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Albert Finney: face of a matinee idol, soul of a character actor

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Albert Finney charmed the world in "Tom Jones" (1963), hopping from bed to bed with the grin of a reluctant wolf in 18th century matinee idol's clothing.

He found the role dull, according to his director, Tony Richardson. The son of a bookie from Salford, just outside Manchester, England, Finney "thought it wasn't an interesting part," Richardson said, "it was reactive, that all he had to use was his personality. And he found that frustrating."

Luckily for all of us, Finney used that frustration to guide a long, zigzagging career in the movies and on the stage. His awards track record in America was absurd. Five Oscar nominations, no wins. Two Tony Award nominations for his Broadway appearances; no wins.

This is the problem with judging any actor's value by the amount of shiny hardware on the shelf.

Finney died Friday at 82. If you haven't seen his screen debut in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1960), now is the time. In the Angry Young Man era of British drama, Finney's portrayal of working-class Arthur Seaton, drinker, brawler, lover, fighter, turned heads and promised a career to rival Richard Burton's. Or even Laurence Olivier's. Finney understudied Olivier's 1959 triumph in "Coriolanus" at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Remarkably, he managed to avoid getting swallowed whole by the Olivier shadow.

By that time critic Kenneth Tynan had already seen Finney do some student Shakespeare. "A smouldering young Spencer Tracy," he called him. With a beautiful, mellow baritone of a speaking voice, and a grand capacity for sheer enjoyment in all sorts of material, he was off and running.

 

Soon enough critics and fans couldn't quite figure out what sort of career he really had in mind. He took a full year off to travel after "Tom Jones." He passed on "Laurence of Arabia," handing the title role to classmate and roaring-drunken-carouser colleague Peter O'Toole.

His bravura masked considerable insecurity. "I think one always has doubts," he once said. "I always hated it when anybody suggested there ain't no doubt. I mistrusted that."

Finney reportedly turned down a knighthood. "Maybe people in America think being a 'Sir' is a big deal," he said. "But I think we should all be misters together. I think the 'Sir' thing slightly perpetuates one of our diseases in England, which is snobbery."

Younger movie audiences knew Finney best for his later film work. He played Daddy Warbucks in the 1982 film version of "Annie." He was the Irish gangster in the 1990 Coen brothers yarn "Miller's Crossing," Tommy-gunning his enemies to the tune of "Danny Boy."

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