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Albert Finney: Bookie's son who rose to stardom

17 February 2019 - 00:00 By Daily Telegraph

Albert Finney, who has died at the age of 82, was one of several British actors regarded in the 1950s as a successor to Laurence Olivier, who he once understudied in Coriolanus.
Though he eventually played a wide range of roles, he made his name in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) as a British working-class rebel who audiences identified as the archetypal angry young man.
It was the first and only time he played such a part, drawing on his own background in working-class Lancashire.
He was born on May 9 1936 in Salford, now part of the Greater Manchester area, one of three children of Albert Finney snr, a bookie, and Alice, née Hobson, who had been a mill worker.
Growing up around the mills and smokestacks of postwar Lancashire, he was aware at an early age of the sense of social injustice that informs Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
He attended the local grammar school and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. In his first two years with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, he was acclaimed in the title roles of Henry V and Hamlet. Not all performances were so well received, however. His Macbeth was dismissed by Charles Laughton as "bloody terrible".
In 1959 Finney transferred to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford, where he played Edgar in King Lear, Cassio in Othello and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was an unhappy time for him, marked by a faltering run in 1960 in the Cambridge Theatre production of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall's play Billy Liar and the breakdown in 1961 of his first marriage, to actress Jane Wenham. But it also marked the beginning of Finney's film career.
His breakthrough lead role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a zeitgeist-shifting moment. Cinemagoers had never before seen or heard working-class realism as raw as this on screen. His character's bloody-mindedness mirrored sentiments that dovetailed perfectly with the era of the angry young man. It led immediately to further successes.
He scored his second-biggest hit in the Oscar-winning historical romp Tom Jones (1963). Tom Jones in the film is a devil-may-care Lothario on a bed-to-bed trawl through Henry Fielding's 18th-century England.
Years after the film had passed from general circulation, it was remembered for the classic scene in which Finney and one of his conquests (played by Joyce Redman, who, like Finney, received an Oscar nomination) devour poultry in a drooling frenzy in anticipation of the sex they'll soon have.
Finney's theatrical ambitions seemed largely to lapse in favour of screen appearances of varying quality. He made a great number of films, ranging from horror movies like Wolfen (1989) to musicals - he played Daddy Warbucks, the mean millionaire, in John Huston's misjudged adaptation of Annie (1981).
Pot-boilers like these were sandwiched between superior work that was generally Oscar-nominated. These films included a wonderfully crusty Scrooge in 1970, a masterly assumption of the role of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's ace detective, in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and the film of Ronald Harwood's play The Dresser (1983).
Finney was a moving alcoholic in Under the Volcano (1984), an Irish-American gangster in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990), the pitiful schoolmaster on the verge of being pensioned off in The Browning Version, and a surprisingly convincing small-time American lawyer teaming up with Julia Roberts's force-of-nature legal clerk in Erin Brockovich (2000).
In 2012 he put in an enjoyable turn in Skyfall as the lethal old gamekeeper who assists Daniel Craig's James Bond in perpetrating mayhem.
The angry young man had evolved into a character actor of distinction, but he never took himself too seriously. In 1980 he turned down the offer of a CBE and in 2000 he declined a knighthood; he criticised the UK's honours system as "perpetuating snobbery".
His initial promise was well recognised in Britain (Olivier had called him the best actor of his generation), but he was, perhaps, more appreciated in the US, where he won Golden Globe awards for his work in Tom Jones, Scrooge and The Gathering Storm. Though he never won one, he was nominated five times for Oscars.
Finney married Wenham in 1957. They had a son but divorced in 1961, and in 1970 he married French actress Anouk Aimée. They divorced in 1978 and in 2006 he married Pene Delmage. She survives him along with his son.

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