One of the most unappreciated roles in the world is the role of the character actor. It’s a cruelty, since the character actors are the ones with the real personalities and true charisma. Traditional leading stars are so bland in comparison. The Wonder White Bread of acting. Sadly, we have lost one of the best of this wondrous breed, with the passing of actor William Finley. Truly one of the most wholly unique and talented actors, Finley made an impression on me the moment I first saw him in his brief but brilliant turn as drunken carny magician, Marco the Magnificent in Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse. The shock of blonde hair, half painted Dracula make-up and the way his voice just oozed whiskey-soaked malaise bordering on malice made a mighty impression on my then teenage self. It was love at first sight, leading me to discover some of his better known work, namely with director Brian DePalma.
Both Finley and DePalma were Sarah Lawrence alumni, with a collaboration dating back to the director’s earliest underground works. This includes 1968’s Murder a la Mod and 1970’s Dionysus in ‘69, a film of an experimental version of the ancient Greek play, “The Bacchae.” (Two days before I heard of his passing, I had actually found my long lost DVD copy of this film.) One of his best early roles was in DePalma’s excellent Hitchcockian (right down to the Bernard Herrmann score) Sisters. Playing Margot Kidder’s charismatically creepy Quebecois husband Emil, Finley, with slicked back hair and a thin mustache, cuts an unforgettable figure. Despite all of his borderline villainy, he still infuses enough humanity into the role to make you feel empathy for this weird character.
However, Finley’s best known role, in a very rare leading turn, was DePalma’s rock musical, Phantom of the Paradise. Playing the titular Phantom, Finley is Winslow Leech, a gangly and passionate struggling composer who has written a rock opera based on the old German legend of “Faust.” Life takes a turn for the worse for Winslow as his work gets shanghaied by rock and roll impresario Swan (Paul Williams, who was also responsible for the fantastic score). Life soon imitates art, with the presence of the sweet and beautiful Phoenix (Jessica Harper) to further the potential heartbreak and redemption.
Phantom is undoubtedly one of the best rock musicals ever and Finley is perfect as our unlikely hero, fleshing out Winslow, an awkward genius with a temper, into a poetic, warm blooded, tragic figure. This turned out to be Finley’s only major starring role, though he did follow it up with a memorable turn in Tobe Hooper’s EC Comics film come to life, Eaten Alive, where he gets to bark like a dog and threatens to put a cigarette out IN HIS EYE. There were also smaller roles in the obscure Alan Arkin comedy Simon, DePalma’s The Fury and even the Chuck Norris flick, Silent Rage.
Roles become a little more sparse, with a few parts cropping up, like the Christian zealot/archeologist father in the 1995 Tobe Hooper film, Night Terrors. (A movie notable for Finley, equal gender nudity and Robert Englund as the Marquis De Sade, which makes it sound way better than it is.) Finley was an actor who should have been better utilized by Hollywood and the film industry at large. Like too many artists worth their salt, he did not get his proper due while he was still here.
But instead of wallowing in any past injustice, let’s make a wrong a right and celebrate the strange,stark and superb work of William Finley. The man’s acting legacy deserves it and you deserve to watch some great acting and filmmaking