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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Julian Sands, who played Shelley, a warlock and a king, dies at 65


Julian Sands, a versatile British actor whose film roles included poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Louis XIV, a warlock, Superman’s father and a Latvian pimp, was pronounced dead Tuesday, more than five months after disappearing while hiking alone on a trail on Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California. He was 65.

On Sunday, authorities recovered human remains near the mountain where search crews had been looking for Sands. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said it had been contacted by hikers who had found human remains in the Mount Baldy wilderness. Dangerous conditions, including a series of severe storms, had complicated search efforts.

The coroner’s office identified the remains as Sands on Tuesday. It added that the cause of his death remained under investigation.

With his shock of blond hair and his occasionally icy demeanor, Sands was instantly recognizable. He could slip easily from a costume drama like James Ivory’s “A Room With a View” (1985), in which he played an idealistic romantic around the turn of the 20th century, to an occult movie like “Warlock” (1989), in which, as the title character, he flees a 17th-century witch hunter to 20th-century Los Angeles.

“He was always good, always gallant and dignified,” Janet Maslin, a former New York Times film critic, said in a phone interview. “I don’t remember a false move from him.”

Sands played Shelley in Ken Russell’s horror film “Gothic” (1987), which re-creates a true story: a gathering on a stormy night in 1816 in a Swiss villa where Shelley; his future wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would soon write “Frankenstein”; her stepsister, Claire Clairmont; Lord Byron; and Byron’s doctor, John William Polidori, wrote ghost stories.

Sands’ Shelley suffered from drug-fueled hallucinations and was tormented by fears and devils. Gabriel Byrne’s Byron was nearly demonic.

“I think these portraits are rooted in reality,” Sands told the Times in 1987. “If people think otherwise, it’s because of the later Victorian whitewash of them. These were not simply beautiful romantic poets. They were subversive, anarchic hedonists pursuing a particular line of amorality.”

Within two years, Sands had worked with Ivory and Russell, two directors with wildly different styles.

“James Ivory is like an Indian miniaturist, and Ken Russell is a graffiti artist,” Sands told the Times. “James Ivory is like an ornithologist watching his subjects from afar, whereas Ken Russell is a big-game hunter filming in the middle of a rhino charge.”

Sands also worked on several films with British director Mike Figgis, among them “Leaving Las Vegas” (1996), in which he played a pimp, and “The Loss of Sexual Innocence” (1999), in which Figgis fused the story of Adam and Eve with that of a filmmaker (Sands) drifting in and out of his sexual memories.

“Since this is a film of images rather than words, it requires a great deal of presence and expressiveness on the part of the actors,” Kevin Thomas wrote in his review of “The Loss of Sexual Innocence” in the Los Angeles Times. “Happily, Figgis has chosen well, with Sands effortlessly carrying by far the most demanding role of a man of isolating self-absorption.”

Julian Richard Morley Sands was born Jan. 4, 1958, in Otley, England, to Richard and Brenda Sands and grew up in nearby Gargrave. He began acting as a child, inspired in part by his mother’s work in amateur theater. When he was 6, he told The Yorkshire Post in 2013, he appeared in a play; his first line was “My master, the great Aladdin.”

He studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London but left in 1979 to form a youth theater that performed at schools and clubs. His screen career began in the early 1980s, with small roles in movies like “Oxford Blues” and “The Killing Fields,” and in “The Sun Also Rises,” a miniseries based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel.

Sands’ other roles included an entomologist in “Arachnophobia” (1990), Louis XIV in “Vatel” (2000), Jor-El, Superman’s father, in two episodes of the television series “Smallville” (in 2009 and 2010), and a sadistic farmer in the Czech film “The Painted Bird” (2019), an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel about a homeless and abused boy during World War II.

“I was drawn to ‘The Painted Bird’ because of its unflinching, stark but ultimately redemptive consideration of human endurance,” Sands told the website Moviemaker in 2020. “The bleak hinterland of war-torn Eastern Europe is as beautiful and moving as it is disturbing and grotesque.”

Sands appeared onstage occasionally and earned a Drama Desk nomination in 2013 for his one-man show, “A Celebration of Harold Pinter.” Sands performed the show, which was directed by John Malkovich, at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York in 2012 (and again in 2016) and took it to Houston; Sarasota, Florida; East Lansing, Michigan; and other cities over the course of several years.

Sands’ survivors include his wife, Evgenia Citkowitz; his daughters, Natalya and Imogen; and his son, Henry. His marriage to Sarah Harvey ended in divorce.

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