British actor Albert Finney, the Academy Award-nominated star of films from Tom Jones to Skyfall, has died, word coming out Friday of his passing. Finney was a rare star who managed to avoid the Hollywood limelight for more than five decades after bursting to international fame in 1963 in the title role of Tom Jones. The film gained him the first of five Oscar nominations (four were for Best Actor).Although he turned down Lawrence of Arabia”, others followed for Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser, Under the Volcano and Erin Brockovich. In later years, he brought authority to action movies, including the James Bond thriller Skyfall and two of the Bourne films. Displaying the versatility of a virtuoso, Finney portrayed Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, a southern American lawyer, an Irish gangster and an 18th-century rogue, among dozens of other roles over the years. Finney was one of his generation’s finest and most honored actors over six decades. Albert Finney was 82.
The son of a bookmaker, Finney was born May 9, 1936, and grew up in northern England on the outskirts of Manchester. He took to the stage at an early age, doing a number of school plays and — despite his lack of connections and his working-class roots — earning a place at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Finney made his first professional turn at 19 and appeared in several TV movies, including She Stoops to Conquer in 1956 and The Claverdon Road Job the following year. After an extensive screen test, he turned down the chance to play the title role in director David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, clearing the way for fellow RADA graduate Peter O’Toole to take what became a career-defining role. But stardom came to Finney anyway in Tom Jones, where he won over audiences worldwide with his good-natured, funny and sensual portrayal of an 18th-century English rogue.
Finney had a long screen test for the lead role in David Lean’s epic movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” but, apparently, 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.”
Finney tackled Charles Dickens in Scrooge in 1970, 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.
The actor maintained a healthy skepticism about the British establishment and even turned down a knighthood when it was offered, declining to become Sir Albert. Finney once said he did not believe in such honours.
He earned more best actor Oscar nods for his roles in the searing marital drama Shoot the Moon in 1982, co-starring with Diane Keaton, and The Dresser in 1983. He was nominated again in 1984 for his role as a self-destructive alcoholic in director John Huston’s Under the Volcano.
He played in a series of smaller, independent films for a number of years before returning to prominence in 2000 as a southern lawyer in the film Erin Brockovich, which starred Julia Roberts. The film helped introduce Finney to a new generation of moviegoers, and the chemistry between the aging lawyer and his young, aggressive assistant earned him yet another Oscar nomination, this time for best supporting actor. He went on to star in Tim Burton’s Big Fish and portrayed Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, in The Gathering Storm.
(Source: cbc.ca, nytimes.com; Image: youtube)