Grouty’s greatest hits

 

© BBC

 

I suppose I shouldn’t feel too upset about the passing of the great British character actor Peter Vaughan.  He’d enjoyed an excellent innings – he was 93 when he died three days ago – and his seven-decade acting career had lasted right up to the present with his performance as Maester Aemon in the blockbusting HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  But I’m still sorry to see him go, primarily because he was one of those thespians who’d seemed so enduring and ubiquitous that I fancied he was going to continue popping up in films and on TV shows until the end of time.

 

Here’s a selection of my favourite moments from Peter Vaughan’s acting CV.  I haven’t picked his acclaimed performance in the award-winning 1996 BBC TV series Our Friends in the North because I haven’t seen it – I wasn’t living in the UK when it was broadcast.  And I haven’t mentioned Game of Thrones because, believe it or not, I’ve never watched it either.  (Though someday I’ll take half-a-year off and devote it to a seven-season Game of Thrones boxset binge.)

 

Fanatic (1965)

When the famous British studio Hammer Films wasn’t making gothic horror movies in the 1960s, it was making small-scale psychological thrillers.  These included Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963) and this film, which despite some predictability and a disappointing ending is a lot of fun.  It benefits from a great little cast and from deft low-budget direction by Canadian filmmaker Silvio Narizzano, who’d later direct 1966’s classic Georgy Girl and the 1970 movie version of the Joe Orton play Loot.

 

Fanatic has Stephanie Powers crossing paths with and being imprisoned by a rich, elderly and demented religious fanatic, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Tallulah Bankhead.  In the roles of Bankhead’s husband-and-wife servants – who do her bidding because they hope to get a generous inheritance after her death – are Vaughan and the formidable actress Yootha Joyce.  By the late 1970s Joyce would be Britain’s indisputable Sitcom Queen, thanks to playing the dragon-ish Mildred Roper in Man about the House (1973-76) and George and Mildred (1976-1980).

 

© Hammer Films

 

The pleasure of Vaughan’s performance in Fanatic is what a total scum-bucket he is.  His character is by turns shifty, scheming, greedy, sadistic, thuggish, lecherous and cowardly.  You can’t help but cheer when near the end Bankhead shoots him in the face.

 

An additional bonus is that playing the household’s mentally subnormal handyman is a young and before-he-was-famous Donald Sutherland.  Yay!

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

Set in rural Cornwall, dealing notoriously with vigilantism, violence and rape, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs sees Vaughan essaying another scummy character.  He’s local patriarch, boozer and brute Tom Hedden, who leads the climactic assault on Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house after the village idiot accidentally kills his daughter, flees and takes refuge there.

 

© ABC Pictures / Talent Associates

 

When the village magistrate, played by T.P. McKenna, arrives at the house to try to defuse the situation, Vaughan blasts him apart with his shotgun.  Then Vaughan starts climbing in through one of Hoffman’s windows.  Hoffman tackles him and things don’t end well for him when his shotgun goes off again during the struggle.

 

After viewing Straw Dogs, one sick-minded friend of mine was prompted to quip, “Peter Vaughan never really found his feet in that movie, did he?”

 

Symptoms (1974)

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz’s British-made horror film is a languid, dreamy and quietly effective piece of work that’s regarded now as a minor classic.  Little seen for many years, it was finally scheduled for DVD release this year with the help of the British Film Institute.  Lorna Heilbron plays a young woman invited by a new, slightly-odd friend (Angela Pleasence) to spend time with her on her remote country estate.  However, Vaughan – playing yet another unsavoury character, the creepy groundsman – is soon dropping hints to her that she isn’t the first young woman to have been invited to the estate; and the previous one may not have left it.

 

© Finiton Productions

 

In the supporting cast is Mike Grady, who along with Vaughan would later become a regular in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith.  About which, more in a minute.

 

Porridge (1974-1977 & 1979)

I can understand why Vaughan was bemused at how a generation of Britons identified him completely with Harry Grout in the BBC’s classic prison-set sitcom Porridge.  He was in Porridge for only a couple of episodes and the 1979 movie adaptation.  However, he certainly made an impression.

 

Usually funny, occasionally serious, Porridge follows the adventures of a cynical old lag (Ronnie Barker) and his naïve young cellmate (Richard Beckinsdale) as they try to keep their heads down, serve their time with a minimum of trouble and navigate a safe path between the prison authorities on one hand and the prison’s more criminal elements on the other.  Representing those criminal elements is the prison’s Mr Big, the fearsome Harry Grout – Grouty as he’s referred to, under whispered breath.

 

Despite being a convict, Grouty lives a life of luxury with his every need attended to by obsequious fellow-inmates and crooked warders.  He’s clearly inspired by Mr Bridger, the character played by Noel Coward in the popular 1969 caper movie The Italian Job.  But while Coward plays Bridger for laughs, swanning about his lavish cell like a member of the Royal Family, the bear-like and quietly-intense Vaughn imbues Grouty with genuine menace.  You have no doubt that if you cross him, he’ll arrange for someone to break your legs.  And if nobody’s available to do it, he’ll break those legs himself.

 

© BBC

 

Citizen Smith (1977-78)

A BBC sitcom scripted by John Sullivan, Citizen Smith was a political satire starring Robert Lindsay and set in 1970s south London.  Lindsay plays Wolfie Smith, a hopeless Che Guevara wannabe and leader of a revolutionary, but equally hopeless organisation called the Tooting Popular Front.

 

Peter Vaughan would have been a shoo-in for the role of local gangster Harry Fenning (actually played by Stephen Greif), whom Wolfie frequently rubs up the wrong way while he tries to engineer a people’s uprising.  Instead, however, Vaughan landed the slightly milder role of Charlie Johnson, the father of Wolfie’s comparatively-sensible girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall).

 

Much of the show’s charm came from the bickering between Wolfie and the conservative, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Charlie.  The latter’s sarcastic tones as he repeatedly refers to his prospective son-in-law as ‘Trotsky’, ‘Chairman Mao’ and ‘the yeti’ are a joy.   Citizen Smith lasted for four seasons, but it was never quite the same after Vaughan left at the end of season two.

 

The Time Bandits (1981)

Director / writer Terry Gilliam’s fantasy The Time Bandits is a lovely film with a lovely cast – and I don’t just mean the various Hollywood stars in (mostly) cameo roles, but also Craig Warnock as eleven-year-old hero Kevin and David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purves and co. as the time-travelling dwarves.  Vaughan appears as a cantankerous, feeling-his-age and self-pitying ogre called Winston: “You try being beastly and terrifying… you can only get one hour’s sleep a night because your back hurts, and you daren’t cough unless you want to pull a muscle.”  He shares a houseboat with his wife, Mrs Ogre, who’s coincidentally played by another Sitcom Queen – Katherine Helmond, who was Jessica Tate in the legendary American comedy Soap (1977-81).

 

© Handmade Films

 

When Winston catches Kevin and the dwarves in his fishing net, he and Mrs Ogre make plans to eat them – “Aren’t they lovely?  We can have them for breakfast!” – but the dwarves turn the tables on him after he unwisely agrees to let them massage his sore back.

 

Terry Gilliam liked Vaughan so much that he cast him in his next movie, Brazil (1985).  Writing on Facebook the other day, Gilliam urged his followers to “put on Brazil or Time Bandits and lift a glass to him.  Farewell, Peter!”

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day is much admired but I’m not a huge fan of it.  Perhaps this is because before I saw it I’d read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which it’s based; and I prefer the book to the film.

 

Vaughan plays Stevens Sr., father of the main character played by Anthony Hopkins – James Stevens, a duty-obsessed and unthinkingly loyal butler to a 1930s aristocrat.   Stevens Sr. was once a distinguished butler himself, equally dutiful and loyal.  As his health and abilities fail, however, he loses his standing and dignity in the household and ends up a lowly cleaner.  His plight becomes a warning to his son about what lies ahead.  An added tragedy is that the son is too self-consciously reserved to show his emotions at the old man’s decline.

 

And for me, the most memorable thing in the movie version of The Remains of the Day is Peter Vaughan’s poignant performance.

 

© Merchant-Ivory Productions

 

The magnificent seven dwarves

 

© The Birmingham Mail

 

Last weekend saw the passing of Kenny Baker, an actor whose face wasn’t famous but whose most prominent film-role certainly was.  The three-foot, eight-inch-tall Baker was the man inside the bodywork of the diminutive Star Wars robot R2D2, part dodgem car and part coffee percolator.  He steered the trundling, beeping droid through six instalments of George Lucas’s lucrative space-fantasy saga.  He would have returned in a seventh, last year’s The Force Awakens, but declining health prevented this.

 

In the movies R2D2 was partnered with the jabbering humanoid robot C-3PO, whom I always thought was a bit of a knob-head.  R2D2, though, was the star.  Indeed, according to R2D2’s Wikipedia entry, George Lucas made a point of having the resourceful little droid save the day on at least one occasion in every film.

 

That said, I think Baker’s finest hour wasn’t as R2D2 but as Fidget, one of the six time-travelling dwarves in Terry Gilliam’s superlative fantasy film, The Time Bandits (1981).  The kindly Fidget gets killed near the end, squashed beneath a falling pillar; but fortunately God, played by Sir Ralph Richardson, pops up in the nick of time to restore him to life.  I’ve heard claims that Gilliam based the dwarves’ characters on the six members of the outfit he’d formerly belonged to, the Monty Python team; and Fidget, the nice-guy dwarf, was modelled on Michael Palin.

 

Kenny Baker’s death got me thinking.  I’ve seen a lot of short actors in my time – especially as they appear in many horror, fantasy and science-fiction movies, three genres I’m a fan of.  So who are my favourite ones?

 

Firstly, I’d pick Skip Martin.  By the time of his death in 1984 Martin had appeared in several British horror movies that, because I watched them at a formative age, are now seared on my memory.  As well as playing big-top dwarves in John Llewellyn Moxley / Werner Jacobs’ Circus of Fear (1966) and Robert Young’s atmospheric Vampire Circus (1972), Skip Martin appeared in Corridors of Blood (1958), The Hellfire Club (1961), Son of Dracula (1974) and the absolutely barking-mad-insane Horror Hospital (1973).

 

© Alta Vista Productions / AIP

 

But he’s at his best in Roger Corman’s majestic 1964 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Writers Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell stitch a second Poe story, Hop Frog, into the plot and Martin takes the title role in this.  Well, almost the title role – Beaumont and Campbell rename him ‘Hop Toad’ for some reason.  Hop Toad is one of two little people employed as entertainers by rottenly-evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), who’s holed up in his castle and living a life of drink / drugs / sex / party / diabolism-fuelled decadence while a plague, the Red Death, decimates the countryside outside.  One of Prospero’s loathsome guests, Alfredo (Patrick Magee), insults Hop Toad’s dainty, doll-like partner Esmerelda and he vows revenge.

 

This comes when Alfredo decides to don fancy dress at Prospero’s next big social event, the masque.  Hop Toad persuades him to wear a hairy (and inflammable) ape costume.  Then on the night, with the help of some chains and a giant hanging candelabrum, he suspends Alfredo above the revellers on the dance floor, sets his costume alight and burns him to a crisp.  This delights Price’s Prospero, who purrs, “Look…  I believe Hop Toad is playing some sort of a joke on Alfredo!”  Gratifyingly, when the inevitable happens and the Red Death gets into the castle and poops the party, Hop Toad and Esmerelda are among the few who escape.

 

Less prolific in British horror movies, but still memorable, was American actor Michael Dunn.  A man with an intriguing back story – he reputedly had an IQ of 178 and a non-acting CV that included stints as a singer, a journalist, a hotel detective and a monk – he made his name during the 1960s with appearances in countless American TV shows, most famously as Dr Miguelito Loveless, the main villain in The Wild, Wild West (1965-1968).  He was also nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in Edward Albee’s stage adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café and for an Oscar for his role as narrator in Ship of Fools (1965).

 

From www.nctc.net

 

Near the end of his life he appeared in another British-made Poe adaptation, Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971); and another British horror film of the barking-mad-insane variety, Jack Cardiff’s The Mutations (1973), in which he was a member of a carnival sideshow that’s a front for some horrific gene-splicing experiments carried out by mad scientist Donald Pleasence.  In the year The Mutations was made, Dunn – by then frustrated about the roles he was getting – died of pulmonary heart disease.  His health wasn’t helped by his fondness for Jack Daniel’s, which despite his size he could put away a lot of.

 

When I’m in the right mood, I quite like The Mutations.  But I can see how appearing in a sleazy British horror movie where Donald Pleasence surgically turns people into plant monsters must have convinced Dunn his career was on the skids.

 

One short actor whose career is unlikely to be on the skids anytime soon is British actor Warwick Davis.  After his appearances in three Star Wars films, eight Harry Potter films, plus the Ricky Gervais situation comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-2013), he’s now regarded in Britain as a national treasure.  Incidentally, when he was less famous, Davis played the title character in six instalments of the dopey Leprechaun horror-comedy franchise.  He was in Leprechaun (1992), Leprechaun II (1993), Leprechaun III (1994), Leprechaun IV: In Space (1996), Leprechaun: In the Hood (2000) and Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003).  About the last film, Entertainment Weekly mused, “If a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”

 

From wikipedia.org

 

I like Warwick Davis a lot.  However, having seen clips of those Leprechaun movies – I’ve never watched any in their entirety because, er, life’s too short – I’d advise him to do a bit of work on his Irish accent.

 

Another modern actor of short stature who seems to be doing well is Canadian actor Jordan Prentice.  Like Kenny Baker and Warwick Davis, Prentice found early employment with George Lucas; but while Baker and Davis were lucky enough to be involved in the box-office-busting Star Wars series, Prentice was involved in a less illustrious item in the Lucas canon.  He was one of the actors operating the title character in the atrocious 1986 sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck.

 

In the noughties Prentice appeared in two of my favourite comic-noir movies.  Michael McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) sees him playing Jimmy, an obnoxious ketamine-abusing, prostitute-chasing dwarf actor who’s doing some filming in the Belgian city of the title.  Jimmy has to put up with dim-witted interloper Ray (Colin Farrell), who insists on babbling about the existentialist misery of being a dwarf: “People go around calling you a midget when you want to be called a dwarf.  Of course you’re going to blow your head off.”

 

© Film4 Productions / Focus Films

 

The previous year he’d appeared in Allan Moyle’s Weirdsville, an amusing shaggy-dog story set in Ontario and involving druggies, Satanists and, yes, dwarves.  The latter seem to belong to a historical re-enactment society for vertically-challenged people and they’re led by Prentice’s character, Martin.  When late in the film Martin and his buddies turn up to save the day dressed in medieval garb, they provide an obvious visual reference to The Time Bandits.

 

That brings me back to The Time Bandits and my next favourite short actor.  Englishman David Rappaport seemed ubiquitous on UK television when I was a youth.  He appeared alongside the anarchic likes of Spike Milligan, Sylvester McCoy, Rik Mayall and Kenny Everett in various madcap kids’ and adult TV shows that I enjoyed, including Q9 (1980), Jigsaw (1980-1981), The Goodies (1981), Tiswas (1981-1982), The Young Ones (1982-1983) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1985).  He was also in movies like Cuba (1979) and The Bride (1985).  But his cinematic break came when another anarchic talent, Terry Gilliam, cast him in The Time Bandits as Randall, the dwarves’ cocky but essentially good-hearted leader.  If you believe the Monty Python theory, Gilliam based this character on John Cleese.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

Tragically, Rappaport suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1990.  Three years later, another short actor, Frenchman Hervé Villechaize, star of the schmaltzy 1980s American TV show Fantasy Island, took his own life – though Villechaize was driven to this not because of mental anguish but because of chronic pain caused by his physical condition.  (In In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character alludes to both Rapport and Villechaize during his babblings about dwarves.)

 

I’m not a Fantasy Island fan but I admired Villechaize for his performance as Nick Nack, henchman of the villainous Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.  The film’s lame but it has one thing going for it – its baddies, Lee and Villechaize.  While Lee invests Scaramanga with his usual imperious wickedness, Villechaize is more sinisterly ambiguous.  He seems affable.  He’s dutiful and obedient.  Because of his size, he’s almost elf-like.  So is he dangerous?  And if so, how dangerous?  Even Bond himself, Roger Moore, can’t make up his mind.  At the film’s end, rather than liquidating Nick Nack, he settles for trapping him inside a suitcase.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Incidentally, I’ve read that the American short actor Peter Dinklage – famous for his performances in the 2003 arthouse hit The Station Agent and the tits-blood-and-dragons TV fantasy show Game of Thrones – is currently trying to make a film about Villechaize called My Dinner with Hervé.  If the project comes to fruition, let’s hope it’s a worthy epitaph for James Bond’s littlest adversary.

 

© HandMade Films / Janus Films

 

Cinematic heroes 4: David Warner

 

(c) ABC Pictures

 

For most actors, becoming typecast is a pain in the neck.  For the lugubrious-faced, distinctively-voiced David Warner, the day he became typecast – as an actor doing offbeat roles in offbeat films, often horror, science fiction and fantasy ones – was a pane in the neck.  As Keith Jennings, the decent but unfortunate photographer who befriends Gregory Peck’s ambassador Robert Thorn in 1976’s The Omen, he is memorably decapitated when a sheet of glass comes crashing off the back of a truck and shears his head from his shoulders.  Indeed, though The Omen was choc-a-block with people dying in gruesome freak accidents, and later there were Omen sequels with more freak accidents, and later still there were a half-dozen Final Destination movies following a similar template and serving up countless more freak accidents, the cinema has seen very few freak accidents as spectacularly shocking as Warner’s in that 37-year-old movie.

 

The main actors in the big-budget Omen – Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw – were names not normally associated with horror movies.  Until then, Warner’s name hadn’t been associated with horror movies either.  Mancunian by birth, he started acting professionally in 1962 and the following year he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, which led to stage roles in Henry IV Part 1, Henry VI Parts I-III, Julius Caesar, Richard II, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and, in 1965, playing the famously self-absorbed and brooding Danish prince, Hamlet.  The earliest films he appeared in were sometimes theatrical in origin too, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sea Gull, which both appeared in 1968.  However, it was in 1966’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment that he probably made his biggest impression on 1960s movie audiences.  In it he plays a working-class artist who’s abandoned by his posh wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and who goes to unhinged extremes to win her back.

 

When David Warner’s movie career is discussed, it’s often overlooked that he was once a regular performer with the legendary director Sam Peckinpah.  His association with the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, near-deranged filmmaker started with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in which he played an eccentric preacher who befriends Jason Robards’ titular hero.  Peckinpah often boasted, “I can’t direct when I’m sober,” and for the young Warner Hogue must have been quite an initiation into the director’s weird and wonderful ways.  When bad weather held up filming, Peckinpah and his crew went on a massive drinking binge and ran up a bar-bill worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

 

(c) EMI Films

 

In the next year’s Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s taboo-busting film set in the English West Country and a prototype for what is known now as the ‘home-invasion’ movie sub-genre, Warner plays the village simpleton who unwittingly kills a local girl and then takes refuge in Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house with a squad of vigilantes on his trail.  In Cross of Iron, Peckinpah’s 1977 war movie about a doomed German platoon on the Russian front, he plays a humane German officer who just wants to get through the war in one piece.  In fact, in Cross of Iron, nearly all the Germans, including James Coburn’s gallant corporal and James Mason’s world-weary colonel, are humane types who view war with extreme distaste.  What upsets the apple-cart, and eventually gets most of them killed, is the arrival of Maximillian Schell’s glory-hunting Prussian officer who’s obsessed with winning an iron cross for himself and isn’t worried about his men dying in the process.

 

In 1973 Warner made his first appearance in a horror film, the British anthology movie From Beyond the Grave, whose stories were based on the writings of Ronald Chetwyn-Hayes.  In the film’s first story, The Gate Crasher, he plays an arrogant prick called Edward Charlton who acquires an old mirror from an antique shop and gets it on the cheap by lying to the shop-owner about the mirror’s likely age.  Charlton obviously hasn’t seen many horror films before – otherwise, he might have thought twice about fibbing to a proprietor played by Peter Cushing in a shop called Temptations Inc.  He soon gets his deserts.  The mirror turns out to be inhabited by a malevolent spirit, which possesses him and drives him to commit murder.

 

It was in the last years of the 1970s that Warner got his fondest-remembered roles, starting with the kindly but ill-fated Jennings in The Omen.  Then, in 1979’s Time After Time, he switches from being a nice guy to being a bad one, playing John Leslie Stevenson, a Victorian gentleman and friend of the pioneering science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who’s played by Malcolm McDowell.  Unbeknownst to Wells, Stevenson has been making a name for himself in the London media of the time by butchering prostitutes in Whitechapel – for he is none other than Jack the Ripper.  When Wells unveils his latest invention, a functioning time machine like the one he would later write about in his famous 1895 novella, Stevenson uses it to escape the closing police net and scoot one century forward into the future.  But the machine has a recall facility, so a horrified Wells summons it back to the 19th century and uses it to follow Leslie to 1979, assuming that he’s let Jack the Ripper loose on Utopia.  Predictably, Wells is more than a little disappointed to find that the 20th century is less utopian than he’d anticipated.  And the Ripper has taken to the era’s sleaze, violence and heavy-decibel rock music like a duck to water.

 

A quirky and very entertaining movie, Time After Time was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer who, regrettably, hasn’t made anything as distinctive since.  Instead, during the 1980s, he got involved in making Star Trek films.  Actually, it’s probably because of Meyer’s involvement in the Star Trek series that both David Warner and Malcolm McDowell have made appearances in it – Warner was in both Star Trek V and VI.  I’m no fan of Star Trek or its movie spin-offs, but I quite like the sixth one, largely because Warner is in it.  He plays Chancellor Gorkon, charismatic leader of the Klingons and obviously modelled on the then Russian leader Mikael Gorbachev, who’s decided it’s time for the Klingon Empire to pursue peace-talks with the West, sorry, the Federation.

 

In 1981 Warner delivered another memorable performance in Terry Gilliam’s imaginative cinematic fairy tale The Time Bandits.  He plays a character called Evil, who’s been created by Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being and then imprisoned in a hellish place called the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness – obviously, Warner and Richardson represent the Devil and God.  Some fine actors have played Old Nick in movies over the years, including Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate and Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick, but for my money Warner’s portrayal is the most entertaining.  His Devil is a petulant and embittered character who spends his time ranting at his idiotic minions (“Shut up!  I’m speaking rhetorically!”) about how rubbish God is.  The Almighty, he argues, has wasted His time creating useless things such as slugs, nipples for men and 43 species of parrots when He could have concentrated on making laser beams, car phones and VCRs.  Warner steals the show in The Time Bandits, which is no minor achievement considering that in addition to Richardson the film stars Ian Holm, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall and a delightful gang of time-traveling dwarves led by the late, great David Rappaport.

 

Thereafter, Warner’s CV filled up with all manner of oddball movies, hardly Shakespearean in the acting opportunities they offered but relished by weirdoes and obsessives like myself: 1979’s Nightwing, 1980’s The Island, 1987’s Waxwork, 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness and 1997’s Scream 2.  As an actor he’s adept at playing out-and-out villains, for example, his Dillinger / Sark character in the 1981 Disney computer-game fantasy Tron, a movie that was unappreciated at the time but that, in the decades since, has acquired considerable retro-cool.  He’s also good at doing mad scientists, like the splendidly named Doctor Alfred Necessiter in the whacky 1982 comedy The Man with Two Brains, which is poignant today as a reminder of those long-gone days when Steve Martin used to be funny.  But he also has harassed and melancholic qualities that lend themselves to playing fathers.  He was, for instance, the heroine’s father in 1984’s The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s atmospheric and sensual adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic story; while in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes he plays Senator Sandar, father of Helena Bonham-Carter, the sexiest chimpanzee in the world.  In heavy simian make-up and in Warner’s unmistakable tones, Sandar sighs at one point: “Youth is wasted on the young…”

 

(c) Walt Disney Productions

 

In 1997 Warner also found time to appear in James Cameron’s Titanic, then the biggest-grossest movie of all time – and holder of that title until Cameron broke his own record with Avatar.  Say what you like about Titanic, about the mawkish love story between Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio, about Billy Zane’s cartoonish performance as the villain, about the unspeakable theme song sung by Celine Dion, but you can’t deny that it has a great supporting cast: Warner, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, Bill Paxton.  Warner, playing Spicer Lovejoy, Zane’s valet, doesn’t have much to do apart from connive with his master, stalk around, spy on Kate Winslett and generally behave sinisterly.  He does, however, to get to punch Di Caprio in the guts after he’s been handcuffed to a railing on board the holed and sinking liner.  Actually, that’s my favourite bit in the film.

 

Warner has long been a fixture on television too.  He’s appeared in one-off TV movies and dramas like 1984’s Frankenstein, where he plays the creature to Robert Powell’s Victor Frankenstein and Carrie Fisher’s Elizabeth, 1993’s Body Bags and 2003’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; appeared in series and miniseries like 1981’s Masada, 1982’s Marco Polo, 1984’s Charlie, 2011’s Secret of Crickley Hall and, from 2008 to 2010, Wallander, in which he plays another father, this time to Kenneth Branagh; and lent his voice to animated shows, including the Superman, Batman and Spiderman ones during the 1990s.  In 1991, he guest-starred in three episodes of the second and final series of David Lynch’s classic off-the-wall soap opera Twin Peaks, playing Thomas Eckhardt, the Hong Kong-based crime-lord who has a long, dark and tangled history with Joan Chen’s Jocelyn Packard.  Mind you, Chen brings that history to an abrupt end by shooting him in the chest.

 

A few years later he was in the underrated, Oliver Stone-produced mini-series Wild Palms, which for the time was a very odd hybrid of conspiracy thriller, Alice in Wonderland and the then-new literary genre of cyberpunk.  Indeed, at one point, cyberpunk author William Gibson makes a cameo appearance in it.  Set in a near-future USA, when an organisation called the Fathers – a sinister cross between a multinational corporation, the Scientologists and the Tea Party – holds sway, the show has Warner as Eli, the slightly Obi Wan-like leader of an underground resistance movement.  The sequence at the end of one episode in which Eli and various sidekicks machine-gun their way into a clinic where Warner’s sickly son Chick is being held prisoner, in an abortive attempt to rescue him, is one of my favourite TV moments ever.  I’m not quite sure why.  Maybe it’s because of the quality of performers involved – besides Warner, the sequence has Kim Catrall and, playing Chick, Brad Dourif, who’s better known as the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play movies.  Maybe it’s because The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun blasts away in the background.  Maybe it’s because it all ends badly – tragedy being the most powerful form of drama.

 

 

In 2005 Warner was involved with the TV institution that is The League of Gentlemen, the famously-twisted comedy series written by and starring Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson.  In fact, he didn’t appear in the television show itself, but in its cinematic spinoff The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.  Like many a film-based-on-a-TV-show, it doesn’t really work on the big screen, though its most effective scenes are definitely those featuring Warner as a 17th century magician called Dr Erasmus Pea.  His character is rottenly evil but he’s very amusing too.  For example, while Dr Pea uses a pan to fry up a hellish concoction (including two recently gouged-out eyeballs) from which he hopes to grow a monstrous homunculus, the camera cuts to a close-up and he shows a pretentiously-absorbed expression worthy of a TV chef like Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay.

 

Warner clearly gets along with Mark Gatiss, since he has also appeared in Gatiss’s radio comedy show Nebulous and in The Cold War, a recent Gatiss-scripted episode of Doctor Who.  He also turned up as an interviewee in Gatiss’s 2010 documentary series A History of Horror, talking about – yes! – getting his head lobbed off in The Omen.

 

The past decade has seen Warner return to the stage, giving well-received turns as the venerable and vulnerable monarch in King Lear in 2005 and as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II in 2007.  Let’s hope, though, that there are plenty of young filmmakers out there who grew up savouring his performances in the likes of Time After Time, The Time Bandits and Tron, who’ll offer him movie roles too and who’ll keep him employed for a long time to come.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox