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Actor John Vernon, 72; 'Animal House' Dean

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page B06

John Vernon, 72, a stage-trained actor who played a series of slimy villains and authority figures, never so well as in "National Lampoon's Animal House," in which he was the evil college dean, died Feb. 1 at his home in Los Angeles of complications from heart surgery.

Mr. Vernon had more than a passing resemblance to Richard Burton and played rugged, often treacherous figures in dozens of films and television shows. With sinister good looks and a surprising vulnerability, he was cast in such gritty fare as "Point Blank" (1967), "Dirty Harry" (1971), "Topaz" (1969) and "The Outlaw Josey Wales" (1976).

As Dean Vernon Wormer in "Animal House," John Vernon was challenged to respond to the ad-libbing of younger cast members. (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

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As Dean Vernon Wormer in "Animal House" (1978), he was the antithesis of a good time. He ignores his alcoholic wife, cuddles up to the repulsive mayor and disdains the fun-loving students. With delight, he tells them: "I'm sure you'll be happy to know that I've notified all your draft boards and told them you are all, all eligible for military service."

He declares war against the worst fraternity on campus, led by John Belushi and Tim Matheson. One day the dean finds a dead horse in his office, hoofs up, courtesy of the cabal.

"The time has come for someone to put his foot down," the dean says. "And that foot is me."

Director John Landis kept Mr. Vernon unaware of ad-libbing he encouraged among the younger, rambunctious cast members. He wanted an unrehearsed reaction from Mr. Vernon when, for example, Belushi stuffed pencils up his nose as the dean lectured him.

Mr. Vernon's pitch-perfect performance in "Animal House" led to a second career as a comic straight man. He reprised Wormer for the short-lived ABC television spinoff "Delta House" (1979) and appeared in several spoofs. He was a psychiatrist in "Airplane II: The Sequel" (1982), Police Chief Ferret in "Fraternity Vacation" (1985) and the underworld figure Mr. Big in "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" (1988).

Mr. Vernon did extensive voice-over work, starting with Big Brother in the 1956 film version of George Orwell's "1984."

But, citing his work in "Animal House," he once said, "I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to record people's answering-machine messages saying, 'Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.' "

He was born Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz on Feb. 24, 1932, in Zehner, Canada, which he called a "one-grain-elevator town in Saskatchewan." While attending a Jesuit high school, he was chosen to read part of a Charles Dickens novel and so impressed his teacher that he was asked to become part of the theater group. Mr. Vernon, who had terrible acne, relished the chance to apply thick makeup and appear handsome and commanding.

He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London with such peers as Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney and Alan Bates. He began his stage career as a spear carrier at the Stratford Festival of Canada.

On Canadian television he showed his versatility, performing a variety of works, including Shakespeare and contemporary drama. He appeared on Broadway in Peter Shaffer's "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" (1965) as explorer Hernando de Soto opposite Christopher Plummer's Francisco Pizarro.

He became a television star as a crusading coroner in "Wojeck" (1966), which ran on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Millions of viewers tuned in each week, and the role brought him the attention of Hollywood producers.

Although he had acted in films for years, he officially was introduced to American filmgoers in "Point Blank" as a man who betrays Lee Marvin in a heist and gets his comeuppance.

He portrayed a Cuban guerrilla fighter in "Topaz"; the mayor in "Dirty Harry," a bureaucrat meant to contrast with Clint Eastwood's vigilante cop; and was a villain in a series of films and television guest spots. A rare reprieve was his sensitive rendering of a Hungarian Jewish watchmaker in the acclaimed Canadian television drama "Two Men" (1988), a role he called "one of the best I ever had."

He played with several glamorous women over the years, from Anouk Aimee in "Justine" (1969) to Sophia Loren in the Italian production "A Special Day" (1977). Of the second, he once told a reporter, he had some memorable orders from producer Carlo Ponti, who was Loren's husband.

"There's this scene where I'm supposed to hit Sophia on the butt," he said. "I do it, and Ponti yells 'Cut!' "

"You have to hit her on the center of the butt," Ponti yelled, according to Mr. Vernon. "You have found it, now enjoy it."

His marriage to Nancy West Vernon ended in divorce. Survivors include three children, Kate Vernon, Nan Vernon and Chris Vernon, all of Los Angeles; two stepsons, Grant West of Toronto and Jim West of Vancouver; a brother; and a granddaughter.

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