do it in an empty studio, and we just had nothing to work on except doing what we were told. But to get the color on our costume—bearing in mind that it was shot on film and not on video—they would split the film up and send it all over the world to be painted. Each frame was painted with the colors on our costumes. Except on the morning that it was supposed to be premiered in New York, they hadn’t actually glued it all back together again! [Laughs.]
So there was a bit of panic about whether the film would actually be ready to be shown. But evidently it was ready to be shown, and it took off from there. But, of course, when the time came to be interviewed about the film, I had no idea what was going on. It was one of those things where they put me in front of the camera and I just followed instructions. But it turned out to be this incredible cult phenomenon!
DW: Well, again, that was really a wonderful experience, working with Gregory Peck. He was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I mean, there’s only two or three times in my career that I’ve worked with people who haven’t been pleasant, if you understand what I mean, so I won’t go there. I won’t even venture there. But when I think how lucky I am to have worked with Peck and got to know him just a little bit… Because we were the only two actors traveling to locations on airplanes and staying in hotels together. Just him and me, because Lee Remick was stuck back in London, if you remember the film. So I was able to spend some time with him, and I won’t go too much into it, but he was a generous, lovely, caring man. Just the same as Jason Robards was. So I’m privileged to have known people like them, and like James Mason and Trevor Howard. The old guard. All those old, long-gone actors. I spent time with them, and those are treasured memories. And The Omen turned out to be another phenomenal success, which we didn’t expect.
AVC: Having watched it again recently, it still holds up.
DW: I would imagine it does. I must admit, I don’t rush to watch my films, as you might’ve realized at this point. [Laughs.] But of its type, of its genre, I think it’s quite good. Even though the whole story is preposterous, it still holds up as a piece of entertainment, I think.
DW: Oh, my goodness! Again, I only did two or three days on that, playing in two or three scenes, but that was an extraordinary project to be part of. It wasn’t a very successful film, but it got me the opportunity of working with [Dirk] Bogarde for the first time, and Alan Bates, and a lot of our British actors. And [director John] Frankenheimer, who was an extraordinary man.
The Deadly Affair (1966)—“Edward II” (uncredited)
The Bofors Gun (1968)—“Terry ‘Lance Bar’ Evans”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968)—“Lysander”
The Sea Gull (1968)—“Konstantin Treplev”
A Doll’s House (1973)—“Torvald”
Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs (1974)—“Dennis Charles Nipple”
AVC: The mention of Frankenheimer reminded me of just how many amazing directors you’ve worked with. You talked about Sidney Lumet earlier, and you worked with him twice, although one of the times was in an uncredited role.
DW: You’re talking about The Deadly Affair, the John Le Carré adaptation with Simone Signoret and James Mason. What happens is that one of the characters gets murdered in a theater while they’re watching a play… and we’re the actors in the play! What happens is that my character in the play onstage gets killed at the same moment that Simone Signoret gets killed in the audience, so they cut back and forth between the two deaths. But it was as a result of working with Sidney Lumet on that film, I assume, that I ended up doing the other film with him, which was The Sea Gull.
AVC: You’ve certainly done plenty of literary adaptations in your time.
DW: Yes. Well, plays. Mostly British plays. I have a whole list of them, the British plays that we’ve gotten onto the screen. There was a thing called The Bofors Gun, which is a very British thing. I wouldn’t expect Americans to know of that one. And then there’s another one called Little Malcolm, with John Hurt, which was another play, and then, as you say, I’ve done The Sea Gull. And Joseph Losey I worked with on A Doll’s House with Jane Fonda. I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So all sorts of theater stuff I’ve managed to get on film.
AVC: Actually, Little Malcolm had been on my list, and for one reason: It doesn’t come much more random than playing a character named Dennis Charles Nipple in—to call it by its full title—Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs.
DW: Nipple! [Laughs.] Yes, Dennis Charles Nipple. It’s a very funny and good and lovely film, a smashing piece. And Johnny Hurt is lovely in it.
DW: Oh, ho, ho, ho! Well, there’s not much I can really say about that one except that it turned out to be a cult favorite, but you never know that at the time. People always talk to me about that one when I go to conventions and meet people, though, so it’s obviously a favorite.
AVC: It actually just got an upgrade to Blu-ray.
DW: Did it really? I don’t even know what Blu-ray is. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s the next step up from DVD.
DW: Ah, well, I’ve still got videos, you see!
Morgan! (1966)—“Morgan Delt”
Providence (1977)—“Kevin Langham / Kevin Woodford”
Frankenstein (1984)—“The Creature”
DW: Oh, my goodness! Yeah, well, I leapt at the opportunity of doing Frankenstein. Again, it was mainly just for British television, but another makeup which took a couple of hours, but that was just great fun, because I was working with lots of British friends.
AVC: Yes, the cast on that is amazing.
DW: Yeah, absolutely! They flew over Carrie Fisher for that, didn’t they? And Robert Powell and all sorts of people. That was another interesting thing, working with nice people. We always take the work seriously, but it does help when you have a nice group of people to be with.
AVC: You also worked with John Gielgud on that one, but had you worked with him at all prior to Frankenstein?
DW: Well, now, let me think of the timing. I did a film called Providence. Have you heard of that one? I can’t remember for sure, but I think Providence came before.
AVC: I’ve just pulled it up, and you’re right, it did.
DW: I thought so. Providence is another cult film, one which you should see, if only out of curiosity. So, yes, John Gielgud and I did work together before Frankenstein, and we were acquaintances, as one tends to be sometimes, so it was great to work with him again. It was only a small part—he was only there for two days—but it was great.
AVC: Now that I’m looking at the cast of Providence, that’s a pretty remarkable cast, too. Elaine Stritch was in it!
DW: Elaine Stritch and [Ellen] Burstyn and Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde. Yep, that was a very interesting film. Do seek it out if you can. It’s totally unusual and a very European film, but it was lovely for me, because I did a film called Morgan!—I mentioned it earlier, as it was my first sort of big starring part—and Providence was written by the same man. That whole area of movies, I don’t think too many people know about. That’s a different kind of genre.
DW: Oh, yes! What can I say about that? [Laughs.] It was an all-star cast, wasn’t it? And I think it was the least-successful of the franchise. That was definitely one where I needed the work. And I don’t mean to belittle that. You just take what comes your way, and that was something that flitted in about that time, and it helped with paying the bills. I was only on those little bits in the cockpit. I just did my bits and went, so there’s not much to tell about that film.
AVC: You did get to work with George Kennedy, though.
DW: Yes, but just briefly. I think we had something like two lines together. But he was a legend, so it was still great. But, yeah, I did it. It was just one of those things you do if you’re a jobbing actor!
DW: Oh, well, that was like being on Twin Peaks, suddenly being asked to do a couple of episodes of The Larry Sanders Show. That was a joy, getting to work with Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor and Garry Shandling. Of course, Jeffrey Tambor has gone on to huge things with Transparent. I mean, I do keep my eye on all these things. [Laughs.] And Rip Torn is a legend! So it was great fun just to be invited to be a part of that. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do all sorts of different genres.
AVC: Is there any genre that you haven’t yet dipped your toe into that you’d be willing to try?
DW: Well, no, now that I’m doing a musical. What more is there? [Laughs.] No, I mean, I was just thinking, and I’ve done war pictures, I’ve done Westerns, I’ve done sci-fi… I mean, I wasn’t in Harry Potter, and I wasn’t in Lord Of The Rings, and I haven’t been in Game Of Thrones. So there are those big ones that I haven’t managed to do. But that’s show biz… and, you know, I think I’ve still done okay.
DW: [Excitedly.] Oh, you saw that?
AVC: I did, actually. I found it on Amazon Prime. I thought it was pretty great.
DW: I’m so glad you liked it! That was one where a couple of guys—Jefery Levy and his brother—came and said, “Listen, would you like to do this film? It’s experimental.” And I said, “Yes!” Because I’m always willing to work with first-time directors. And I said, “Oh, this is really interesting!” We shot it in a week and in black and white, as you could see.
Now that was another one where, as you could also see, there was lots and lots and lots of dialogue. One of the conditions there was, “Look, go write up the dialogue next to the camera for me,” which they willingly did. And I challenge you to see my eyes move on that! [Laughs.] But I read every single word of that. Because they were long speeches, you know? But they were very kind, and they said, “Okay,” and they wrote them all up for me. And I don’t think I give myself away on that. I think it’s very natural. I’m very good at reading it if I have to. Like I said on Next Generation, sometimes it’s just impossible to learn all this stuff. I’m sure you understand!
I’m glad you watched that. Not many people know of its existence, but I’m very proud of it, because the kids did it together cheaply. The crew wasn’t paid or anything. But at least it got out there. I’ve no idea what the director’s gone on and done—I haven’t kept in communication—but I’m so glad that somebody, including yourself, has been able to see it.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) / Superman: The Animated Series (1999) / Batman Beyond (2000)—“Ra’s Al Ghul”
Freakazoid! (1995-1997)—“The Lobe”
Forgotten Realms: Baldur’s Gate II – Shadows Of Amn (2000)—“Jon Irenicus”
AVC: You’ve done so much voice work that it’s hard to narrow down which roles to ask you about. Do you have a particular role or experience that stands out for you?
DW: Well, it’s been so long ago now, but I used to love doing Freakazoid! [Laughs.] That’s the one where I played The Lobe, and there’s one where I sing “Hello, Lobey!” like “Hello, Dolly!” So I enjoyed doing that one. And I played a couple of others that I particularly enjoyed, but I can’t remember them all, to be honest with you. That’s the one that I remember and enjoyed the most. I don’t see myself as having a versatile voice, though!
AVC: Several readers mentioned your performance as Ra’s Al Ghul.
DW: Yes, I find a lot of people mention that one. And there’s another one called Baldur’s Gate, I believe, which is a game. The problem is that I’ve never heard any of these. I don’t watch cartoons, and I don’t have a cartoon channel on my television. I love doing them, but I’ve not seen them. That’s the problem! But I’m very glad that there are a lot of fans of them, and I certainly respect that. You’ll just have to pass along my apologies that I can’t remember more about them!
DW: Oh my god! Now that’s one I definitely haven’t seen. [Laughs.] That was a very low-budget thing, and I was only in for a couple of days. I don’t know how it turned out, but I remember it was, uh, you know… [Hesitates.] Without being disrespectful, that was something that came my way, and I said, “Well, all right, I’d better turn up for a couple of days to do it.” I’m trying to be respectful, you see.
AVC: Understood. It is what it is. But it does have a cult following.
DW: Well, good. It’s another of those where you just do your best and hope it turns out well.
AVC: You may be amused to know that Clint Howard has been trying for some time to mount a sequel entitled Ice Cream Man 2: Sundae Bloody Sundae.
DW: [Laughs.] I’m sure he could get some family support for that, couldn’t he?
DW: Oh, yes! I’ve got a lovely still of me with a nice big “S” on my chest. I love that photograph! Now that was interesting because the episode that I was in, if you remember or if you’ve even seen it, was one where the whole planet [of Krypton] shakes and explodes, and we send our son off, and… I presume he ends up on Earth?
AVC: That is correct.
DW: Yes, I thought as much. [Laughs.] Well, the point about that is that the day we were due to film that was the day of the big earthquake in Los Angeles. So I was called for that morning, the earthquake happened in the night, but I drove myself to the studio all the way from Pacific Palisades to Warner Brothers, only to find that the studio was shut and nobody was working. So I went home, and then they called us again. It was just quite ironic that we were supposed to be filming that whole shaking, earthquake-type thing on the day of an actual earthquake!
DW: Oh, well, of course—Bobby Dylan! [Laughs.] Now, I know you’ve done your research, but how much research have you done on that?
AVC: Enough to know that there’s no footage of the performance.
DW: Yeah, there were never any tapes of it. They’ve called it the number one lost video or whatever to be discovered, because people really want to see it. And you know the story behind it, do you? Well, your readers might not. They brought him over to play this huge part in this TV play, and then he got here and said, “I’m not an actor! I can’t do this!” And it was a huge part, so they split the part into two beatniks, and Bob just sat on the stairs of this house with his guitar, and I did all the talking. And then I would turn to him and say, “Sing, Bobby!” A lot of the songs were written by the author of the play, and—I think you know all this—he inserted a couple of his own songs. And the one over the closing credits was “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and that was the first time it had ever been sung.
AVC: It’s just amazing that there’s no copy of it anywhere.
DW: Yeah, and what’s even more amazing… It was on tape, and for budget reasons they used to recycle the tapes, but the amazing thing is that they didn’t wipe that tape for five years. By then, Dylan was one of the biggest things in the whole of the entertainment business… and they chose to wipe that tape. So there are only little bits. There was a documentary we made over here that had snippets of dialogue and interviews with people, and there was appealing to people in England: “If you’ve got a copy of this somewhere, even if you filmed it off the television screen, let us have it, because it’s the lost tape that everybody wants to find.” But working with Dylan, what was amazing was that he was very young—we both were!—and he was sort of in his own world. He was just composing the whole time. He didn’t have to learn any dialogue, so he was just at rehearsals, sitting in the corner. Always with his guitar and always nodding his head, obviously just working to himself. I thought, “Well, he’s quite out of it.”
AVC: Well, the story has been that he was working and smoking simultaneously.
DW: Well, I expect so. Lots of trips to the john. [Laughs.] But that’s by the by. What I want to tell you is this. That was in the early ’60s. I took my first trip in Los Angeles in 1978, and I was in a hotel—the Chateau Marmont, if you know that hotel—and I was sitting there by the pool, and a guy with long hair comes over to me and says, “Excuse me, are you David Warner?” And I was totally surprised that anybody in Hollywood should recognize me. And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Well, my name is Billy Cross, and I’m a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band, and I thought it was you. Bobby talks about you quite a lot. Would you like to come to the Hollywood Bowl to see us play?” And I was absolutely knocked out. It was lovely that Bob Dylan should remember me. That was lovely. But I couldn’t believe—because he was so out of it!—that he could remember anything about it!
So I went to the Hollywood Bowl, and I went to see him afterwards at his trailer at the back of the Hollywood Bowl, and he looked at me and said, “Hey, you played me!” Which was his way of saying that I took over his part. And then—and this was what surprised me pleasurably—he said, “How’s Ian? How’s Georgina? How’s Phillip?” He mentioned the names of every single person in the cast of that TV play. He had remembered 15 years later all our names. And that was one of the most extraordinary things, because he seemed to be… Well, I won’t say “out of it” in that way that you suggested, but he was so into himself that I was flabbergasted that he remembered everybody’s name that worked on that project. That was quite something.
AVC: Before we wrap this thing up, is there a project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
DW: Oh, dear… [Long pause.] You know, I’m not putting myself down, but it’s not like I’m a leading actor, where there’s a project that I was starring in that failed. So, no, I don’t have that feeling. I’m the kind of actor where you go around, you do your best, and you see what happens. It always amazes me when people get upset when they’re not nominated for an award. That’s just not part of my makeup. I’m just trying to think to make sure I’m not missing something, but… no, I can’t think of anything I’ve been involved with.
Look, what’s gratifying is when something like The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, which was a total disaster at the box office because it wasn’t The Wild Bunch 2, becomes a much-loved film. This is what’s happened with things like The Man With Two Brains and Time After Time, for example. They weren’t big successes at the time, but over the years people have sort of got to know them and hung onto them. That’s always gratifying. But, no, I don’t think I have any great major disappointments in my career. I’m very lucky to have had a career! Because was never a very ambitious actor. I just wanted to do it because I couldn’t do anything else! And it amazes me each time when the phone rings and somebody asks me to be in something. I go, “Oh, fantastic! It’s not quite all over!”