Obituary: Frank Finlay CBE, actor

Born: 6 August 1926 in Lancashire. Died: 30 January 2016 in Surrey, aged 89.

Frank Finlay, stage, film and TV actor gave a gripping performance in a Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Picture: PA

Fame came to Frank Finlay late when he starred in the controversial 1972 television series Bouquet of Barbed Wire and went on to appear in major movies such as The Three Musketeers, Roman Polnaski’s The Pianist and the 1984 version of A Christmas Carol opposite George C Scott. Finlay was a principal member of the National Theatre (NT) in its glory days under Laurence Olivier and memorably played a green-eyed and envious Iago opposite Olivier’s triumphant Othello. He could play romantic leads and evil monsters with a cunning ease.

Frank Finlay attended local schools in Bolton but often appeared with amateur theatre groups. In fact his first paid job as an actor was at a repertory theatre in Troon in 1951. In 1953 he won a scholarship to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and then appeared in Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall which toured Scotland in 1959.

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In 1963 Finlay came to the Edinburgh Festival in an epic production, by John Dexter, of Shaw’s St Joan with Joan Plowright in the title role and Finlay as Stogumber. He returned for the 1983 Festival again with Plowright in Lindsay Anderson’s production of The Cherry Orchard. The production was given a rave review by Allen Wright in The Scotsman and Finlay was singled out for playing one scene “superbly”. After Edinburgh the production was seen in Aberdeen before transferring to the west end.

Finlay joined the burgeoning group of Angry Young Men at London’s Royal Court making a strong impression in the Arnold Wesker trilogy Chicken Soup With Barley (1958) and in his Chips With Everything (1962). Other notable appearances included with Rex Harrison in Chekhov’s Platonov.

Olivier asked Finlay to join his pre-National Theatre company at the Chichester Festival in 1963 and cast as Will Mossop in Hobson’s Choice opposite a feisty Plowright. When the company moved into the Old Vic Finlay was central to Olivier’s plans. Olivier cast Finlay as the Gravedigger in the opening production of Hamlet (played by Peter O’Toole) and opposite his Othello as Iago in 1963.

The cast also included Maggie Smith and Derek Jacobi. Finlay’s Iago matched Olivier’s flamboyant Othello subtly emphasising Iago’s servility and forlorn jealousy. The production, which was filmed, is now considered legendary and amongst the greatest achievements of the NT.

Other roles (many of which were seen in Scotland as Olivier insisted that the company do an annual tour) at the NT includedGiles Corey in ArthurMiller’s The Crucible, Dogberry in Franco Zeffirelli’s Much Ado About Nothing and the Cook in Brecht’s Mother Courage. He was also in, with Olivier and Plowright, a glorious version Eduardo De Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday.

In 1981 Finlay took on a major challenge: Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus when the NT production transferred to the west end. The huge role – with the character switching from old age to the young composer confronting Mozart – brought out all the subtleties in Finlay’s art. A reviewer wrote, “The evening simply belongs to Frank Finlay.”

One of his last appearances at the NT was significant: in 1973 Olivier made his final appearance on stage. It was an unlikely choice for the founder of the NT to bid farewell. Trevor Griffith’s The Party was a lengthy yarn about socialists rediscovering Trotsky with both Olivier and Finlay as Glaswegian left wingers.

Finlay’s seductive voice – understated yet steamy – proved ideal for television. Firstly he was cast in the title role of the BBC’s Casanova in 1971. In 1973 there was a very different role: Adolf Hitler. In jet black wig and slim moustache Finlay captured the very essence of the deranged Führer in ITV’s The Death of Adolf Hitler.

In 1976 he delivered a cool but gripping performance in Bouquet of Barbed Wire for ITV. He developed the sexual contrariness of a man with ambivalent feelings for his daughter. The series was a smash hit and attracted audiences of over 24 million.

His film career was equally successful. In the Three Musketeers he swashbuckled his way through the Dumas novel with Michael York, Oliver Reed and Richard Chamberlain and in 1978 he joined Roger Moore, Richard Burton and Richard Harris in Wild Geese. He was nominated for an Oscar for the film version of Othello.

For a life-long devout catholic Finlay once commented how he had played so many rogues such as Iago, Napoleon, Henry VIII and the father in Bouquet: “I do seem to play a lot of bastards.”

He married Doreen Shepherd in 1954. She and a son predeceased him. He is survived by a son and daughter.