I remember a publicist who was working on the Academy Award campaign for Erin Brockovich complaining that Albert Finney could have won the Oscar that year if he’d only been willing to come to Los Angeles to do some publicity and glad-handing. But that wasn’t Finney’s m.o. He only cared about the work. The fact that he was nominated five times by his fellow actors may have pleased him (we’ll never know) but didn’t turn his head.
Nor, apparently, did the concept of movie stardom. He attended RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) alongside other notable up-and-comers and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he shone as one of its brightest lights. The world was his oyster. He could have capitalized on his formidable skills to embody the Angry Young Man (as he did in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) or the handsome Roguish Hero (as he did in the Oscar-winning Tom Jones), but he refused to be pigeonholed.
What’s more, he was happy to bury his good looks under layers of makeup to play Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, the title character in the musical Scrooge, and the bald-headed Daddy Warbucks in Annie. But he was just as effective without donning an obvious mask. A generation of admirers still name Two for the Road as their favorite “romantic” movie—an ironic soubriquet for that memorably bittersweet film that paired him with Audrey Hepburn.
I love him in Under the Volcano, which earned him an Oscar nomination and a second chance to work with his favorite director, John Huston, and the little-seen Orphans. As he aged he made a seamless transition to character roles and gave unforgettable performances in The Dresser, Big Fish, and more recently, the exceptional James Bond outing Skyfall. He earned plaudits for his portrayal of Winston Churchill—once again submitting to heavy makeup—in the TV movie The Gathering Storm.
The one thing he never lost was his taste for was acting, and we in the audience were the beneficiaries. He may not have had a lot to do in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and The Bourne Legacy but it was always a treat to watch him. He was an actor’s actor, and a movie lover’s delight.