A dynamic, often explosive stage and screen star, Albert Finney emerged from the same class at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as Peter O'Toole and Alan Bates to become one of the most respected British performers of his generation. After earning his stripes in productions of such classics as "Julius Caesar" (1956) and "Othello" (1959), Finney had his breakthrough performance on the big screen as the rakish "Tom Jones" (1963), a role that earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Though initially hamstrung by a public image as a sex symbol, he undercut such perceptions by making himself practically unrecognizable as the titular "Scrooge" (1970) and as famed sleuth Hercule Poirot in "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974). Following a lengthy absence from features to concentrate on the stage, Finney returned to the big screen the following decade for Oscar-nominated turns in "The Dresser" (1983) and "Under the Volcano" (1984). Finney was memorable as a Thompson-wielding Irish mob boss in the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing" (1990), though by this time his public stature seemed to have waned. But he emerged triumphant again with his Academy Award-nominated performance in "Erin Brockovich" (2000), which opened the doors for supporting parts in big studio films like "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007) and smaller independents like "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007), giving the esteemed Finney a new lease on an already distinguished career.
Born on May 9, 1936 in Salford, Lancashire, England, Finney was raised by his father, Albert Sr., a bookie, and his mother, Alice. Educated at Salford Grammar School, he failed his final GCE exams in a whopping five subjects. From the time he was 12 years old, Finney was performing in school plays, logging some 15 productions until the age of 17. Soon he found himself honing his craft at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he won the Gertrude Lawrence Scholarship during his second and third terms while attending alongside Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. Finney left the Academy in 1955 with the Emile Little Award under his belt, which was bestowed upon students who had the most outstanding character and aptitude for the theater. Following his professional debut with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre's production of "Julius Caesar" (1956), he premiered in London with the company's staging of George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" (1956). Two years later, Finney earned critical acclaim opposite Charles Laughton in a West End production of "The Party" (1958).
After his West End triumph, Finney joined the famed Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon for their 100th anniversary season, performing Cassio in "Othello" (1959), directed by Tony Richardson with Paul Robeson in the lead; reuniting with Laughton to play Lysander in "A Midsummer Night's Dream;" and understudying Laurence Olivier's "Coriolanus." A small role as Olivier's son in Richardson's "The Entertainer" (1960) marked Finney's entreé into films, which he followed by receiving excellent reviews for his stage turn in "The Lily-White Boys" (1960). His stellar performance on the London stage as "Billy Liar" (1960) significantly raised his profile, while his portrayal of the dissatisfied, working-class anti-hero Arthur Seaton in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1961), director Karel Reisz's classic of British "angry young man" cinema brought him worldwide acclaim. Though he quit the starring role in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) after four days in order to avoid being locked into a long-term film contract, Finney cemented his film stardom as the rakish, picaresque hero "Tom Jones" (1963) in Tony Richardson's lavish, bawdy hit, earning his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
That same year, Finney took Broadway by storm in John Osborne's "Luther" (1963), again directed by Richardson, before reteaming with Reisz for the remake of "Night Must Fall" (1964), on which Finney also made his debut as producer. In 1965, Finney founded Memorial Enterprises Productions with actor Michael Medwin, which was responsible for several outstanding features including his own directorial debut, "Charlie Bubbles" (1967), Lindsay Anderson's "If..." (1968) and "O Lucky Man!" (1973), as well as numerous plays, including Peter Nichols' "A Day in the Life of Joe Egg" (1968). Much to his chagrin, Finney reinforced his reputation as a romantic leading man opposite Audrey Hepburn as a bickering couple trying to save their happiness in "Two for the Road" (1967). Disdainful of his new sex symbol image, Finney sought to diminish his pretty boy status by hamming his way through the title role of "Scrooge" (1970), a musical take on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and delivering a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a Humphrey Bogart wannabe in "Gumshoe" (1971). His reaction to the sex symbol nonsense prompted him to absolutely submerge himself in the role of Agatha Christie's famous sleuth Hercule Poirot for "Murder on the Orient Express" (1974), which garnered the barely recognizable actor his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
After "Murder on the Orient Express," Finney appeared in only one film over the next seven years, playing a small role in Ridley Scott's "The Duellists" (1978). From 1972-75, he directed several plays while serving as associate artistic director of London's Royal Court Theatre. Beginning in 1975, Finney concentrated exclusively on stage acting as a member of the National Theatre, portraying the title roles of "Hamlet," Christopher Marlowe's "Tamburlaine the Great," "Macbeth" and Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." In the early 1980s, Finney returned to the screen with a flurry of new movies, though the first few - "Loophole" (1981), Wolfen" (1981) and "Looker" (1981) - were embarrassments. But later that year he hit his stride in Alan Parker's harrowing portrait of divorce, "Shoot the Moon" (1981), giving a sexually-charged, rage-filled performance as a writer crazed with jealousy that his wife (Diane Keaton) and children seem to be getting along fine without him. After pocketing a nifty sum to play Daddy Warbucks in "Annie" (1982) for John Huston, he essayed the aging Donald Wolfit-like actor-manager to Tom Courtenay's "The Dresser" (1983), with both actors earning Best Actor Oscar nominations for their superb work.
Over the years, Finney made a specialty of playing large, boozy, blustery men and was perhaps never better in this vein than as the gruelingly drunk diplomat of Huston's "Under the Volcano" (1984), adapted from Malcolm Lowry's autobiographical novel set in 1930s Mexico. Without overplaying the extremely difficult role, he imbued the self-destructive man with tragic nobility, earning his fourth Best Actor Oscar nomination for an extraordinary performance. Finney reprised his stage role as a deceptive, drunken Chicago gangster in "Orphans" (1987), demonstrating his flair for dialects with an authentic South Side accent. In the Coen Brothers' "Miller's Crossing" (1990), Finney was an Irish mob boss warring with rival Italians, whose artistry with a Thompson machine gun was felt by four would-be assassins in a memorable shootout set to the Irish ballad, "Danny Boy." Continuing his sting of Irish characters, he was convincing as a tragic constable in a small Northern Irish border town in "The Playboys" (1992), a sexually repressed bus conductor in "A Man of No Importance" (1994) and an Irish cop unable to express his emotions in "The Run of the Country" (1995).
In between his string of Irish-centric roles, Finney dropped his adopted brogue to make a fine, frumpish Southerner for Bruce Beresford's "Rich in Love" (1993), which he later followed with an appearance alongside old RADA chum Tom Courtenay in the London stage production of "Art" (1996). He next played a perpetually besotted television writer in two Dennis Potter-scripted miniseries, "Karaoke" (Bravo, 1996) and "Cold Lazarus" (Bravo, 1996), and the equally sodden Dr. Monygham in the lavish six-hour "Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries, "Joseph Conrad's 'Nostromo'" (PBS, 1997). In "A Rather English Marriage" (PBS, 1999), Finney played a former Royal Air Force squadron leader devastated by the loss of his wife, who forms an unlikely bond with a retired milkman (Tom Courtenay) sent by a concerned social worker to help care for his decaying estate. Following his turn as the grizzled, eccentric writer Kilgore Trout in "Breakfast of Champions" (1999), Finney essayed a former racing commissioner in the film adaptation of Sam Shepard's "Simpatico" (1999). The latter was particularly well-suited to this breeder of horses and son of a bookie.
Though continually working, Finney had by this point in his career found himself less of a known commodity than in years past. But that changed when he was cast by director Steven Soderbergh to star opposite Julia Roberts in the commercial smash "Erin Brockovich" (2000). Finney played the skeptical, but open-minded California lawyer boss of Roberts' titular legal assistant, whose interest in a cancer cluster case gradually re-energizes him for what becomes the case of his career. Just like his character onscreen, Finney's own career was given new life, especially after he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination - his first such honor in 16 years. That same year, he had a cameo as a chief of staff in Soderbergh's deftly crafted "Traffic" (2000), which he followed with a turn as acclaimed novelist Ernest Hemingway in "Hemingway, The Hunter Of Death" (2001). In 2002, he took on the role of Winston Churchill in the acclaimed HBO drama "The Gathering Storm," a love story offering an intimate look inside the marriage of Winston and Clementine Churchill (Vanessa Redgrave) during a particularly troubled, though little-known moment in their lives.
For his role in "The Gathering Storm," Finney received widespread critical praise, including an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie, a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television, a BAFTA TV Award as Best Actor, and a Broadcasting Press Guild Award. He received another Golden Globe nomination the following year, this time for his role as the senior Ed Bloom, a man whose tendency toward fanciful self-mythologizing puts him at odds with his disillusioned son (Billy Crudup) in Tim Burton's "Big Fish" (2003). After voicing Finnis Everglot in Burton's animated "Corpse Bride" (2005), Finney was the deceased uncle of a high-flying London businessman (Russell Crowe) who makes his nephew the sole beneficiary of his modest vineyard in "A Good Year" (2006). In "The Bourne Ultimatum" (2007), Finney played Dr. Albert Hirsch, the man responsible for creating Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) by erasing his former identity and creating a new one through behavior modification. Next he portrayed 18th century clergyman and writer of hymns, John Newton, in Michael Apted's underappreciated historical drama, "Amazing Grace" (2007). Finney teamed up with Sidney Lumet for the director's excellent crime thriller, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007), playing a man who suffers the devastating loss of his wife (Rosemary Harris) during the botched robbery of their jewelry store perpetrated by their own desperate and misguided sons (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman). Surprisingly, Finney was relatively inactive over the next five years, appearing in the next decade with a reprisal of Dr. Hirsch for "The Bourne Legacy" (2012) and a turn as Kincade opposite Daniel Craig's James Bond in "Skyfall" (2012).