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David Farrar, 87, British Actor Who Made Villains a Specialty

By DAVID STOUT Published: September 9, 1995

David Farrar, a British actor whose dark and rather sinister good looks helped to vault him to fame and then helped to diminish it, died on Aug. 31 in South Africa, where he had lived in recent years. He was 87.

Mr. Farrar became well known to American audiences in the 1940's, in large part because of his starring roles in two films directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, "Black Narcissus," released in 1946, and "The Small Back Room," made in 1948.

In the former, considered by movie lovers a work of exquisite pictorial beauty and one of the most erotically charged films of the era, he played a government agent responsible for the safety of convent nuns in the Himalayas.

In the latter, he played a physically and emotionally crippled bomb-disposal officer in a role that blended arrogance, awkwardness and vulnerability.

A review of "Black Narcissus" predicted, accurately, that Mr. Farrar's acting abilities and "sturdy masculine features" would send Hollywood agents "scurrying after him."

Unfortunately, agents and directors had noted a certain sneering quality in Mr. Farrar's acting, and they thought him ideal to play villains. Mr. Farrar usually found himself playing the No. 3 part behind two American stars.

"The Black Shield of Falworth," in particular, was an embarrassment to Mr. Farrar. The 1954 movie with a supposedly medieval setting featured him behind Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in a drama that one critic panned as "tights and tin suits and plaster castles and snugly laced bodices."

In 1955, Mr. Farrar was cast behind John Wayne and Lana Turner in "The Sea Chase," playing the commander of a warship.

Mr. Farrar told friends that he considered himself an actor first and a star second. He was born in London, and had his first stage role at 12 in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He quit school at 14, worked briefly for British newspapers, then devoted himself entirely to acting.

His breakthrough came in the 1944 film "Meet Sexton Blake," a low-budget thriller. By the time he starred in "Black Narcissus," he was well known to American moviegoers and was spending much of his time in Hollywood.

Mr. Farrar acted in many other films, generally as a villain and, later, in cameo roles. His last film was "The 300 Spartans" in 1962.

His wife, Irene, whom he married in 1931, died in 1976. He is survived by a daughter.

Other P&P obituaries