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Albert Finney (9 May 1936 – 7 February 2019)

You could argue that Albert Finney was destined for acting greatness by the company he kept in his first outings on the stage. Fresh from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), one of Finney’s earliest roles was alongside Charles Laughton in The Face of Love, and later he replaced an unwell Laurence Olivier in a production of Coriolanus. He made his first appearance on the big screen, and this time with Olivier, in The Entertainer (1960), but his breakthrough role came in the same year, as the disaffected factory worker, Arthur Seaton, in Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It was a blistering, angry performance, and one that put him in the running to play T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But at the point of being offered the part, he baulked at the idea of being signed to a multi-year contract, and returned to the stage until another screen role came along that did change his life: that of the lust-driven rogue Tom Jones.

Established internationally as a major star, Finney eschewed the limelight for further returns to the stage, and throughout the Sixties he would alternate between treading the boards and appearing on the silver screen. His body of work during this period – and on into the Seventies – was astonishing for the breadth of the roles he took on, and the consistent high quality of his acting. Finney became dependable in a way that few stars would ever match in their careers, turning his hand equally well to dramas, comedies, and musicals. He was versatile, and unafraid to take risks, though his role as Hercule Poirot in the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express nearly typecast him with audiences for years. In the early Eighties he had a string of roles that cemented his position as one of the leading actors of his generation, and even though the projects he chose from the middle of the decade onwards weren’t as successful as his previous choices, Finney always gave his best, and in the case of movies such as Orphans (1987), was often the best thing about them.

The Nineties saw Finney continue to work steadily across all media, and on television he made memorable contributions to a couple of plays by Dennis Potter, even appearing in one of them, Cold Lazarus (1996), as a disembodied head. He had something of a banner year in 2000, thanks to a wonderfully expressive performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, and by refusing a knighthood from the Queen because he felt the UK honours system “perpetuated snobbery” (though he did accept a BAFTA Fellowship in 2001). The rest of the decade again saw Finney working steadily, and continuing to pick up awards for his work, and maintaining a level of quality in his work that was always hugely impressive (and which over time was heavily rewarded, though he never won an Oscar, despite being nominated five times). He was always a challenging, instinctive actor, true to the characters he played, and no stranger to versatility. Like many of his peers – he was at RADA with Peter O’Toole, and he was born on the same day as Glenda Jackson – Finney came to prominence at a time when cinema and the theatre were pushing at the boundaries of what both disciplines could achieve, and to his credit, he continued to do the same for the rest of his career.

1 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

2 – Tom Jones (1963)

3 – Two for the Road (1967)

4 – Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

5 – Shoot the Moon (1982)

6 – The Dresser (1983)

7 – Under the Volcano (1984)

8 – Miller’s Crossing (1990)

9 – Erin Brockovich (2000)

10 – The Gathering Storm (2002)