Albert Finney, the esteemed British actor and five-time Oscar nominee known for his shape-shifting work in such films as Tom Jones, The Dresser, Murder on the Orient Express and Erin Brockovich, has died. He was 82.
Finney’s family told the Associated Press on Friday that he “passed away peacefully after a short illness with those closest to him by his side.” He died the day before at a hospital in London after being diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2007.
One of the godfathers of modern British cinema, Finney mixed film, TV and stage performances throughout a standout career that spanned six decades. He never succumbed to the allure of screen stardom and was given BAFTA’s Academy Fellowship award (the equivalent of a lifetime Oscar) in 2001.
The restless actor also won an Emmy for portraying Winston Churchill opposite Vanessa Redgrave as his wife in the 2002 BBC-HBO telefilm The Gathering Storm.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed best actor Oscar noms on Finney for playing the bawdy title character in the best picture winner Tom Jones (1963), directed by frequent collaborator Tony Richardson; for his work as the mysterious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express; for his performance as a temperamental, fading actor in Peter Yates’ The Dresser (1983); and for starring as an alcoholic British consul in Under the Volcano (1984), helmed by John Huston.
Finney received another Oscar nom, for best supporting actor, for portraying the crusading California environmental lawyer Ed Masry in Erin Brockovich (2000).
Yet for all his nominations, he never once attended the Academy Awards ceremony. “It’s a long way to go just to sit in a non-drinking, non-smoking environment on the off-chance your name is called,” he told The Telegraph in 2011.
Perhaps the actor’s showiest role was as the Prohibition-era Irish gangster Leo O’Bannon in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), where he fought off an ambush amid the strains of “Danny Boy.”
He also played the bald and curmudgeonly Daddy Warbucks for Huston in Annie (1982).
David Lean originally selected him for the title role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but Finney turned it down because it required him to sign a multiyear studio contract. The part in one of the greatest films ever made went to, of course, Peter O’Toole.
More recently, Finney portrayed the evil psychologist Albert Hirsch in the Jason Bourne movies released in 2007 and 2012 and was seen as the Scottish gamekeeper Kincade in the 2012 James Bond installment Skyfall. That would mark his final onscreen appearance.
Legendary for his Shakespearean prowess, he also received Tony Award nominations in 1964 and 1968 for his work in Luther (as Martin Luther) and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, respectively.
Finney’s respect for acting, rather than the trappings of celebrity — he turned down offers for a CBE and a knighthood — allowed him to seek out parts for their character depth rather than the notoriety they might bring him. Often, he was unrecognizable under makeup or in costume, and he was known for his mastery of accents.
The son and grandson of bookmakers, Albert Finney Jr. was born on May 9, 1936, in Salford, near Manchester. His childhood home was damaged by German bombs during World War II.
Finney graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1955 and early on served as an understudy to Laurence Oliver. While filling in on stage for the famed actor in the title role in Coriolanus, he attracted notice and film offers.
Finney made his first feature appearance alongside Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) under Richardson, for whom he also frequently worked in the theater. In the “kitchen sink” drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), he played the anti-hero Arthur Seaton, an angry factory worker mired in an environment not unlike the one he experienced during his working-class upbringing.
Finney was considered one of most talented performers to come out of Britain in his country’s ’60s cinema heyday, but that did not damper his enthusiasm for the theater, and he continued to perform on U.K. stages, taking the lead in King Lear and Hamlet.
“When I worked those years at the National Theatre,” Finney told The New York Times in 1983, “people were always saying that I could have been in Hollywood making this or that amount of money. But you must retain the ability to do what you want to do. I don’t want to be a victim of supporting a lifestyle that you have to get huge salaries to support — even if you do things for nothing.”
After he gained fame for his performance as the privileged 18th century seducer in Tom Jones, he put his career on hold to go sailing for a year.
Finney also starred in Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967), in which he played Audrey Hepburn’s husband during three periods of their lives as they travel around Europe. (The two were reportedly involved romantically during filming.)
That same year, he also made his directorial debut in Charlie Bubbles (1967), starring opposite Liza Minnelli as a man facing midlife doldrums as well.
His other feature credits include Stephen Frears’ Gumshoe (1971), Wolfen (1981), Looker (1981), Shoot the Moon (1982), Rich in Love (1992), The Browning Version (1994), A Man of No Importance (1994), Breakfast of Champions (1999), Traffic (2000), Big Fish (2003), Ridley Scott’s A Good Year (2006) and Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).
On television, he took on a demanding array of characters, playing the title role in the 1984 CBS telefilm Pope John Paul II and then the sexually promiscuous owner of a country inn in a 1990 BBC miniseries, The Green Man.
In 1977, Finney recorded an album of folk ballads that was released by Motown, and his life was said to serve as an inspiration for another famed Manchester native, singer Morrissey.
Finney was married to English actress Jane Wenham from 1957-61, to French actress Anouk Aimee (Oscar-nominated for A Man and a Woman, she left him for actor Ryan O’Neal) from 1970-78 and to travel agent Penelope Delmage since 2006.
She survives him, as does a son, veteran camera operator Simon Finney.