William Finley (1942-2012)

Character actor William Finley passed away last week following a long illness. For many people his name and face will be unknown. And it is true that he made only a relatively small number of films, the bulk of which were in the seventies. For those in the know, however, his presence was always felt in a film.

His unconventional looks – he was well over six feet in height, wore thick glasses and was certainly not movie star handsome – perhaps tended to steer him towards quirky supporting roles. He had a supporting role in the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage, an uncredited role in John Huston’s Wise Blood and appeared in The Funhouse and Night Terrors for Tobe Hooper.

It was under the direction of Brian De Palma, however, that he made his greatest contribution to cinema. Finley and De Palma met as students at Columbia University. In De Palma’s most celebrated short film, Woton’s Wake, Finley found his first screen role as the title character in a striking homage to the German Expressionist movies of the twenties. When De Palma graduated to feature films, Finley was there too, usually in supporting roles, occasionally starring. He played opposite a fresh-faced Robert De Niro in the light comedy The Wedding Party which De Palma co-directed. In the director’s first solo feature, the surrealistic comic thriller Murder a la Mod, he played the sinister and odd Otto as well as contributing the rather catchy theme song.

Under De Palma’s direction, he went on to appear in the split screen experiment Dionysus in ’69, which documented a unique production of The Bacchae by the Performance Group. This production blurred the lines between performer and spectator, performance space and audience space and was filmed with two cameras simultaneously with one focused primarily on the actors and the other on the audience. The footage from these two cameras was projected as a single, splitscreen image (a device De Palma would later master and use repeatedly) providing a uniquely fascinating, at times disorienting experience.

Sisters De Palma’s first fully-realised thriller, complete with Bernard Herrmann score, saw Finley (pictured above) playing the sinister Emil Breton. It is a testament to his skill as an actor than Finley was able to inject an element of slapstick into a scene involving the coverup of the vicious murder of a character the audience has grown to like.

In The Fury a big budget telekinetic horror-thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes, he had a smaller role and for Dressed to Kill featured in a voice-only part. Finley is best remembered, however, for his dual roles as the wronged songwriter Winslow Leach and the Phantom of the title in De Palma’s stylistically most atypical film, the rock musical Phantom of the Paradise. In the role he was able play the gentle and naïve Winslow with a genuine sense of pathos and portray the damaged and vengeful phantom as both menacing and sympathetic. Phantom of the Paradise is a criminally under-rated movie. A parody of the music industry of the day (which has only grown more relevant with time) as well as a melding of the Phantom of the Opera and the legend of Faust, it was overshadowed in the UK by The Rocky Horror Picture Show with which it was at one time the b-feature of a double-bill. While neglected in general, the film did find its share of passionate supporters: in France it was a success and critically acclaimed (a special edition DVD of the film was released in that country a few years ago) and in the city of Winnipeg it seems to have captured the collective imagination of the population and is now the subject of an annual festival, Phantompalooza. Dario Argento also went on to cast Finley’s costar, Jessica Harper, in his horror masterpiece Suspiria after seeing Phantom.

Finley’s career seemed to slow down in the 1990s and 2000s. He did, however, become increasingly accessible to his fans, contributing to a Movie Geeks United show dedicated to De Palma and appearing at Phantompalooza. Fittingly, his last role was a small supporting part in his old friend Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia in 2006.

In an earlier period of cinema history, Finley could have had a strong career as a character actor in the way that someone like Edward G Robinson did. In reality he was criminally under-used. For his fans, though, he will be fondly remembered.

Related Links:

Edgar Wright’s touchingly personal tribute to the late actor.

Phantom of the Paradise costar Jessica Harper on working with Finley.

A 2007 Movie Geeks United interview with Finley.

© Calum Campbell 2012

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9 thoughts on “William Finley (1942-2012)

  1. Just a brief note of thanks for the post. I’m a William Finley fan from Winslow onward…when I first saw phantom…on a drab January day in 1975 (Sunday.) I remember that day well as Sundays were BIG DINNER FAMILY days and believe it or not, that night, it was….ROAST BEEF! Oh, the tragic irony of it all! My mother’s a great cook and I usually didn’t have any trouble eating her roasts, but that night,…OY! I felt like I was committing cannibalism! 🙂

    That William did not get all the roles he deserved was down to hollywood’s utter lack of depth! I’m gonna start doing some serious scouring for other William movies. I’ve already ordered Murder a la Mod, and I have Sisters. As for Phantom of the Paradise….need you ask?!

    One correction though. The Chuck Norris movie you’re thinking about was Silent Rage, not Wise Blood. That was a movie made by (now late) John Houston and William is in that, though uncredited. I wouldn’t mind seeing a movie with Brad Dourif, that didn’t involve that demon possessed little puppet, Chucky!

    To William, though, and his most loved altar ego, Winslow. I learned a lot from those two, mainly in reverse. (i.e. don’t give your ORIGINAL work to anyone!) Still, he DID stand up for himself, which is more than a ‘real’ songwriter did two years later. To paraphrase a line from Phantom….. “The Juicy Fruits singing STREISAND’S EVERGREEN!” Same idea. Even the initials match up. Winslow. Swan// Williams. Streisand. Sadly though, Paul Williams is NO Winslow Leach.

    • I’m glad you liked the piece. I first encountered Finley in Phantom of the Paradise. I remember putting off getting that film for so long. I’m a completist collector and was starting to explore early De Palma at the time. When I did get round to watching it, nothing could have prepared me for it. I’ve loved the film ever since and it is still one of my favourite De Palma films.

      Murder a la Mod is more a film that is interesting for the serious fan than good in its own right. It has its moments but is uneven. The song that Finley sings over the main titles will no doubt put a grin on your face up front. And it is interesting to see some of De Palma’s themes and obsessions in early form. It could make an interesting double bill with a film like Snake Eyes – it’s all about perception.

      Later on in the year/early next year I’m planning a series of posts on De Palma’s films from Woton’s Wake onwards. I aim to coincide with the release of his latest, Passion.

      As for the correction – I’ve edited the post. Well spotted – I had intended to mention both films and seem to have ended up mixing them up and then omitting one completely. I tend to try to block out Chuck Norris…

      • Hi Callum;

        We’re on the same page! I’m going to try to get The Wedding Party and DePalma; Le Annes 60 (The 60’s) where Dionysus in 69 and Woton’s wake is.

        Watching Brian’s early movies, it’s interesting to see the progression of themes to the present. Mind you, I haven’t seen his more RECENT movies, as I’m very picky, with the cost of going to movies. I may go to see Passions, though, as the theme is somewhat Phantom-esque…one character wronged by another. I’m pretty sure there will be a Memoriam at the start (This movie is dedicated….) Brian was filming the movie when he got the news that William died. That must’ve been DIFFICULT.

        I loved listening to that song (from Murder a la Mod) . William actually wrote that, and it’s interesting to hear the difference between him and ‘Winslow’, who had to scale down (vocally) .

    • I’ll let you know if I come across it. I have the Brian De Palma: Les années 60 set. I got it cheap on Amazon.fr. It’s good to see the two shorts and Dionysus is, well, interesting as an experiment. You can watch it online free of charge. Google it and it’s easy to find. If you understand French then there is a short documentary about De Palma in the 60s. Even if you don’t, it’s mainly De Palma being interviewed in English with occasional French commentary.

      The Wedding Party I picked up on the Troma label in a supermarket in the UK for about £3.00.

      I do recomend De Palma’s films as a whole. I have seen everything he’s done except the unavailable shorts. He is probably my favourite director.

  2. Lucky duck! (Re: DePalma, 60’s) My french is next to non-existent, but I can pick the odd word out, here and there. Enough to piece a sentence together. But there is a blogger…. Ethan…I can’t recall his last name. You can find it on Swanarchives.org (news section) who posted Dionysus in ’69. It was worth seeing, even if I muted one scene. Wonder if I’d be able to see Woton’s Wake on line? That would be sweet!

    Did you get the ‘Troma Classics’ version? (Wedding Party) There’s a gold display at the top of the dvd. I wouldn’t mind getting that, if there was some commentary. William and Robert DeNiro worked together quite easily. According to William (in Sisters french s.e.) it took four years to get that movie together! Can’t recall the reasons. I’ll have to check that again.

    I have other directors, whose work I enjoy, but Brian DePalma is a SPECIAL Favorite, because of Phantom of the Paradise, which I connected to, as a young teen. Strange, the effect movies have on people, huh?

    • My French is intermediate level. I have the region 2 UK Troma release of The Wedding Party. No extras whatsoever.

      From memory the delay between filming and release was taken up with De Palma editing the film between other projects. It got released only after the release of Murder a la Mod.

      It’s true – you can have very personal connections to some films. I like that and have always said it is impossible to write an objective review of a film. All reviews are, or should be, subjective.

      You might be interested in seeing Home Movies. Gerrit Graham (Beef in Phantom) is in it in a very good role. It is genuinely funny and my favourite of De Palma’s comedies. He has said that if you want to know his biography, watch that film. It’s production is interesting too. It was a film class project over seen by De Palma as mentor. Students made up the crew. You can get a cheap region 2 edition from Spain. Region 1 version is available second hand for stupid money.

  3. Great tribute to William. Soon he will have been dead a year. I’m quite quite saddened at his loss. I’ve only managed to see Phantom and Sisters so far, but he is spectacularly magnetic every second of screen time, and able to elicit riotous laughter and tearful sympathy. If his colleagues are to be believed he was also a very compassionate and easygoing person.

    Rest in peace and dream it never ends.

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