Born: August 6, 1926;
Died: January 30, 2016
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FRANK Finlay, who has died aged 89, was a fine actor who made his reputation on stage at the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and had success with an early film role which won him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.
Strikingly handsome, and with a resonant voice, Finlay went on to give ample evidence of his talent on television and the big screen, but never quite achieved the recognition of some of his contemporaries. Finlay has no entry in the fifth edition of David Thomson’s substantial New Biographical Dictionary of Film, for example, while the account of Albert Finney’s career runs to almost a page.
In an interview in the 1990s Finlay was asked why he had never been knighted, an omission many of his fans found odd. He modestly responded that perhaps he had “never been high-profile enough” (he was, however, appointed CBE in 1984).
As a character actor, however, he was undoubtedly in the first rank. The role that brought him Oscar attention, as Iago to Laurence Olivier’s Othello, was – rather unusually – better received on film than his performance in the National Theatre’s production, with Maggie Smith as Desdemona, which preceded it (both were in 1965). But he was electrifying in a slew of other classical roles on stage – notably as Salieri in the West End transfer of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979), replacing Paul Scofield.
Besides Iago, his best-known film performances were probably as Porthos in Richard Lester’s rollicking trilogy The Three Musketeers (1973); The Four Musketeers (1974) and The Return of the Musketeers (1989) and, much later, as the father of Adrien Brody’s character in Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist (2002).
On television, he was Valjean in the adaptation of Les Miserables (1967) and terrific in the title role in Dennis Potter’s Casanova (1971), which brought him a wide audience and a Bafta nomination. Three years later, he received a Bafta as best actor, having been nominated for three roles: his portrayal of Hitler in an ITV Saturday Night Theatre dramatisation of the dictator’s last days, as Sancho Panza in a version of Don Quixote and as Voltaire in Candide.
He popped up in other adaptations of classics; on screen as Inspector Lestrade in several Sherlock Holmes films, and on TV versions of Dracula (as Van Helsing) and A Christmas Carol (as Marley, opposite George C Scott as Scrooge). He also starred in LWT's 1969 taboo-breaking adaptation of the Andrea Newman novel Bouquet of Barbed Wire.
One of his other memorable appearances was in the first series of what was then The Black Adder, when he sent up his Shakespearean background with a scenery-chewing turn as the manic, fur-clad “Witchsmeller Pursuivant” cross-examining Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder (1983).
Francis Finlay was born in Farnworth, Lancashire, on August 6 1926, into a Roman Catholic family; his father Josiah was a butcher. He left St Gregory the Great aged 14 to follow his father into the trade, but he also began acting with Farnworth Little Theatre, where he met his wife Doreen Shepherd, a fellow member. They married in 1954 and had two sons and a daughter.
Though he finished his apprenticeship, Finlay decided to make a stab at the professional stage and entered rep in 1957 with the Guildford Theatre Company in 1957. He also attended Rada, and from 1958 took on a series of roles at the Royal Court, often in new work – he created several roles in the plays of Arnold Wesker. He made his Broadway debut in The Epitaph of George Dillon (1959). The same year he toured with The Long and the Short and the Tall.
His first screen role was a small part in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and he featured in several British films of the early 1960s, including Doctor in Distress and A Study in Terror (as Lestrade). Most of his energies were concentrated on the stage, however, until he recreated Iago on screen.
Other roles included an effective villain in the preposterous but entertaining Shaft in Africa (1973) and a priest in the mercenary adventure The Wild Geese (1978); he had been the front-runner to play the James Bond villain Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, but in the end Charles Gray took the part.
Finlay, who lived near the studios at Shepperton, in Middlesex, was a devout and observant Roman Catholic and an equally assiduous member of the Garrick Club. His wife died in 2005, after 50 years of marriage; all three of their children became actors.