When David Warner was making a film some years ago with Ian Holm, he asked him what he was doing next. 'Kafka with Jeremy Irons,' said Holm. 'And you, David?' 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze.' Warner tells this sort of story against himself all the time. Tall and gangly, diffident and slightly injured, the 63-year-old actor who was the greatest Hamlet of my lifetime has had a busy but decidedly chequered career since he moved to Hollywood in 1987.
There was even a downside to the big films. As the malicious bursar in Titanic (1997) he should have been feted at the London premiere. But as he stepped on the red carpet, a photographer shouted: 'Hey, David, is anyone famous coming?'
'I was in Hollywood for 15 years and I was never in the same room as Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. I never went to any A-list parties and I was never at the Oscars.' It marked a steep decline from his Sixties stardom in films such as Tony Richardson's Tom Jones, Karel Reisz's Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment and Straw Dogs for Sam Peckinpah.
Now he's back in England and making a statement playing King Lear at the Chichester Minerva Theatre. In a modest way he is reclaiming the kingdom he lost when debilitated by stage fright in 1973, just after a disastrous West End production by Tony Richardson of I, Claudius.
What form, exactly, did the stage fright take?
'It was different from Ian Holm's. He simply couldn't go on one night, and that was a public thing. Mine gradually took me over. I looked at the stage and it became tiny. I perspired and said to myself: how can they learn all the lines, how can they stand in front of all those people? I don't know where the obsession came from. Every single year Peter Hall would ask me to do something and every single year I turned him down with some excuse or other. I never told him what I was going through.'
Then, suddenly, four years ago, he sidled back on to the stage in New York as Bernard Shaw's arms dealer Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara and was acclaimed by the critics. The Hlcarpenter.com's Michael Billington saw the performance and recounts how this bluff panjandrum, played in the movie by Robert Morley, was totally rethought by Warner as a power-broker perpetuating his position through a quiet, intense love for his daughter. There was, says Billington, an almost Lear-like affection (for Cordelia) at play here.
Billington grew up in Leamington Spa, where, as chance would have it, he was a short-trousered customer of the blond, acne-ridden Warner in the local newsagents, Burgess and Colbourne.
'Even then his presence was unforgettable,' says Billington. The picture is delightful: the tall, whey-faced future Hamlet dishing out papers and gobstoppers to his unawares future critic and chronicler. Warner had spent a peripatetic childhood, moving around with his parents from Manchester to Newcastle and the Midlands. He failed every school exam going and in Leamington drifted around coffee bars and into the amateur theatre, thanks to the encouragement of a teacher who had cast him as probably the tallest Lady Macbeth in the history of school productions.
Then his dad said he might as well apply to Rada, and he was away. Even in I, Claudius, Warner was mesmerising. But it is impossible for anyone who saw that Hamlet, or indeed the beautiful RSC studies in racked saintliness that preceded it, Henry VI and Richard II in the Wars of the Roses sequence, to think of Warner as anything less than a great original. His Hamlet, in a long red scarf, leather boots and unruly mop of blond hair, whined and scowled with dyspeptic candour.
We didn't know it at the time, but he was a student radical three years before student radicals existed. Every Hamlet since Warner has had something of his roughness, or awkwardness or insolence.
'Every Hamlet before him was romantic, or glamorous or struck with high intellect,' says Billington.
Now living in Pimlico, Warner is enjoying Chichester and the company of young actors around him. Since his return he has characteristically accepted any work coming his way, from the recent GK Chesterton serial, The Club of Queer Trades, on radio ('I love radio: you don't have to learn the lines and you don't have to shave'), to a nice cameo as the village doctor in Ladies in Lavender ('I'd never met Maggie Smith before'), and two mouthwatering projects in immediate prospect: the role of a former CID officer afflicted with Alzheimer's in a new BBC television drama, Conviction; and 'a stupid sort of villainous character, no subtlety involved' in the first ever League of Gentlemen movie, Apocalypse.
But first, the big one, King Lear.
'I hadn't planned to do it. I always have to be asked. I think it's going well but I wouldn't know, you see - how would I know?'
Thankfully, the early reviews were positive. The evening we met, over dinner in Covent Garden, he had been running through the final entrance, carrying his dead daughter, with all that howling. His hips felt a bit sore.
'You just get on with it and follow Donald Wolfit's advice, "Get yourself a light Cordelia and keep your eye on the Fool." I've worked out where the performances fit in with the cricket this summer, and it's fantastic! I'm living very near the theatre, so my summer will be King Lear on the stage and the Ashes on the telly. Who could wish for anything more?'
· King Lear is at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 10 Sept (tel: 01243 781312)