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Albert Finney, cinema's original 'angry young man', dies aged 82

The Guardian logo The Guardian 08/02/2019 Andrew Pulver

English actor Albert Finney, 1985. © Getty English actor Albert Finney, 1985. Albert Finney, who forged his reputation as one of the leading actors of Britain’s early 60s new wave cinema, has died aged 82 after a short illness, his family have announced. In 2011, he disclosed he had been suffering from kidney cancer. Having shot to fame as the star of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney received five Oscar nominations, but never won, and refused a knighthood.

Born in Salford in 1936, Finney grew up the son of a bookmaker as part of what he called the “lower middle class”. Encouraged by his headmaster at Salford Grammar school, Finney got a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he found himself in the same class as Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates. Having established himself as a theatre actor, Finney capitalised on the late-50s surge of interest in “northern” material, and found himself cast, first, in a small role in the film adaptation of John Osborne’s The Entertainer (set in Morecambe) and then as the lead in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as rambunctious factory worker Arthur Seaton.

© Getty

Directed by Karel Reisz and released in 1960, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning proved to be extremely popular as well as a key film in the “angry” cinema of the period. As described in The Guide to British Cinema, Finney exuded “a mixture of defiance and selfishness overlaid with a raw sexuality”, and allied with his unarguable screen charisma, he became a major star almost overnight.

English actor Albert Finney as factory worker Arthur Seaton in the film 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', 1960. © Getty English actor Albert Finney as factory worker Arthur Seaton in the film 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', 1960. Finney then became the face of British cinema’s international explosion after being cast in the title role of Tom Jones, directed by The Entertainer’s Tony Richardson. Tom Jones, with its bawdy humour and rollicking atmosphere, was a sizeable hit in the US, and won four Oscars (including best picture); Finney received the first of his four best actor nominations, but lost to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field.

Actor Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn frolicking on the beach in Stanley Donen's 1967 film Two For The Road. © Getty Actor Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn frolicking on the beach in Stanley Donen's 1967 film Two For The Road.

Roles followed in Karel Reisz’s Night Must Fall and the Stanley Donen-directed Two for the Road, opposite Audrey Hepburn; Finney then turned director, with the 1968 release Charlie Bubbles. Written by Shelagh Delaney, the tale of a successful writer returning to his Manchester hometown was clearly highly personal for Finney, though it would prove to be his only directorial credit. He also used his increased clout (and money) to supporting other British new wave figures, backing Lindsay Anderson’s radical If… and its follow-up O Lucky Man!, as well as Mike Leigh’s 1971 debut feature Bleak Moments.

Actor Albert Finney in Glasgow, 3rd March 1963. (Photo by Hamilton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images) © Getty Actor Albert Finney in Glasgow, 3rd March 1963. (Photo by Hamilton/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

In the ensuing decade, Finney’s status as an established star saw him appear in a wide variety of material, including a mainstream musical (Scrooge), a low-budget crime comedy (Gumshoe, Stephen Frears’ directorial debut) and the star-packed Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express, in which he successfully impersonated Hercule Poirot.

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Finney’s matinee-idol days were well behind him, and he became a considerable eminence in the 1980s. Alan Parker cast him opposite Diane Keaton in Shoot the Moon, the 1982 study of a disintegrating marriage, while he played the aging “Sir” in the Peter Yates-directed The Dresser, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, in which Finney played alcoholic ex-diplomat Geoffrey Firmin, brought him his fourth and final best actor Oscar nomination – though he would go on to earn a best supporting actor nomination in 2001 for the Steven Soderbergh-directed Eric Brockovich.

Watch: Albert Finney and Sir Alec Guinness sing 'Thank You Very Much' in 1970 film Scrooge (Independent)

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He also appeared in a string of high profile TV dramas, including Dennis Potter’s final works Karaoke and Cold Lazarus, the Angela Lambert adaptation A Rather English Marriage, and as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm in 2002, for which he won Bafta, Golden Globe and Emmy awards. Finney also continued to make regular stage appearances throughout his career, including A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1968, Krapp’s Last Tape in 1973, and the 1984 revival of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance at the Old Vic.

Actor Albert Finney in Glasgow, 3rd March 1963. © Getty Actor Albert Finney in Glasgow, 3rd March 1963. After the Coen brothers cast him in Miller’s Crossing, playing Irish-American mobster Leo O’Bannon, Finney began to acquire a certain cachet among the new generation of American film-makers who revered his work in the 1960s: Soderbergh cast him in Traffic and Eric Brockovich and Tim Burton in Corpse Bride and Big Fish. His final substantial role would prove to be as the gamekeeper Kincade in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall.

Finney twice turned down official honours – a CBE in 1980, and a knighthood in 2000 – and revealed in 2011 he had overcome cancer after successful treatment. He was married three times, to actors Jane Wenham and Anouk Aimeé from 1957-61 and 1970-78 respectively, and travel agent Pene Delmage in 2006. He is survived by Delmage and his son Simon, from his first marriage.

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