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Obituary: John Vernon

Sonorous-voiced screen villain

Tom Vallance
Monday 07 February 2005 01:02 GMT

WITH HIS brawny build, weathered face, curly hair and deeply resonant voice, John Vernon made a distinctive screen villain in such films as Point Blank and Topaz. Near the start of his career he played prominent roles for the directors Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor and Don Siegel, and he went on to accumulate an impressive number of credits - over 200 film and television titles - but only occasionally did he have a role worthy of his talents, such as the bounty hunter stalking Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

In 1978 he created a role which brought him popular recognition, that of the comically sinister Dean Wormer in National Lampoon's Animal House, desperately trying to rid himself of the Delta House Fraternity, and telling the beer-swilling leader (John Belushi), "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

The director, John Landis, initially wanted the Dragnet star Jack Webb to play the role, and later said that he would never have dreamed of casting Vernon as the "power-mad, paranoid, crafty, and thoroughly dishonest" Wormer had he not seen him in The Outlaw Josey Wales and been impressed by his commanding impact: "He had a black beard and piercing, blue eyes. I thought, "That guy's Dean Wormer.' "

The son of a grocery-store owner, Vernon was born Adolphus Raymondus Agopsowicz in Saskatchewan in 1932. He developed theatrical ambitions while at high school, and studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada and acted with Canadian amateur groups before winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

He acted in repertory in the UK, and also provided the voice for Big Brother in a screen version of 1984 (1955), which starred Edmond O'Brien and Michael Redgrave. Back home, he acted on television and frequently performed at the Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario. He made his first visible screen appearance with a role in the Canadian feature about troubled youth Nobody Waved Goodbye (1964), and the following year he made his Broadway debut in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

In 1966 he was given the title role in Wojeck, a television series based on the career of a Toronto coroner, Dr Morton Shulman, which proved a turning point. "I did only 20 episodes of the show as the crusading coroner," he recalled, "but the reaction was so strong that it reached the attention of some Hollywood producers, who brought me to LA."

His first major screen role was in John Boorman's slick thriller Point Blank (1967). Heavily criticised for its violence at the time, it was a hit at the box office. As a criminal who double-crosses his partner (Lee Marvin), who later catches up with him, only to have him fall to his death during a scuffle in his penthouse apartment, he made an impression, even pitched against the commanding Marvin.

In 1969 he was on screen in three prestigious films, though all three were box-office failures. In Cukor's troubled production of Justine, an unwieldy adaptation of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, he was a millionaire who, with his wife (Anouk Aimee), smuggles arms to Palestine, while Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, the director's first film since his blacklisting in the late Forties, was an earnest tale of the white man's treatment of Indians in the early 1900s, but proved too studied and solemn for popularity.

Hitchcock's Topaz was based on Leon Uris's book about spies and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. It proved a flat and muddled film (a strong contender as the director's worst movie), but Vernon, as a Castro cohort who discovers that his lover (Karin Dor) is in league with a French spy, took part in the one scene that no viewer of the film ever forgets. Discovering his sweetheart's duplicity, he takes her in his arms and shoots her. "Just before Vernon kills her," said Hitchcock,

the camera slowly travels up and doesn't stop until the moment she falls. I had attached to her gown five strands of thread held by five men off- camera. At the moment she collapses, the men pulled the threads and her robe splayed out like a flower that was opening up . . . Although it was a death scene, I wanted it to look very beautiful.

In 1969 Vernon played the Mayor of San Francisco in the hit thriller Dirty Harry, the start of an association with both its director, Don Siegel, and star, Clint Eastwood. He had major roles in Siegel's Charley Varrick (1973) and The Black Windmill (1974), and also featured in Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), movingly delivering a speech of farewell to Wales at the film's close.

When offered the role of Dean Wormer in National Lampoon's Animal House he was, according to Landis,

very surprised and kind of delighted I was offering him a comedy. He read the script and just loved it. He was one of the few people, actually, who thought this would be a great movie and a great success. He saw the part as a wonderful opportunity. I don't think the picture would work without him.

Following the film's success, all three major television networks rushed out imitations, but ABC had the advantage of contracting the original production team for its series. Entitled Delta House (1979), it starred Vernon in his original role as Wormer, and gave Michelle Pfeiffer an early role, but John Belushi, who was not available, was sorely missed and the show ran for only three months.

Vernon's later screen roles included Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), in which, as Dr Stone, he was asked by a prosecuting attorney, "Dr Stone, can you give the court your impression of Mr Striker?" His reply: "I'm sorry, I don't do impressions. My training is psychiatry."

His distinctively sonorous voice was also in constant demand, and among the shows in which he was heard but not seen were The Incredible Hulk (1996), Star Trek: Klingon Academy (2000) and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003).

Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz (John Vernon), actor: born Zehner, Saskatchewan, 24 February 1932; married Nancy West (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved); died Van Nuys, California 1 February 2005.

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