English actor David Warner, who died on July 24 at the age of 80, proved that Jewish family tsuris can inadvertently serve as inspiration for a successful performing career.
Warner played on-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 job over the past six decades was based on an indefinable aura of being uncomfortable, not fitting in. In most of the roles, Warner imported his own personal dislocation and torment, so that when his hulking figure appeared on screen with hunched shoulders, audiences immediately felt a certain uneasiness.
Warner’s father was a Russian-Jewish proprietor of a nursing home in the north of England, and with overconfidence in the benefits of institutional care, Warner was sent to eight different boarding schools, where he failed academically. Warner’s soon-to-be estranged father and mother never married and constantly argued. “My parents kept stealing from me, so I moved around England a lot,” he told the Guardian. “There was no theatrical tradition [in my family] but many histrionics.
No wonder quirkiness and Yiddishkeit were hallmarks of his performance experience from the start. In 1963 a television play, “Madhouse on Castle Street”, featured him with a young Bob Dylan who contributed a new track, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and other songs to this story of ‘an English boarding house where a lodger locks himself up in his room, declaring he has withdrawn from the world until changes come.
Sadly the BBC did not preserve the programs after they aired and ‘Madhouse on Castle Street’ was axed in 1968. A few audio clips of Dylan singing are all that remains of this tantalizing achievement.
Warner would rise to prominence in a film by Czech-born Jewish director Karel Reisz, one of the children saved from the Nazis by humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton (born Wertheim). Reisz, whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, directed “Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment,” a 1966 film in which Warner played a dreamer who wears an ape costume (Warner himself, still in practical mind, would only wear an ape costume in the future when compensated for it, in “Planet of the Apes” in 2001).
Next came a role in Sidney Lumet’s 1968 adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “La Mouette”, where he played the son of a histrionic mother, played by French Jewish actress Simone Signoret (née Kaminker). Given the family discord during his formative years, it’s no surprise that Warner faced infuriating parental figures convincingly on screen, and would do so again in the family drama “Providence.” by Alain Resnais in 1977, where he played an astrophysicist with an impossible father figure, a dipsomaniac novelist played by John Gielgud.
Also in 1968, Warner was in John Frankenheimer’s film “The Fixer”, adapted from Bernard Malamud’s novel. The narrative was inspired by the 1913 real-life trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis, a Russian Jew falsely accused of ritually murdering a Ukrainian boy. Historians regard the Beilis case as an example of the notorious Blood Libel ritual libel, an anti-Semitic fabrication by which Jews allegedly killed Christian boys to use their blood for religious rituals. “The Fixer” featured Warner as Count Odoevsky, a languishing aristocratic Russian justice minister who offers twisted logic for Tsarist anti-Semitic policies.
During the heavy film, if played well, Odoevsky/Warner admits that the imprisoned character of Beilis is truly innocent, but mutters, “If our workers and peasants start to hate the Tsar, as I fear, they will eventually To kill him. . Much better that they hate and kill the Jew. In fact, it is the only patriotic alternative.
In a conversation with the prisoner, who quotes Baruch Spinoza that “where there is no fight for it, there is no freedom”, Odoevsky/Warner recalls: “[Spinoza] was Jewish.
In the 1976 supernatural horror film “The Omen,” written by Illinois-born Jewish screenwriter David Seltzer and directed by Richard Donner (born Schwartzberg), Warner played a hapless demon hunter. While any actor regularly hired to play villains will have a resume filled with tsuris, Warner exuded an almost oppressive and disturbing quality. So it only made sense that he starred in no less than three films involving the RMS Titanic.
Presented repeatedly as Nazi and/or anti-Semitic, Warner’s career path resembled in some ways the fate of Jewish refugee actors from Nazi-occupied countries during World War II, doomed to be offered roles associated with the same Germans who scared them away. their homelands. Unlike these previous performers, Warner never used a Teutonic accent for such parts, relying on British tones to convey pitch and evil.
In 1977 he was in the World War II thriller “Cross of Iron”, directed by Sam Peckinpah, as a disillusioned Nazi officer convinced of the hellish and eternal aspects of war, without an iota of vainglory. In 1978, Warner took part in the hard-hitting “Holocaust” miniseries, playing Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking German SS and police officer who was one of the main architects of the Holocaust. As Warner told interviewer Timon Singh in 2018, “I didn’t want to do it when I was asked to play Heydrich, because he was a real person, responsible for horrible things and it really hurt. . [me] I do. I didn’t want to play it, then I realized that if I didn’t play it, someone else would, and whatever discomfort I might feel playing it is nothing [compared] to the discomfort of history for all [of] its victims. »
Indeed, Warner would play Heydrich twice, also in the TV movie “Hitler’s SS: Portrait in Evil (1985)”. Perhaps unexpectedly, as Warner informed Singh, Heydrich reminded him of a torturer in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”: “[Heydrich] was a freak, but he loved classical music, he loved literature, he had a family, he wrote love letters to his wife, and yet he was one of the baddest men in history.
Warner’s roles increasingly cast him as a nogoodnik. In an Emmy-winning turn, he was Pomponius Falco, a devious Roman senator, in the 1981 “Masada” TV miniseries. In one memorable moment, Warner as Pomponius slips into a military camp on a day torrid and grumbling: “So much the worse for atheism! There is a hell! That’s it!”
Despite an inspiring soundtrack by Jewish American composer Jerry Goldsmith and an all-star cast, this miniseries did not endure in popular memory, perhaps because audiences understandably found the subject matter depressing.
In the 1988 film “Hanna’s War,” based on “The Diaries of Hanna Senesh,” about the much honored Hungarian-Jewish anti-Nazi resistance fighter, Warner was described by a New York Times reviewer with a Dickensian flourish as ” the Uriah Heep of Hungarian fascists.And in the enigmatic 1993 miniseries “Wild Palms”, Warner played Eli Levitt, a right-wing terrorist.
From its earliest days, Warner was embroiled in a world of domestic turmoil and strife that expanded into a larger web of historical grief. Also an acclaimed classical actor, David Warner will undoubtedly be remembered with appreciation for his fearless investigations into the iniquity that afflicted 20th century Jews.