Throughout his acting career, Albert Finney has impressed critics with his protean ability to step into a role and wear a character's persona no matter the age, nationality, or métier. In stage, film, and television productions over more than 40 years, Finney has portrayed a Polish pope, a Belgian detective, an Irish gangster, a British miser, a gruff American lawyer, a Scottish King, a German religious reformer, and an Roman warrior -- all with convincing authenticity.
Finney was born on May 9, 1936, in the working-class town of Salford, Lancashire, England. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1955, he performed Shakespeare and quickly earned a coveted spot as understudy for the great Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare productions at Stratford-upon-Avon. On one occasion, he stepped into Olivier's shoes to play the lead role in Coriolanus, a play about the downfall of a proud Roman soldier, and won recognition that led to film roles.
Finney's upbringing in Lancashire, a region of mills and smokestacks, exposed him to the kind of social injustice and economic hardship that helped prepare him for his role as a nonconformist factory worker in the 1960 film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a milestone in the development of British realist cinema. Critics -- who hardly noticed him in the bit-part role he played in his first film, The Entertainer -- universally praised his vibrant performance in Saturday Night. This success earned him the lead role in director Tony Richardson's 1963 film Tom Jones, adapted by screenwriter John Osborne from the Henry Fielding novel of the same name. As the wenching country boy Jones, Finney was a bawdy, rollicking, uproarious success, helping the film win four Academy awards.
Rather than abandon live stage drama, Finney continued to pursue it with the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic in London, performing in Shakespeare productions and plays by other authors. He won Tony nominations for Luther and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, as well as a best actor Oliver for Orphans. When he made his next film in 1967, he starred opposite Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen's Two for the Road, a comedy-drama about marital mayhem, and again won high critical praise.
If there was a pattern to the types of roles he selected, it was that there was no pattern. For example, after playing a 20th century art enthusiast in 1969's Picasso Summer, he took on the role of a 19th century Dickens character in Scrooge (1970), then played a bickering husband in Alpha Beta (1973), Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), a Napoleon-era Frenchman in The Duellists (1978), a werewolf hunter in Wolfen (1981), and a plastic surgeon/murder suspect in the ludicrous Looker (1981).
After winning an Academy award nomination for his performance in 1982's Shoot the Moon, Finney delivered another outstanding performance in Peter Yates' 1983 film The Dresser, which earned five Oscar nominations, including a nomination for Finney as best actor. In the film, Finney plays a boozing Shakespearean actor whose life strangely parallels the tragic life of one of the characters he portrays, King Lear. In 1984, Finney won still another Oscar nomination, as well as a Golden Globe nomination, for his role as a self-defeating alcoholic in director John Huston's Under the Volcano. In the same year, critics praised him highly for his dynamic portrayal of Pope John Paul II in an American TV production.
Finney continued to take on diverse and challenging roles in the late 1980s and during the 1990s, primarily in small, independent productions. Among the films that earned him more accolades were the Coen brothers' gangster epic Miller's Crossing (1990) -- for which Finney replaced actor Trey Wilson after his untimely death -- as well as A Man of No Importance (1994), The Browning Version (1995), and Simpatico (1999). Also in 1999, he won the BAFTA TV award for best actor for his role in A Rather English Marriage.
2000's Erin Brockovich exposed Finney to the widest audience he'd seen in years: playing the hangdog attorney Ed Masry, Finney proved to be the perfect comic foil to Julia Roberts' brassy heroine, and in the process secured himself Golden Globe and Academy award nominations for best supporting actor. Though a Golden Globe Award eluded him that year, he returned in two years and won for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the made-for-television film The Gathering Storm.
2003 saw Finney in his biggest role since Erin Brockovich. In Tim Burton's Big Fish, he played Edward Bloom in present-day scenes, while Ewan McGregor assumed the role of the eccentric storyteller in flashbacks. The actor once again proved to be a favorite of the Hollywood Foreign Press when he received yet another Golden Globe nomination for his work.
2006 found the now veteran actor appearing in the Ridley Scott dramedy A Good Year, in which he played the uncle to a younger version of Russell Crowe through flashbacks. He also signed on to appear in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a thriller staring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. In 2007 he was cast as the mastermind behind the program that created Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum, a roll he reprised five years later in The Bourne Legacy.
Over the years, Finney saw the end of two major performances in his personal life: his first marriage to Jane Wenham (1957-61) and his second marriage to Anouk Aimée (1970-1978). He has one son, Simon, from his first marriage. ~ Mike Cummings, Rovi