Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 31, 2013
“… Out, out, brief candle.
Writing obituaries is never easy but when I decided I wanted to memorialize the British actor Jon Finch, who recently passed away at age 70, I found myself seriously struggling to find the right words. His death, which occurred when he was alone over the holidays and apparently suffering from dementia as well as health problems associated with diabetes, seemed particularly cruel. It didn’t get reported to the public until Jan. 11th although his body was found on Dec. 28th but as far as I know there’s been no official date of death released. There’s also been very little news coverage by the numerous entertainment focused outlets and blogs that usually offer up career summations whenever a person of note dies. I don’t like to dwell on the negative when someone I deeply admire leaves this earth because it‘s much more respectful and productive to focus on their accomplishments and Jon Finch left behind an impressive body of work. But while I scanned his filmography in my effort to concisely capture what had made him such a memorable screen presence I was struck again and again by the missed opportunities, which seemed to color his entire career. Over and over again I found myself wondering about what might have been instead of focusing on what was, which seemed pointless. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this business of making movies had somehow failed him even though I suspect that Finch himself would wholeheartedly disagree with me.
Jon Finch was born in Caterham, Surrey, England and started acting at age 13 in various school productions. His father was a merchant banker who expected Jon to attend the prestigious London School of Economics but Jon had no interest in following in his father’s footsteps. He was an adventurous young man and managed to bypass a future career in banking by enlisting in the British Army’s Airborne Infantry as part of a Parachute Regiment. Finch seemed to enjoy his time in the Army but he never lost sight of his acting ambitions. He eventually left the military and began working with theater companies including the Croydon Repertory Theatre in South London and the Chesterfield Repertory Theatre in Derbyshire. After various television roles Finch made his film debut in Hammer’s Gothic erotic thriller THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (Roy Ward Baker;1970) as Carl Ebhardt, a young man who loses his love interest to a beautiful vampire (Ingrid Pitt) and seeks revenge. Afterward he appeared in another Hammer film, Jimmy Sangster’s THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970).
THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN was Hammer’s attempt to ‘reboot’ their ailing Frankenstein film series with a badly received spoof that featured Ralph Bates in the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein while Jon Finch is wasted in the small role of a police lieutenant. The film is much too comical for my taste and pales in comparison to the Terence Fisher Frankenstein films that came before and afterward. But apparently director and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was intent on mocking the franchise, which had been Hammer’s bread and butter for more than a decade. Watching it again recently I was struck by Sangster’s wasted opportunity to put Jon Finch in the lead role of Baron Frankenstein. If Hammer had made a more serious attempt to update the series with a younger actor, Finch would have been the perfect candidate to fill Cushing’s big shoes. I like Bates a lot and he’s very good in Hammer’s production of DOCTOR JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE (1971) as well as some of their vampire films, but he’s a very different performer than Finch and his Baron Frankenstein lacks the imposing grace and obsessive single-mindedness that made the character so fascinating to begin with. Finch had all those qualities and more so one has to wonder, why didn’t anyone at Hammer notice this? Why wasn’t Finch scooped up right away and offered starring roles in future studio productions? When I think of Finch as the lead in something like Hammer’s CAPTAIN CRONOS – VAMPIRE HUNTER (1974) my mind reels at the wasted possibilities.
Following his brief stint with Hammer, Finch was cast in John Schlesinger’s brilliant adult British drama, SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971), which starred Peter Finch as a gay doctor who shares his attractive male lover (Murray Head) with a woman (Glenda Jackson) in an unconventional arrangement that deeply affects them all. Jon Finch is only on screen for about four minutes playing a frustrated Scottish rent boy who aggressively pursues the doctor when he refuses to acknowledge that they once shared a bed. But what Jon Finch does with those four minutes is astonishing. For a brief moment he owns the screen and it’s impossible to forget his rough exchange with Peter Finch. According to a 2005 interview Jon Finch did with Harvey F. Chartrand for Shock Magazine, the actor told him, “Schlesinger wanted me to play the boyfriend shared by Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson. The producer (Joseph Janni) didn’t. Anyway, that’s what I was told. So Murray Head – the singer – got the part.” In retrospect it’s easy to see why Schlesinger wanted Jon Finch to play Murray Head’s role in SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY. Head’s serviceable as a young artist who attracts both male and female attention but Finch would have commanded the part and made it much more memorable. This is another lost opportunity in a career that contained many but we do get a glimpse of what young Finch was capable of under a great director’s guidance.
Finch was an incredibly handsome and charismatic actor who possessed a deep booming voice that was instantly recognizable. He had an uncommon intensity and seriousness that often drove his early performances.He seemed destined for bigger and better things and thanks to director Roman Polanski, he was finally given the opportunity to really show off his acting chops in the director’s big budget production of Shakespeare’s MACBETH (1971). Finch auditioned for the part along with Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton and won the role at Polanksi’s insistence. Today many, including myself, consider Polanksi’s MACBETH to be the best screen interpretation of Shakespeare’s play as well as one of the best adaptations of the bard’s work ever put on film. Its only rival is Orson Welles’ Macbeth and that says a lot about Polanski’s film as well as Finch’s unforgettable portrayal of the Scottish King. Surprisingly the movie was met with mixed reviews when it was released. Critics seemed particularly bothered by the film’s association with Hugh Hefner (Playboy offered to produce the movie when Polanski couldn’t get his film financed by a Hollywood studio) and they were determined to link the film’s violence with Polanski’s personal tragedy. MACBETH was the first film Polanski shot after the murder of his wife and the news outlets were still eager to exploit that horrendous crime. Polanski has always denied that the Manson murders had any influence over his directing choices and in Finch’s interview with Shock Magazine, the actor backed up the director’s claims by asserting, “Polanski wasn’t exorcising any demons. He’s far too intelligent for that. He’s just a brilliant director, incredibly well read.”
Following his impressive turn in MACBETH, Finch starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s FRENZY (1972) where he played Richard Ian Blaney, a man wrongly accused of being a notorious serial killer. Previous Hitchock heroes were often one dimensional and easily defined but Finch portrayed Blaney as a complex character with many disagreeable personality quirks who didn’t need or want the audience’s sympathy. You eventually find yourself hoping that justice prevails but Finch subverts viewer expectations at every turn. Critics have often suggested that Hitchcock originally wanted Michael Caine for the role and there was supposedly some friction on set between the director and Finch after the actor approached Hitchcock with some script suggestions. Finch said that Hitchcock was, “A sweet man. I loved him.” But he also complained that FRENZY was shot in a hurry and Hitchcock didn’t allow much time for rehearsing. The result, caused by friction or not, was that the master of suspense got a somewhat ‘frenzied’ performance from his star and that works in the film’s favor. Today Jon Finch’s extraordinary portrayal of Blaney makes FRENZY one of Hitchcock’s most accomplished and disturbing films.
At this point in Finch’s career it’s easy to assume that the talented actor had, or should have had, the world at his feet but when he auditioned for the role of Lord Byron in Robert Bolt’s historic drama LADY CAROLINE LAMB (1972) he was told that they’d already cast the part and given it to Richard Chamberlain. Instead Finch was offered the role of William Lamb, a politician who loses his wife’s attention when she falls madly in love with Byron. This phenomenal bit of miscasting is plainly apparent when you watch the film. I appreciate LADY CAROLINE LAMB and think it’s one of the more interesting interpretations of Byron’s life but Chamberlain is woefully miscast as the romantic poet who Caroline Lamb once called ‘Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know.’ Finch on the other hand would have been the perfect Byron. When the film was released critical reception was mixed but the overall response to LADY CAROLINE LAMB was extremely negative and Bolt never directed again.
Despite the critical failure of LADY CAROLINE LAMB, Jon Finch was still garnering great reviews and the offers began to roll in. Richard Lester wanted him to take part in his film production of THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and Finch was considered a natural to play James Bond after Sean Connery retired. Instead, Finch choose to team up with director Robert Fuest (AND SOON THE DARKNESS; 1970, THE ABOMINABLE DOCTOR PHIBES; 1971, THE DEVIL’S RAIN; 1975) for what they hoped would be a series of films based on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books. Finch admired the books and was friendly with Moorcock so he helped get the project off the ground but this ambitious endeavor was a real risk. Moorcock was an unconventional writer and his science fiction and fantasy books were considered unfilmable. Fuest on the other hand was an imaginative director who hoped to put his own twist on the material. The film was titled THE FINAL PROGRAMME (1973), after the first book in the Cornelius Quartet. Finch starred as Jerry Cornelius, a time traveling, science minded, sexually ambiguous secret agent who embarks on a quest to locate his father’s strange invention while saving his sister from the clutches of his evil brother. Sound confusing and a bit farfetched? It is and critics ripped it apart. Trying to explain Morcock’s fiction to anyone who hasn’t read it is almost impossible and the same can be said of Robert Fuest’s film. I happen to love the movie, which is a visual feast and features Jon Finch giving what might be his best performance, but I’m in the minority. The film was a critical and financial flop during its initial release and has suffered from bad press ever since although it has developed a minor cult following. Author Michael Moorcock has denounced the film while praising Finch’s portrayal of Cornelius but frankly, I think Moorcock’s own criticisms are deeply linked to the way the film was received by critics and audiences in ’73. The negative response to a personal pet project that they hoped would develop into a series of films must have been devastating for everyone involved but I’d argue that the film was just too smart, too creative and too ambitious for its own good.
Any other actor in Jon Finch’s position would have probably taken the safer and more conventional road to stardom that was laid at their feet but Finch always had a rebellious streak. He had entered the acting profession against his family’s wishes and fame wasn’t something he actively sought out. In retrospect, Finch’s choice to turn down the role of James Bond and make a subversive psychedelic spy spoof tells us all we need to know about him. Off screen Finch was a very reclusive man who valued his privacy but I think the negative reviews hurled at THE FINAL PROGRAMME must have hurt. After making the movie he put his acting career on hold to focus on auto racing. He was a good driver and spent two years on the Formula Ford/Three championship racing circuit until he started having health problems and was diagnosed with diabetes.
Throughout the rest of the decade Finch made memorable appearances in films such as Roger Vadim’s GAME OF SEDUCTION (1976) and John Guillermin’s DEATH ON THE NILE (1976) but health problems continued to plague him. In 1979 he was cast as Kane in Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece ALIEN but was forced to drop out when he became seriously ill. The part was given to John Hurt who was remarkable in the role but once again, I find myself wondering what Finch would have done with the part? Would the success of ALIEN kickstarted his career again and brought him the kind of critical and public attention that he so richly deserved? His greatest success during this period was on stage where he portrayed Henry Bolingbroke in Richard II (1978), and Henry IV (1979) in the BBC’s Shakespeare History Cycle.
Although he continued to act and appeared in a handful of interesting films and television shows including BREAKING GLASS (1980) and DOKTOR FAUSTUS (1982), Finch seemed to quietly retire from the spotlight. He told Shock Magazine that, “I never wanted to be a big star. Certainly not now. I don’t have a cat’s chance in hell. I usually do one film a year, so I always have enough money to enjoy myself and keep myself out of the public eye. It’s a very pleasant life, not one of great ambition.” In an ironic twist of fate, the last film Finch appeared in was Ridley Scott’s historical sword and shield epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005). The director and actor hadn’t worked together since ALIEN but Finch’s brief appearance in KINGDOM IN HEAVEN suggested that he was still a capable performer with the ability to play imposing figures that weren’t easy to forget.
On hearing the news that Jon Finch had died, author Michael Moorcock expressed his remorse on his website saying, “I was very fond of Jon and sorry we lost touch. In some ways it was for similar reasons – not liking the spotlight being one… He was genuinely modest.”
Helen Drake, the mother of Finch’s daughter Holly, added, “He was a very unusual character, eccentric I guess, but he was warm and funny and true to himself. He was a wonderful father and he was great with young people and children, they loved him! We are missing him terribly and wish he could see how appreciated he was and is. There are not many actors of his calibre around, that’s for sure.”
That’s for sure.
Jon Finch was buried at All Saints Church in Hastings, England on January 10th.
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