Acting Raves

“You could be a David Warner!”

The indefatigable actor David Warner has died at the age of 80.

David Warner as Hamlet, 1965

You can read remembrances, obituaries, and appreciations from:

While plenty of the headlines mention The Omen and Titanic, many of my generation were first introduced to him as the scene-stealing Evil One in Time Bandits (or simply “Evil” which is very dangerous in concentrated form).

This performance made me a fan of Warner for good, even if he was Evil…

And that was not Warner’s only appearance in work adored by speculative fiction fans of a certain age. He was wonderful in Tron, criminally underused in Star Trek V, well-used in Star Trek VI, and absolutely phenomenal in the justly-lauded “Chain of Command” a two-parter for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Besides that, there’s Doctor Who (both audio and visual), Babylon 5, and shows like Wallander and the Hornblower series. And, for anyone who hasn’t seen the 1979 Time After Time (which, this far into the 21st century is likely a lot of you), you get not only a great David Warner performance, but a surprisingly fun turn by Malcolm McDowell not being the villain.

So David Warner holds a special place in my film-loving heart as a “character actor” whose appearance was always welcome. It could be that my dad gave us an appreciation of the supporting players that add that essential zest to any good film. Other kids my age had no idea who Victor McLaglen, Thelma Ritter, or Martin Balsam were, but thanks to my dad’s classic movie education, I did. Growing up, I naturally starting spotting those same sorts of actors in our generation’s movies, like Dabney Coleman, Edi McClurg, and, yes, David Warner. And, possibly owing to being the third kid, character actors were always an underdog of sorts to root for. That guy? Who was in that thing? Yeah, I want to know their names. They’re awesome.

I likely need to expand on my working theory of third/third-plus/youngest kids. I hinted at this with my fandom of Moon Knight some months back, but those of us who were the third or fourth or youngest kids would compare notes. And I don’t know if my sample size is wide enough or if times have changed, but back when I checked with my fellow non-firstborns, we found that we gravitated to That Guy and That Gal. Our older siblings had laid claim to the Luke Skywalkers and Supermans, the Captain Kirks and the Batmen. Being fans of the “A” list pop culture icons was thus copying our older brothers and sisters and, at some point, you want your “own thing.” Also –and this could definitely be a generational thing– our parents weren’t about to get multiple copies of the same comic/record/what-have-you. They’d even look askance if we were using are own money, because thrift! And we could generally listen or read our siblings’ copies (because thrift! Now put it back!). So, my working theory is that my appreciation of character actors, introduced by my dad, was deepened by being the youngest and getting my “own things.”

And then I pursued being an actor myself in college… and “character actors” took on a whole new meaning.

At some point, several directors and acting teachers made sure I understood that I was not a “leading man” type, I was a “character actor.” I was Kent, but not King Lear. For some reason, several of them said, identically, “You’re not Tom Cruise.”

I mean, I remember high school. I was under no illusions I was Tom Cruise.

Fast forward after college and I’m working in regional theaters in various parts: often enjoyable and always “supporting.”

Walking out of the theater after a rehearsal, a visiting director du jour was in an advice-giving mood.

“You know Bjorn, you need to understand that you’re not a leading man. You’re not Tom Cruise.”

Does Tom Cruise know he’s the go-to definition of “leading man?” He probably does. He’s Tom Cruise.

I sighed inwardly, but kept listening. He was 50-something. I was 20-something. So many of my instructors and directors had been 50 or 60-somethings at this point and they usually had some good insight gleaned from the decades of experience they had over me.

“You’re a character actor, like me.”

This was a change. When people invoked Tom Cruise, Lord High Leading Man, the insight usually ended there. They certainly didn’t associate themselves with me.

“It can be frustrating, I know. Because you’re as much an actor as the guys who get the leading roles — maybe more so as a character actor because you’re going to do all different types of parts.”

This was leading somewhere.

“So what’s going to happen is you’re going to put in the time. 20 years. 25 years. And then, all of a sudden, the phone starts ringing. You’re getting auditions. You’re getting gigs. Because you’ve built a body of work as a character actor.”

He provided some examples of the diverse work he had been getting, which, I had previously learned from other instructors, is what you do: you get work from every which where.

“So that’s what I’m saying. Stick with it and you can be a Dabney Coleman. You could be a David Warner!”

Now, tormenting Mathew Broderick and harassing Dolly Parton were not top of my acting bucket list. But trying to take over the world or simply making Patrick Stewart question his light-counting abilities? Talk about actor motivation.

I’ve never forgotten that moment… because it was the time David Warner went from being an actor I admired to an actor I aspire to emulate. Actually, I think that’s the moment where I realized he had been a subconscious role model for the work I wanted to do as an actor. And I’ve thought of that moment each time I’ve watched his performances since and I quite consciously study them.

I could be a David Warner?

That’s an impossible dream, but a dream worth dreaming.

(I mean, I don’t think I can ever pull off playing a character named Spicer Lovejoy, for one).

Thank you for your prodigious body of work, David Warner. May your memory be a blessing.

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