David Warbeck (1941-1997)

David Warbeck, who portrayed an unnamed Skydiver Captain in UFO‘s second production block, was an internationally famous performer and very highly paid model whose appearances in Italian horror and adventure movies awarded him with an unexpected cult status, and made him a popular guest at Gerry Anderson and horror film conventions.

Born David Mitchell in New Zealand on 17th November 1941, he emigrated to London in the early Sixties to study acting at RADA where his contemporaries included Timothy Dalton and Stephanie Beacham. There, he changed his professional name (as there was already another actor by the name of David Mitchell on the books of the actor’s union Equity) borrowing his new surname from Perkin Warbeck, the 16th century Flemish imposter to the English throne. Privately, however, he retained his Mitchell surname.

He was expelled from RADA, the official explanation being that he had no chance of success in the acting profession, although Warbeck claimed that the true reason for his expulsion was “sexual misbehaviour”. Nonetheless, he was obvious leading man material, with his tall, slim physique, good looks and mild Antipodean accent, and soon found himself cast in meaty roles: from a guest appearance in the Journey To The Unknown episode Do Me A Favour And Kill Me with Douglas Wilmer and Joseph Cotton, to the starring role as Robin Hood in Hammer’s Wolfshead, a TV series pilot that was subsequently given a theatrical release four years later as the support feature to the 1973 Cliff Richard musical Take Me High.

In 1970 he made two appearances in UFO, in Destruction and Reflections In The Water, and followed this with what was to remain his highest profile role to British audiences, as the young school master Anton in the Hammer vampire film Twins Of Evil. Other roles followed, but their quality varied wildly as the British film industry went into decline. In 1973, he appeared in the British horror movies Craze and Voices and the bizarre sex comedy The Sex Thief, directed by Martin Campbell and co-starring Diane Keen, Harvey Hall and Christopher Biggins (this latter picture was released in the US with additional hard-core sex scenes performed by body doubles, without either the knowledge or consent of the original actors). Warbeck also starred in the violent, and now obscure, Russ Mayer movie Blacksnake (aka The Slaves) where he took second billing to his fellow UFO performer Anouska Hempel.

At this point, his movie career appeared to go very quiet for several years, but behind-the-scenes he was being groomed to replace Roger Moore as the next James Bond. At the time, Moore was planning to leave the popular film series out of fear of becoming typecast and Warbeck was all set to take over the role of the most famous secret agent in movie history. But Moore elected to stay on into the 1980s and Warbeck was paid a handsome retainer for several years to be the producers’ top-secret official replacement should Moore show signs of bowing out again, appearing as Bond only in screen tests during the casting of new Bond girls.

During this time, Warbeck was never short of money as he had cultivated a lucrative international modelling career that saw him appearing in adverts for everything from Cognac to socks – even though his face would not be seen, the producers of a French catalogue asked for him personally to wear their hosiery! He went on to appear in some five hundred film and television commercials which led to his becoming best-known in England, his adopted home, as the Martini Man.

A small but very significant non-speaking role as James Coburn’s best friend in civil-war-torn Ireland who betrays him to the police in Sergio Leone’s 1972 spaghetti western A Fistful Of Dynamite gave Warbeck a high profile in Italy, which led, in 1980, to his being cast as the lead in the enormously successful Apocalypse Now rip-off The Last Hunter (aka Deer Hunter II). This was directed by Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson), one of the all- time greats of popular low-budget Italian cinema, and thus began a partnership which resulted in a string of Warbeck-Margheriti adventure movies. Warbeck also became the favoured leading man for directors Count Guiseppe Perone and the notorious Lucio Fulci, who cast him in his horror movies The Black Cat and The Beyond, further securing Warbeck’s cult status. Leone too favoured Warbeck, inviting him to co-star with Anthony Quinn in his SF epic Treasure Island In Space. His roles in English-language films, however, became less prolific over the last two decades, although he did appear briefly in Lassiter with Tom Selleck and Lauren Hutton, and in Marked Personal with Stephanie Beacham.

Warbeck ultimately appeared in over seventy-five movies in his thirty-year career and among his favourite roles were playing the mad Hapsburg archduke in a photo-story treatment of the Mayerling tragedy, being pursued by a bulldozer across America, and saving Miami from the Martians. But the money he received from these many film appearances was just the icing on the cake. His modelling career and wise financial investments had already made Warbeck a wealthy man, allowing him to purchase The Convent in Hampstead, a stunning mixture of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance architecture designed by the Victorian decorative artist Alfred Bell. The building had suffered fire damage during its life as a warehouse and Warbeck undertook to restore it to its former glory, discovering during the restoration that the building contained The Salon Theatre where such luminaries as Franz Liszt, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Henry Irving and Ellen Terry had performed.

A natural storyteller with a multitude of outrageous anecdotes from his extensive career, David Warbeck was a popular convention guest who generously donated time to his fans and also encouraged fledgling film-makers by appearing in student film productions free of charge. In another age, he could have been a rival to Errol Flynn, but he took the era that was his by the scruff of the neck and lived it to the full. He died of gastric lymphoma in London on 23rd July, aged 55.

Originally published in FAB 30.