John Vernon

John Vernon obituary in “The Telegraph” in 2005.

John Vernon the character actor who has died aged 72, spoke with a deep and menacing growl and was regularly cast as duplicitous villains; he appeared in more than 100 films, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969) to Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), but was best known for his role as Dean Wormer, the scheming academic pitted against a group of reprobate students in National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978).

Animal House, which came to define the smutty and raucous college movie genre, was a crude parody of life on an American university campus in the 1960s. Vernon’s character, the slimy college dean, is determined to shut down Delta House, a fraternity made up of the university’s misfits and losers, led by Bluto Blutarsky ( John Belushi). The film, which spawned numerous imitations, was a barrage of riotous drinking, pathetic sexual fumblings, projectile vomiting and toga parties.

For Vernon, the experience of making Animal House was only too real; the director, John Landis, neglected to tell him that the younger members of the cast had been encouraged to ad-lib in the most outrageous way possible, and filmed Vernon’s reactions. The film went on to become cult viewing among teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic, who could quote its dialogue verbatim. 

He was born Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz in Saskatchewan, Canada, on February 24 1932. Having shown a talent for acting at his Jesuit school he won a place at Rada alongside Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney and Alan Bates.

He returned to Canada, adopting the name John Vernon, and began a fruitful spell working for Canadian television as well as appearing on Broadway in productions such as Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1956), in which he played the explorer Hernando de Soto opposite Christopher Plummer’s Francisco Pizarro.

Vernon’s name was made in 1966 when he got the starring role in Wojeck, a popular Canadian television series about a crime-solving coroner.

His first screen role came the following year when he appeared in John Boorman’s Point Blank, as a traitor who is thrown to his death by Lee Marvin. Other parts included a Cuban guerrilla fighter in Topaz, and the mayor in Dirty Harry. His gravelly tones can also be heard in the 1956 film version of George Orwell’s 1984, in which he was the voice of Big Brother.

Playing a psychiatrist in Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), he delivered one of cinema’s great comic one-liners when asked by a prosecuting attorney: “Dr Stone, can you give the court your impression of Mr Striker?” Vernon replied: “I’m sorry, I don’t do impressions. My training is psychiatry.”

John Vernon died on February 1. His marriage to Nancy West was dissolved, and he is survived by two daughters, a son and two stepsons.

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