Albert Finney, the British stage and film actor who defined an era’s rage and frustration in dramas of blue-collar realism and social revolt and who went on to find stardom in Hollywood, died Thursday in London. He was 82.
His death, at the Royal Marsden Hospital, was confirmed by Jon Oakley, a partner at Simkins, a law firm that represents the Finney family. The cause was a chest infection, he said.
Finney became one of his generation’s finest and most honoured actors over six decades, a frequent nominee for an Oscar and Britain’s equivalent of one, the BAFTA; a star as comfortable in movies like “Tom Jones,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Under the Volcano” and “Erin Brockovich” as he was on the classical British stage.
He first came to wide attention alongside contemporaries like Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay, actors collectively known as “angry young men” – counterparts to the playwrights and novelists who shared that sobriquet. Together they helped turn Britain’s gaze inward, toward gritty industrial landscapes, where a generation of disaffected youth railed against the class system and the claustrophobic trap it laid for workers locked in dead-end jobs.
Finney was propelled to early stardom by “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” a low-budget 1960 film steeped in smoggy vistas of smokestacks and deprivation and shot in stark black and white. Finney played Arthur Seaton, a restless young man caught in sexual adventures and bouts of beer-drinking that are supposed to distract him from his job at a cavernous bicycle factory.
His broad-voweled northern accent injected a powerful authenticity into the part, and his acting style drew favourable comparisons to such titans of the English stage as Laurence Olivier. Yet he preferred wealth to accolades, according to his biographer, Quentin Falk.
“At the turn of the Sixties, Finney was the screen’s incarnation of the new working-class hero,” Falk wrote in “Albert Finney in Character,” published in 1992 and republished in 2015. “In the theatre, he was barely 20 when he was hailed as the ‘new Olivier.’ Yet instead of pursuing either mantle, he became a millionaire and made love to beautiful women on several continents.”
Falk added: “To some he is still the leading actor of his generation; to others, though, he has suffered an ambition bypass. To even severer critics, he appears to have remained cheerfully indolent, almost wilfully failing to fulfill the remarkable early promise.”
The angry young men “were indignant because little seemed to be changing in postwar Britain,” author Nora Sayre wrote in The New York Times in 2000. She added, “They thought there were few opportunities for the young.”
Their characters grew from the work of novelists like Alan Sillitoe (who adapted his novel in writing the script of “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”), John Braine and David Storey, and the playwright John Osborne, whose “Look Back in Anger” set the parameters for what became known as kitchen-sink dramas of the late 1950s and 1960s.
“Stocky and obdurate, Mr. Finney spits with aggression, walks with impatience and indicates that laws exist to be broken,” Sayre wrote. “His morose, craggy face looks as though it has been pummelled by experience.”
The angry young men were a prelude to the explosion of creativity and license that characterized the swinging Sixties, when the songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other bands were anthems to a new permissiveness that changed British society.
Finney went on to play an eclectic array of movie roles, from the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s star-studded version of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1975, to the pugnacious lawyer Edward L. Masry, who hires the crusading title character (Julia Roberts) in “Erin Brockovich” (2000), Steven Soderbergh’s tale of a power company pollution scandal.
But in 2007, Finney dropped out of sight, disclosing only in 2011 that he had been struggling for four years with cancer. After his return to acting, he took small parts in the thriller “The Bourne Legacy” and the James Bond movie “Skyfall,” both in 2012.
“The pattern of my life is that there is no pattern,” Finney once said. “In work I like doing things that are different, contrasting. I’m lurching rather than pointing in any given direction.”
An episode in 1960 seemed to confirm that self-assessment. Finney had a long screen test for the lead role in David Lean’s epic movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” but, according to Falk, he rejected a lucrative five-year contract with the film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, saying, “I didn’t know where I want to be in five years’ time – or tomorrow for that matter.”
The role, of the adventurer T.E. Lawrence, went to Peter O’Toole and turned him into an international star.
Finney was nominated five times for an Oscar, four for best actor: as the title character in “Tom Jones,” Tony Richardson’s 1963 adaptation of the Henry Fielding novel; as Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express”; as an aging, embittered actor in Peter Yates’ 1983 version of “The Dresser”; and as an alcoholic British consul in a small town in Mexico in John Huston’s “Under the Volcano,” based on the Malcolm Lowry novel. His performance in “Erin Brockovich” earned him a best-supporting actor nomination.
He was also nominated 13 times for a BAFTA and won twice – as “most promising newcomer” in 1960 and, in 2002, as Winston Churchill in “The Gathering Storm,” a BBC-HBO television movie that also brought him a best-actor Emmy.
He never won an Oscar, however, and made a point of not attending the glittering award ceremonies.
“It’s a very long evening and not exactly my idea of a good night out,” Falk quoted him as saying – “sat there for five fours in a non-smoking, nondrinking environment.”
During the Oscars ceremony in 1963, Finney was cruising aboard a luxurious catamaran off Hawaii while a news crew, surrounded by a throng of onlookers, awaited his return to port in case he won the award for his role in “Tom Jones.”
From an upper deck, Finney had a clear view onto the approaching quay side. “Suddenly,” Falk wrote, “Finney saw a man pushing his way through the crowd, shouting: ‘Wrap it up. He didn’t win.’ Sidney Poitier had.” (Poitier won for “Lillies of the Field.”)
By the time the catamaran docked, the news crew and its equipment had disappeared.
Finney’s aversion to such accolades extended even to Britain’s own system of medals, knighthoods and peerages. In 2000, he turned down an opportunity to become Sir Albert Finney, echoing an earlier rejection of a lesser award. He said the honours system was a way of “perpetuating snobbery.”
Albert Finney was born on May 9, 1936, in Salford, near Manchester in northwest England, the third child and first son of Alice Hobson, who left school at age 14 to work in a mill, and Albert Finney Sr., who made his living as a turf accountant, or “bookie,” running bets on horse-racing.
The family lived at first in a row house – the familiar cramped accommodation of the working classes in a region where the Industrial Revolution had spread a patina of grime, grit and pollution over back-to-back homes separated by cobbled alleyways and streets. Overshadowed by the nearby northern metropolis of Manchester, Salford was known as a factory town and inland port, and its docklands became a target for German bombers during World War II.
In 1941, when Finney was 5 years old, the family was bombed out of its row house and moved to a more genteel home across town.
“Though Finney himself would later come to personify the working-class hero in several of his earliest roles,” Falk wrote, the move to a new area “confirmed a strictly lower-middle-class status for a family who were never really less than comfortably off.”
As a high school student at Salford Grammar School, Finney displayed both a liking for the theatre and a poor grasp of academic subjects. A teacher suggested that he apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts – Britain’s premier acting school, usually known as RADA – where he auditioned in 1953 and won a scholarship.
By 20, he had completed his course at RADA and was playing parts in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at a repertory theatre in Birmingham, in the English Midlands. He went on to play Henry V in the play of the same name – one of many Shakespearean roles that established his reputation on the stage.
Besides Shakespeare, he had leading roles in plays by Anton Chekhov, Samuel Beckett, August Strindberg and John Osborne.
Finney met Jane Wenham, a fellow actor, in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1957. The couple married and had a son, Simon (who became a film technician). They divorced in 1961. Finney married the French actress Anouk Aimée in 1970. They divorced in 1978. He married Pene Delmage, a travel specialist, in 2006.
He is survived by his wife, his son and two grandchildren.
The low-budget “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” filmed on location in Nottingham and at Twickenham Studios, was Finney’s big break. Three years later, the critical and box-office success of “Tom Jones,” which won three Oscars, including best picture, made him a millionaire at the age of 27, according to Falk. He took a 10-month break to travel the world for much of 1964.
As Finney’s career unfolded, movies overlapped with stage plays and musical films, including “Scrooge” in 1970 and “Annie” in 1982, when Finney shaved his head to play the part of Daddy Warbucks. He made his American television debut with a biopic in 1984 in which he played Pope John Paul II.
“I often wondered why I am an actor,” Finney told a television interviewer in 1962, then seemed to answer the question, speaking of the profession as a very public form of escape. “I think I am always watching and balancing, and sort of tabulating my own emotions,” he said. “And the only way I can lose myself is when I’m acting.”