Actor who was at the vanguard of the 1960s revolution in theatre and film

Born: May 9, 1936;

Died: February 7, 2019

ALBERT Finney, who has died of cancer aged 82, was the son of a Salford bookie and was sceptical when his headteacher put him forward for a scholarship at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Finney was in his own words uncouth and ungainly and acting was a profession for the toffs. Or at least it had been.

A wind of change was sweeping through theatre and cinema. The time was right and Finney was part of a generation of young actors, with working-class and/or “provincial” roots, a generation that included Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

Finney had the talent and character to go to the top, even while turning down prestigious roles that other aspiring actors and stars would kill for. He succeeded on his terms, often choosing theatre over movies, when so many of his contemporaries had settled for the fame and fortune that Hollywood offered. The cocky working-class character who takes s**t from no one – Finney was the real deal.

He made his West End debut in 1958 in Jane Arden’s controversial play about mental illness The Party, which also starred and was directed by the legendary Charles Laughton, and which played for four nights at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, before its London opening.

The following year he took over from Laurence Olivier in the RSC’s production of Coriolanus. But many first became aware of Finney when he took the lead role of factory worker Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), bucking the system and pursuing his pleasures wherever he can.

Seaton self-confidently articulated his approach to life and his defiance of the established order in just seven words – “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Finney was born in Salford, near Manchester, in 1936. He went to grammar school and showed promise in school plays and little else, leaving with a solitary O Level, in geography. But he found his way to London and RADA.

David Lean wanted Finney for Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but he turned it down and the part went to O’Toole. Instead Finney brought that same cheek he had shown as Arthur Seaton to the period romp Tom Jones (1963).

He had a deal that brought him a share of the profits and it reputedly made him a millionaire in his twenties. It also brought him the first of five Oscar nominations. He never bothered going and never won, though there were lots of other honours for film, television and theatre.

He even turned down the Queen, declining first a CBE and more recently a knighthood. Although he eschewed fame, Finney enjoyed fortune. He owned race horses, a passion since childhood visits to the track with his father, and he had a Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur, who would drive him to some upmarket restaurant and would then be invited to join the party. Finney loved fine dining and fine wines and it showed in his waistline at times.

Finney also enjoyed relationships with a succession of attractive women, many of them famous, including Audrey Hepburn, his co-star in the underrated, bitter-sweet Two for the Road (1967). He was married three times, firstly in 1957 to actress Jane Wenham, but it lasted only a few years. His second wife was the French actress Anouk Aimee, a union that also ended in divorce.

Other great roles and great films followed, some universally-regarded classics and some neglected gems, including Gumshoe (1971), in which he is a bingo caller with aspirations of being Philip Marlowe, and John Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984), as the doomed protagonist in Mexico in the late 1930s.

Finney could do Shakespeare and he could do musicals, playing the title role in Scrooge (1970) and Daddy Warbucks in Annie (1982). He was unrecognisable as the man who played Arthur Seaton when he became a rather cartoonish Hercule Poirot in the star-studded Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express (1974), though he turned down the sequel Death on the Nile (1978) and Peter Ustinov took over.

And, 16 years before Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance, Finney successfully transformed himself into Churchill in the TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002), which won him Bafta, Emmy and Golden Globe awards.

On stage he was Hamlet at the National Theatre in London in 1976 and he appeared in Luther at the Empire in Edinburgh in 1961, Henry IV, The Birthday Party and The School for Scandal at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow in 1963, Love for Love at the King’s in Edinburgh in 1965 and Another Time at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow in 1989.

More recently he was in a couple of the Bourne movies and his final screen role brought him back to Scotland once again – at least in terms of the story. He played the old Bond family retainer Kincade in the dramatic final battle in Skyfall (2012). Although some shooting took place in the Highlands, the Bond family home was actually built in Surrey.

Finney is survived by his third wife Penelope, with whom he had been living for 30 years, and by a son from his first marriage.