London: Albert Finney, the charismatic Academy Award-nominated British actor who starred in films from “Tom Jones” to “Skyfall,” has died. He was 82. Finney’s family said Friday that he “passed away peacefully after a short illness with those closest to him by his side.” He died Thursday from a chest infection at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London.
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. 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. There was no “Albert Finney”-type character that he returned to again and again. In one of his final roles, as the gruff Scotsman Kincade in “Skyfall,” he shared significant screen time with Daniel Craig as Bond and Judi Dench as M, turning the film’s final scenes into a master class of character acting.
Although Finney rarely discussed his personal life, he told the Manchester Evening News in 2012 that he had been treated for kidney cancer for five years, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. He also explained why he had not attended the Academy Awards in Los Angeles even when he was nominated for the film world’s top prize. “It seems silly to go over there and beg for an award,” he told the paper. 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. He credited the headmaster of his local school, Eric Simms, for recommending that he attend the renowned drama school. “He’s the reason I am an actor,” Finney said in 2012. 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.
Soon some critics were hailing him as “the next Laurence Olivier” – a commanding presence who would light up the British stage. Britain’s pre-eminent theater critic, Kenneth Tynan, called the young Finney a “smoldering young Spencer Tracy” and warned established star Richard Burton about his prowess. In London, Finney excelled both in Shakespeare’s plays and in more contemporary offerings.
Still, the young man seemed determined not to pursue conventional Hollywood stardom. 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.
That was the role that introduced Finney to American audiences, and few would forget the lusty, blue-eyed leading man who helped the film win a Best Picture Oscar. Finney also earned his first Best Actor nomination for his efforts and the smash hit turned him into a Hollywood leading man. Director Tony Richardson said his goal for “Tom Jones” was simply to produce an enjoyable romp.
“No social significance for once,” he said. “No contemporary problems to lay bare. Just a lot of colorful, sexy fun.” Finney had the good fortune to receive a healthy percentage of the profits from the surprise hit, giving him financial security while he was still in his 20s. “This is a man from very humble origins who became rich when he was very young,” said Quentin Falk, author of an unauthorized biography of Finney.
“It brought him a lot of side benefits. He’s a man who likes to live as well as to act. He enjoys his fine wine and cigars. He’s his own man. I find that rather admirable.” 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 didn’t believe in such honors.
“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. And it also helps keep us ‘quaint,’ which I’m not a great fan of.” Instead of cashing in by taking lucrative film roles after “Tom Jones,” Finney took a long sabbatical, travelling slowly through the United States, Mexico and the Pacific islands, then returned to the London stage to act in Shakespeare productions and other plays.
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