Obituary: David Warbeck

When David Warbeck first arrived in London from New Zealand in 1965 he must have quickly realised that his face was his fortune. Possessed of that brand of good looks usually described as ruggedly handsome, his powerfully masculine presence was the very stuff of an action-man hero or the dashing, firm-jawed lover on the cover of a Barbara Cartland romance.

He went on to achieve cult status as the star of a whole series of cheaply made, racy Italian action movies, but it was as a photographic model that he quickly earned his early success, becoming a familiar image in countless advertising shots across the world promoting everything from Courvoisier brandy and Martini to cable-knit pullovers, blue jeans and ice-cream. His modelling career proved lucrative and through the Seventies and Eighties he could command pounds 300,000 for a couple of television commercials.

However the dual career he pursued for less money but with far greater zest - and which appealed far more to his cheerfully extrovert sense of adventure and fun - was as an actor in a huge number of shock and horror movies. During 25 feverishly busy years he appeared in nearly 80 films. Most were Italian, many of deplorable quality, and nearly all of a genre known as exploitation or sexploitation films - and sometimes, to those in the know, as "spaghetti splatter".

In 1972 he got his first Italian film job in A Fistful of Dollars, actually a superior spaghetti western, directed by the redoubtable Sergio Leone, in which he was spotted by a wily Italian talent agent who secured him, five years later, the starring role in The Last Hunter which not only placed Warbeck firmly in the lead but had him cruelly menaced by strafing helicopter fire, rats, snakes, giant spiders and some appalling oriental actors.

Bearing such titles as Cat O'Nine Tails, Killer Fish, Zombie Flesheaters and Cosmic Killer, the posters for Warbeck's films invariably depict him fending off, with appropriate fortitude, a whole barrage of lethal dangers including giant cobras, naked female vampires, whole armouries of deadly weapons, death rays from outer space, man-sized rats and frequently blonde bimbos.

As a seasoned traveller in the gory land of schlock Warbeck's forte was to shoulder the burden of these absurd inventions with a light and easy assurance and much self-effacing charm, retaining in the face of all this lurid mayhem a reasonably straight-faced dignity. The fact was that he relished the nonsense which frequently enabled him to appear with such distinguished veterans as Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, Anthony Quinn, Jack Pallance and Peter Cushing and he always expressed amused incredulity when the vagaries of changing taste elevated what Warbeck himself had regarded as cheerful, simple-minded trash high in the esteem of the fashionably avant-garde.

Six years ago the defiantly tasteless Russ Meyer was awarded a retrospective at the National Film Theatre when clips were shown from Black Snake - the whip! (1973) in which Warbeck had starred opposite the ubiquitously fashionable Anoushka Hempel. Warbeck's career too, was celebrated in 1994 at the Everyman Cinema, Hampstead, with screenings of his films such as City of the Living Dead and Zombie Flesheaters and at which he made a appearance accompanied by his long-time director, Luccio Fulci.

Warbeck, born David Mitchell, in Christchurch, New Zealand, was of Scottish descent and after school in Christchurch and Invercargill he went on to train as an arts teacher. He also took up amateur dramatics where his dashing good looks and natural aptitude quickly got him accepted by a small professional company which toured local schools.

It was there that his work was rewarded with a New Zealand Arts Council scholarship to RADA. With his bride of one month he arrived in London in 1965 and enrolled at RADA where he remained for only four terms. His failure to finish at drama school did little to dent his progress however, and alongside his burgeoning career as a photographic model he began to appear regularly on television and in rep. Appropriately enough his first major role in the cinema was in 1971 in the Hammer horror film Twins of Evil, featuring a pair of vampiric fanged sisters.

A year later came A Fistful of Dollars and his break into the realms of Italian shock-horror. The big disappointment of his career, which prevented him from becoming universally known, was when he just missed being selected from the short list of contenders to play James Bond, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery and Roger Moore.

Warbeck was a warm, gregarious man with a boisterous sense of humour who was genuinely beguiled by the fact that what he called "my truly awful films" became taken up by the new connoisseurs of schlock. With his easy, open, down- under charm he was also a generous and convivial host who liked nothing better than to entertain with his wife, Lois, and his long-time friend David Lehal, at his extraordinary turreted Hampstead palazzo.

Known as the convent, this high Victorian gothic folly was built by associates of Sir George Gilbert Scott at the time of the construction of St Pancras Station and had been the scene of many a musical soiree when Gilbert and Sullivan, George Grossmith and Ellen Terry would perform in the house's miniature salon theatre. For two decades David Warbeck lovingly devoted himself to the convent's restoration achieving an effect that was almost overwhelming, its cavernous crimson interior displaying a heady mix of mirror and gilt, coffered ceilings, pointed arches, falling draperies and glittering knick-knacks, all merged together into a spectacular and esoteric fusion of camp and kitsch and the authentically Victorian. It could have served as the backdrop for one of his more exotic movie adventures, but for the ebullient British hero of Italian schlock it provided the perfect setting.

Derek Granger

David Mitchell (David Warbeck), actor and model: born Christchurch, New Zealand 17 November 1941; married 1965 Lois Shephard (one daughter); died London 23 July 1997.