John Vernon, 72; Roles as Villain Included Dean in ‘Animal House’

Times Staff Writer

John Vernon, a Canadian-born character actor who frequently played villains in films and on television and may be best known as the sinister Dean Wormer in the comedy classic “Animal House,” has died. He was 72.

Vernon, who recently suffered a heart attack, died Tuesday in his sleep at his Van Nuys home, family members said.

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts who appeared on stage in Canada and New York in the 1950s and ‘60s, Vernon was known for his deep, resonant voice and for what one critic called “a ravaged, Burtonian face.”


Over the last four decades, Vernon amassed more than 200 film and television credits. Among the more memorable:

He played a bounty hunter stalking Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” the mayor of San Francisco in “Dirty Harry,” a vulnerable bad guy in “Point Blank” starring Lee Marvin, and a revolutionary leader in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Topaz.”

Then there was Dean Wormer in “Animal House,” in which Vernon did his best to expel the Delta House Fraternity -- the beer-swilling, toga-partying gang of college misfits personified by the uncouth and unkempt John Belushi as John “Bluto” Blutarsky.

Director John Landis told The Times on Thursday that he originally wanted “Dragnet” star Jack Webb to play Wormer in the 1978 film. But after meeting with the 27-year-old, long-haired and bearded Landis, the conservative Webb “was absolutely horrified at the suggestion.”

Landis, who resisted studio pressure to hire a comedian for the part, said he never would have thought of casting Vernon as the “power-mad, paranoid, crafty and thoroughly dishonest” Wormer.

But he happened to see Vernon in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and was impressed with his commanding screen presence.

“He had a black beard and piercing, blue eyes,” Landis recalled. “I thought, ‘That guy’s Dean Wormer.’ ”

When he met with Vernon, Landis said, “he was very surprised, and kind of delighted I was offering him a comedy. At that time, he had done ‘Point Blank’ and ‘Topaz’ and he was kind of the go-to bad guy.”

Landis said Vernon 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.

“He was wonderful to work with. If you see ‘Animal House’ -- I don’t think the picture would work without him.”

Vernon reprised his Wormer role in the 1979 television spin-off “Delta House.”

His daughter, Nan, a singer, said he “had a lot of fun” playing heavies on screen.

“It was pretty interesting growing up with Dad being our dad, with the whole ‘Animal House’ thing and all the boyfriends having such a connection with that: ‘Your dad’s Dean Wormer?’ ”

The prospect of meeting the man who played the menacing Wormer was a scary prospect for some of the boys, she acknowledged, “but humorously so.” Her father, she said, “had just enough twinkle to make them not run away.”

Her actress sister, Kate, agreed.

“He was a very powerful man with a powerful presence, and he really checked people out,” she said. “He wanted to make sure that you were a good person. He was very protective, and once he felt you were a good person, he was a fierce and loyal friend.”

Born Adolphus Raymondus Vernon Agopsowicz in Zehner, Saskatchewan, Vernon was the son of a corner grocery store owner.

He became interested in acting in high school, and studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. While living in London, he supplied the voice of Big Brother in the 1956 film version of the George Orwell classic “1984.”

Returning to Canada in the 1950s, he performed frequently at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and on CBC-TV.

His breakthrough role on Canadian television came in 1966, playing the scrappy title role in “Wojeck,” an action series based on Toronto coroner Dr. Morton Shulman.

“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 L.A.”

In addition to his daughters, the divorced Vernon is survived by his son, Chris; stepsons Jim and Grant West; a granddaughter; and his brother, Ernest Christopher.

A memorial service is pending.