David Warner, Stalwart British Actor in ‘The Omen,’ ‘Tron,’ ‘Titanic,’ Dead at 80

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TRON, David Warner, 1982, (c) Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection - Credit: Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection
TRON, David Warner, 1982, (c) Buena Vista/courtesy Everett Collection - Credit: Buena Vista/Courtesy Everett Collection

David Warner, the storied and celebrated British actor known for his work in films like Tron, The Omen, and Titanic, as well as his on-stage performances in the Royal Shakespeare Company, has died. He was 80.

According to the BBC, Warner died Sunday, July 24, from a cancer-related illness. In a statement, his family said, “Over the past 18 months he approached his diagnosis with a characteristic grace and dignity… 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.”

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Born out of wedlock in Manchester, England, in 1941, Warner endured a somewhat tumultuous childhood as he spent time being shuttled between parents. His father ended up sending him to a variety of boarding schools, and as The Guardian noted, by the time Warner was a teenager, his mother was no longer in his life. 

Warner eventually found acting and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In 1963, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and earned his first major film role in Tony Richardson’s celebrated comedy Tom Jones. That same year, he also starred in a British television play, Madhoue on Castle Street, that happened to feature a handful of musical performances from a young American folk singer named Bob Dylan.

Warner’s big breakthroughs came in the mid-Sixties. In 1965, he scored the title role in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, in which the brooding Danish prince was reimagined as a disillusioned student (more traditional critics were lukewarm, but the show succeeded in attracting a younger audience). The following year, he starred alongside Vanessa Redgrave in Karel Reisz acclaimed comedy, Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment.

Despite his theatrical bona fides, Warner left the stage abruptly in the early Seventies after a production of I, Claudius received scathing reviews and left him with stage fright. In turning to the screen, however, he found plenty of opportunities, like the 1976 horror classic, The Omen, where he played a photojournalist who meets a grisly end. Warner became especially well-known for playing villains, like in Terry Gilliams’ Time Bandits, the pioneering sci-fi flick, Tron, and the 1981 historical miniseries Masada, where his turn as an menacing legion commander for a Roman emperor earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or a Special.

After relocating to Hollywood in the late Eighties, Warner popped up in various Star Trek projects, as well as TV shows like Doctor Who and Twin Peaks. He was cast in movies like Scream 2 and 2001’s Planet of the Apes, and also had a small but memorable role in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, playing the ex-Pinkerton sidekick of Billy Zane’s snobby Caledon Hockley.

In 2002, Warner finally returned to the stage after 30 years in a production of A Feast of Snails. “I’ve got a confidence back that I don’t think I ever had,” he told The Guardian at the time. “I’m 60 years old and I feel as if I’m 30.”

During the final years of his career, Warner continued to work, embracing the theater and Shakespeare once more, while also doing plenty of voice over work for cartoons and video games, alongside his regular roles on film and TV. His last film role came in 2018, when he appeared in Rob Marshall’s Marry Poppins Returns.

In an extensive 2017 interview with The AV Club, Warner reflected on his career, “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.” He added, “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!'”

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