Albert Finney, one of the leading actors of the postwar period, died Thursday in London from a chest infection. He was 82 and had been battling cancer.
The robust British performer began as a stage actor before transitioning to film. With his gravely voice and rumbling stare he brought an intense realism to his work, rising to fame in such 1960s classics as “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Tom Jones.” He later memorably played Agatha Christie’s legendary sleuth Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express” and impressed critics and audiences with towering performances in “The Dresser” and “Under the Volcano.” Finney was nominated for five Oscars but never won the prize.
In 1963, Finney played the foundling hero in Tony Richardson’s Oscar best picture winner “Tom Jones.” The role made Finney an international movie star and earned him the first of four best actor Oscar nominations. A year earlier, Finney had turned down the title role in “Lawrence of Arabia” because he didn’t want to commit to a multi-picture deal and, he said, stardom frightened him.
Along with his contemporaries Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris, Finney helped define a period where the movie business’s cultural axis shifted in the direction of the U.K. He was part of a new wave of British talent that offered an enticing brand of hell-raising sex appeal. It was a movement that shook off the stuffier, stentorian approach to drama popularized by Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud and replaced it with something that was distinctly blue collar and smoldering.
Finney’s first major screen role was as Arthur Seaton, a machinist in 1960’s Karel Reisz-helmed “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” Widely considered the most convincing of the British “angry young men” dramas, the film was seen as one of the first authentic portraits of working-class youth. With his restless charm and undeniable charisma, Finney seemed to be speaking for a generation when his character says: “All I’m out for is a good time. The rest is propaganda.”
Finney’s own rebelliousness would surface time and again throughout his long career. “I hate being committed — to a girl, or a film producer, or to being a certain kind of bigscreen image,” Finney told the Evening Standard at the time he declined the Lawrence role.
Finney, who began his career in the theater, made his screen debut in a small role as Olivier’s son in 1960’s “The Entertainer.” A few years later, Finney would reject Olivier’s offer to succeed him as head of Britain’s National Theater.
In a 1956 review of a now-forgotten play, “The Face of Love,” British critic Kenneth Tynan called Finney “a smoldering young Spencer Tracy…here is an actor who will soon disturb the dreams of Burton and Scofield.”
As his film career unfolded, Finney began portraying a variety of larger-than-life characters. He earned a second best actor Oscar nom for one of his most popular roles, as Poirot in 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Author Christie reportedly thought Finney’s the best portrayal of her detective hero, but the actor declined an invitation to continue the franchise as Poirot in “Death on the Nile” (Peter Ustinov donned the mustache and assumed the role).
In 1983’s “The Dresser,” adapted from Ronald Harwood’s play, Finney played an aging actor-manager of a small British touring company during WWII. The role was inspired by the great stage actor Donald Wolfit. Pauline Kael called Finney’s hilarious and touching performance “juicy” and cited his “thundering voice and wonderful false humility.” It brought the actor his third best actor Oscar nomination.
The next year Finney gave one of his most controlled performances as the alcoholic consul in John Huston’s adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano.” “His words come out with a peculiar intensity of focus,” critic Roger Ebert wrote, “pulled out of the small hidden core of sobriety deep inside his confusion.” The part earned Finney a fourth Oscar nom as best actor. Nicolas Cage later studied the performance for his Oscar-winning role as an alcoholic in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995).
Other roles displayed Finney’s range as a mature man fighting to stay afloat in deteriorating marriages. He teamed with Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road” (1967), an uneven if ambitious attempt to show the vicissitudes of marriage at three different stages.
In one of his rawest performances, the actor played Diane Keaton’s husband in 1982’s “Shoot the Moon,” a blistering look at a disintegrating marriage. That same year, he shaved his head to play Daddy Warbucks in John Huston’s leaden “Annie,” modeling his manner of speech in affectionate imitation of Huston’s resonant voice. The film itself was an overstuffed bore and something of a commercial disappointment.
In 1968, Finney directed and acted in “Charlie Bubbles,” playing a famous married writer from a working-class background who has an affair. The film is notable for Liza Minnelli’s screen debut.
Finney chewed the scenery as the lead in 1970’s “Scrooge,” a musical version of “A Christmas Carol.” He also had a good time in 1971’s quirky “Gumshoe,” where he played a bingo tournament host who dreams of being Sam Spade. For his small part in Ridley Scott’s 1977 “The Duellists,” he was reportedly paid with a case of champagne.
Finney lent convincing authority to the beefy detective in 1981’s supernatural thriller “Wolfen” and was affecting as a closeted gay bus conductor in 1994’s comedy-drama “A Man of No Importance.”
Another career high point came in the Coen brothers’ 1990 “Miller’s Crossing,” where Finney portrays a stubborn, big-hearted crime boss. After assassins try to burn down his house, Finney’s character goes after them in spectacular fashion, jumping out a bedroom window, before unloading on them with his submachine gun. “Danny Boy” plays throughout the on-screen carnage.
In 2000, Finney earned a fifth and final Oscar nomination, this time for supporting actor for her performance as Julia Roberts’ boss, a gruff attorney, in “Erin Brockovich.” He was a no-show for the telecast because he said he would have had to take too many smoking breaks.
“I’d be in and out every half hour,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
Finney played a dying patriarch in 2004’s Tim Burton-helmed “Big Fish.” He had a miniscule part in the Bourne franchise, appearing as an unethical doctor in 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” and very briefly in 2012’s “The Bourne Legacy.” Finney was more memorable in 2012’s “Skyfall,” playing a surrogate father to James Bond.
Finney also played larger-than-life characters on television, including Winston Churchill in the 2002 biopic “The Gathering Storm” (BBC-HBO), for which he won an Emmy as lead actor. Finney was previously nommed for the 1990 HBO telefilm “The Image,” where he played a TV anchorman.
In 1996-97, Finney was the lead in Dennis Potter’s last television plays, “Karaoke” and “Cold Lazarus.” In the latter, set in the 24th century, Finney appeared as a cryogenically frozen head. In 2001, he received good notices as the rascally uncle of a 10-year-old boy in “My Uncle Silas,” a British TV miniseries that premiered on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” in 2003.
Albert Finney was born in Salford, Greater Manchester, England, and was a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He made major Broadway successes of roles he created in John Osborne’s historical play “Luther” in 1964 and in Peter Nichols’ “A Day in the Life of Joe Egg” in 1968. Both earned him Tony noms as best actor. He also originated the lead in “Billy Liar.” Other actors took over these roles in later film adaptations.
Although much in demand on screen, Finney returned frequently to the stage. He won an Olivier award, the U.K. equivalent of the Tony, for “Orphans” and also appeared in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and in the original London production of Yasmina Reza’s “Art.” Finney would reprise his role in “Orphans” in Alan J. Pakula’s 1987 film adaptation.
In his memoir “The Long-Distance Runner,” director Tony Richardson called “Luther” his most successful collaboration with Finney. “The architecture of his performance, from shivering epileptic novice to the resigned middle-aged sensualist, was monumental,” Richardson wrote.
Rebellious even in his later years, Finney reportedly declined a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1980 and a knighthood in 2000. “The Sir thing slightly perpetuates one of our diseases in England, which is snobbery,” he said.
Finney was married three times, the first time to British actress Jane Wenham, the second to French actress Anouk Aimee. Survivors include Finney’s third wife Pene Delmage, whom he married in 2006; and son Simon Finney, a film technician from his marriage to Wenham, as well as two grandchildren. A funeral will be a private family affair.
In a 1984 interview with the New York Times, Finney reflected on his role in “The Dresser.” He noted that performances, particularly those on stage, have an ephemeral quality, but he insisted that didn’t depress him.
“What a lot of people spend their lives doing may not add up to a hill of beans,” said Finney. “But their love, effort and devotion goes into doing it, and it becomes worthwhile.”