As Terry Evans
in The Bofors Gun (1968)
Born near Manchester, England, on July 29th 1941, David Warner was an only child and an illegitimate one. His parents kept stealing him from each other(5). It's clearly not for nothing that he once described his childhood as "messy"(4). He won't tell what kind of kid he was because "it's too personal"(3) but admits that he'd spend a lot of time at the cinema "not really for the movies themselvelves, but to be away from home for a couple of hours."(3)
His Russian-Jewish father sent David to eight boarding schools in different towns; he would fail his exams at all of them. He was "neither brainy nor athletic" (5). When he was 15, his literature teacher encouraged him to act in high school plays. His first role was as Lady Macbeth!
His new passion for the theater helped him feel better about himself and the world, and he was able to finish his secondary studies brightly.
His mother, who was struggling with drugs and alcohol problems, disappeared from his life when David was still a teenager. He only saw her again about seven years later. She was dying...
It was during the rehearsals for Hamlet. "Not seeing her in itself wasn't shattering. Then I got a call to come to her. It was a five-hour drive. What I found tore me in two. "She'd had a stroke, could only move one arm and just about recognised me. Imagine -a woman is dying and you say to her 'I've got to go rehearse a play.' The thought, the image of that did shatter me... she was buried on the day the reviews came out."(1)
He became an actor because he "couldn't do anything else"(4). Before that, he had "held all kinds of odd jobs"(4). He was selling books and newspapers in a department store in Leamington Spa when he joined an amateur drama company. "They'd let me built scenery and play the odd parts. I was petrified when I had to carry a spear. Normally, I just painted sets. Come the first night, I had to make an excuse because I was too scared. They didn't miss me...!" He did persevere, though. "I decided if I could act in the evening, I'd see if I could do it for a living!"(4)
A rep in Worcester offered him a job as an assistant manager, and then faced with closure themselves they recanted by telegram the very next morning... just after he had quit his job at the store. "I sat there and took it stoically. My father said 'You'd better try something else, why not go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts?' I said: 'Why the RADA?' and he said: 'Well, it's Royal, it must be the best place.'"(3)
He was accepted at the RADA when he was 17 years old. He started his first semester there a less than two months after his 18th birthday, in September 1959. One of his classmates was John Hurt.
He loathed practically every second at the RADA even though the school awarded him with a medal. It was mainly because "All the beautiful girls were interested in other students who were playing leads while I was playing butlers..."
"The RADA taught me what not to do. I didn't learn much. It was full of Hamlet types. Romeos. Quite handsome people; I thought all I could play was servants. I did character parts, never juvenile roles. I did a 50-year-old in Ah! Wilderness. I was a servant in Romeo and Juliet. I never thought in a hundred years I'd ever be asked to play Hamlet. There were favourites; I wasn't one. I felt surrounded by people who all thought they were so good. It was very strange. I didn't worry about it, though. I just went to plays and wondered what I could do." He adds: "I have no anti-RADA thing or anti-school thing. It's just a matter of instinct, I learned instinctively what not to do."(3)
He spent the first few years of his acting career afraid to get out of bed every morning. A lot of self-confidence dogged him for a long time and he admitted to very little ambition even though he would become a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and get a supporting part in the movie Tom Jones by the time he was 21 years old.
He had done walk-through extras and some work on TV when Tony Richardson "saw me in a play and said he wanted to test me for the part of Mr. Blifil, the long-faced dolt who gives Tom so much trouble. I found out later that Tony had already seen about 200 actors. Tony told me, began Warner, abruptly mimicking the film's director in a deep, bland voice, 'Now Albert Finney's young and brown, he gets all the women and what we want is somebody who doesn't look as though he could possibly get any.' Having heard that description, I went over to make-up, they took one look at me and said, 'Just as you are. No make-up.' And I was the only one in the picture like that." He adds: "I'm no beauty, let's face it."(1)
Was Tom Jones an important breakthrough? "Not particularly. The only thing I remember about Tom Jones is that I got paid the Equity minimum, worked on it for three months, didn't get any kind of billing, or whatever they call that, met a lot of nice people and was treated like shit."(3)
In 1964, he was starring in Eh? , a modern farce for the RSC in London. Director Karel Reisz saw him in it and offered him the title role in Morgan! A Suitable Case for Treatment . After the filming of Morgan! ended, Warner became the RSC's new Hamlet for two years, What did he think of his Hamlet? "I've not seen it, Warner said roguishly, being in it."
"Seriously, I've never seen Hamlet anywhere. The reviews? Deadly, awful -with a few exceptions. But we felt they panned it for the right reasons. Then audiences started flocking in, mainly young people, to demonstrate their approval. The critics said I'd tossed out all the traditional beauty and poetry of the language. Shakespeare was an actor too, and I think they probably said the same thing about him. Also that he was a promising boy. - Anyway, what I deliberately didn't do was concentrate on the verse-the dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum stuff everybody expects. When I was a kid and saw Shakespeare, I never heard the actors for all the posturing and declaiming. I thought surely kids today were the same as I was, not wanting Shakespeare shoved down their throats. I wanted to make them come back again, of their own free will. I said 'To be or not to be'", Warner growled each word distinctly, smacking a fist for emphasis. "I didn't roll it off like an aria, I said it. -As for how I looked, I know I'm a strange sort to play a prince of Denmark or anything." He repeats: "I'm no beauty, let's face it."(1)
Thanks to the commercial success of Hamlet and the critical one of Morgan! in England, Warner became a star at 24 and even travelled to the U.S. to promote the movie where it quickly became a cult film on the campuses. He gave an interview to the New York Times in the hotel suite paid for by the movie's producers. The resulting article, titled predictably enough He's No Beauty But He's A Star and illustrated by an unflattering picture of a skeletal Warner wearing jeans and thick-framed glasses started like this:
Morgan!Pluck the exclamation point from the title of this new comedy, stretch it to 6 feet 2 and crown it with a long, stringy droop of orange hair. Give this pencil-thin apparition a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and quizzical, probing eyes. That's David Warner, aged 24 with plenty going on inside.
Wearing a sweater and slacks, he coiled on a chair in his hotel suite, kicked off his loafers and hoisted up his bare feet.
He discussed his career and, more reluctantly, himself.
After talking about his past and present career, he told the reporter that he hoped to balance a career of plays and film. "As far as my future is concerned, I think I have security -I'm not speaking of material things. I don't need money or cars or houses. He has recently bought his father's a nursing home near Stratford, the RSC's homestead. He still lives in a basement room in London and commutes between the two cities.
Freedom is vital to him as a man and as an actor. He travels as much as he can and has been in Tangiers and in Caesara in Israel.
He enjoys both the stage and the movies. "The advantage of pictures is you can do, do, do till the director is satisfied. Or says he is. But you wait around forever -the weather, lighting changes and all that -so that you get this advantage only to have it taken away from you. In the theatre, you build a character, you can even explore it, then something can go wrong -you can be ill, for example-and you give a lousy performance."
Asked about what he would do after Hamlet's run, he said: "I don't know. I just want people to come and see me. This will sound pretentious, I know. But if they want to see me, they will come."
-Howard Thompson, The New York Times (April 17, 1966).
1- He's no Beauty but He's a Star
2- David Warner: After the Fall, The NY Times (Dec. 19, 1971).
3- Why David Warner Turned his Back on Stardom, Film Review (Jan. 1976).
4- Biography in The Omen press kit (1975).
5- Preparing for Tron, The NY Times (July 16, 1982).
6- I'm a Stealth Bomber, Not a Star, The Daily Telegraph (Jan. 10, 2001).