Profile: Actor ALBERT FINNEY talks with James Rampton
An Irish doctor who has seen better days sits dressed in a pith helmet, dinner jacket and a towel. Pathetically singing, slurring his words and swigging from a bottle, he hails a returning war hero by throwing his arms up in the air. The scabbard flies off the regimental sword he is holding and clatters across the room. This is a bravura boozer.

Doctor Monygham, a good-hearted medic tormented by unrequited love and by a body ravaged with drink and physical torture in the BBC's epic four- part adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, is a part right up Albert Finney's street. In recent years, the actor has cornered the market in tortured souls of a certain age. Think of his Daniel Feeld, the terminally- ill, self-loathing writer in Karaoke, or Sergeant Hegarty from The Playboys, a pent-up ball of jealous rage.

It is a tribute to Finney's skill as an actor that, face to face, the only look of agony that passes across his lived-in features is when his Zeppelin-sized Havana cigar goes out and needs re-lighting. He is a barrel of bonhomie off screen. A bear-like man in a large tweed jacket and loose black trousers, he zaps you with an anecdote- per-minute rate that would leave even Ned Sherrin gasping for breath.

With his ruddy cheeks and comfortable waistline, he cultivates the image of a roisterous bon viveur. John Hale, the adaptor of Nostromo, who has known Finney since the 1961 Edinburgh Festival, confirms that "he likes the flesh pots". Finney says the heat during the filming of Nostromo in Colombia made him lose weight, "but one does one's best to counteract that". Asked if he encountered any drugs in Cartagna de Indias, he replies with a characteristic, rich laugh: "I'm still doing research into Havana cigars and Burgundy wine. When I've done that, I'll have a look at other subjects."

Speaking in a deep, Burgundy voice, he is appealingly modest about his pain-wracked performance as Monygham. "I don't feel I'm a masochist," he claims. "I don't want to put myself through the wringer. I just felt he was an interesting fellow and his problems were worth having a crack at."

Michael Wearing, the executive producer of Nostromo, is more effusive. He reckons that Finney plays tormented so well "because he's not tormented in real life. He's a tremendous lover of life. He's not self-important, and he doesn't hide behind a whole intellectual cage of nonsense, which some actors do. What he's got is an endless curiosity about people and places.

"That scene [described above] is a masterclass in how to act drunk," Wearing continues, "but it's just one scene. Albert has caught that mad English quality of those people who went all over the world and landed in the most inappropriate places, but still contributed something. Albert manages to understand that. He gives me the impression that he's in control professionally of what he needs to do. He's not at war with himself - the way most actors and indeed the rest of us are."

Finney has reached this state of contentment by achieving the tricky showbiz feat of maintaining his integrity. Over 40 years in the business, he has consistently made career moves motivated by commitment rather than cash. In the early 1960s, he turned down pounds 120,000 to play Lawrence of Arabia because he didn't want to be tied to a long-term Hollywood studio contract. Instead, he made the most of his devilish good-looks and fashionable northern roots - he is said to have sported a cloth cap in interviews and looked back fondly on his clog-wearing childhood - and starred in several epoch-making plays and films. Hale explains that "Since the huge success of Tom Jones, Albert has been in a position to choose his roles. He never chooses simply. He chooses challenges and then gets right behind them."

A self-confessed "freewheeling spirit", Finney, currently starring in Matthew Warchus's acclaimed production of Yasmina Reza's comedy, has not always chosen wisely. Annie in 1982 took a critical hammering and 1987's Orphans is described by Brewer's Cinema as "one of Hollywood's worst ever flops, comparing budget to box office". Since he understudied the great man in Coriolanus at the National Theatre in the early 1960s, Finney has also had to put up with the tag of "the new Olivier". So fed up is he with being told that he has never quite lived up to the billing, that he now has a standard riposte: "Nobody asks Robert De Niro or Gerard Depardieu when they are going to do Lear."

Those quibbles aside, he remains a titan of his generation, quite capable of dominating scenes - as he does in Nostromo - with the merest swivel of the eyes. Off-duty, he may enjoy the high life, but he's completely professional once on set. "He's the most convivial of men," says Hale, "but he allows nothing to divert him. He'll always turn up on his mark, rock steady and DLP - dead letter perfect."

"Concentration is the secret," Finney reckons. "You try and `be there'. When you do a scene, you're there and nothing else is going on." He is in the habit of getting up to rehearse two hours before filming begins."I like to go on set with the engine running," he affirms. "I like to be ready, it's an explosive event."

Nevertheless, he never takes it to the extremes of Method-like madness. "I think about the part," he observes, "but on Nostromo I didn't walk into a bar in the evening with crippled feet and a hunchback. One does like to be obsessed, though - that's one of the attractions of the work. But sometimes you get more ideas when you're not poring over the script with a clenched forehead. When I played Scrooge I was switching lights off a lot because I was thinking about the part, but I didn't become completely mean."

Such dedication, Hale maintains, has kept Finney "in the first rank. We don't see a lot of his contemporaries like Peter O'Toole anymore, do we?"

So he never became "the new Olivier", but you can be quite sure that any young actor would give his Equity Card to be dubbed "the new Albert Finney".

Albert Finney is in `Nostromo' from next Sat on BBC2 and continues in `Art' at London's Wyndhams Theatre (0171- 369 1736)

1936: Born in Salford. His father was a bookmaker known as Honest Albert.

1950s: Having failed his O Levels twice, he left Salford Grammar aged 17 for Rada - where Peter O'Toole, Roy Kinnear, Frank Finlay and Richard Briers were contemporaries.

1956: Made his stage debut with Birmingham Rep

1960s: Rode new wave of "angry young men", appearing in Luther, Billy Liar and A Day in the Life of Joe Egg (on stage). Also in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Tom Jones (1963), which won him an Oscar nomination. Laurence Olivier called him "the greatest actor of his generation"

1965: Founded Memorial Films which gave Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears their first breaks and produced If..., Gumshoe and O Lucky Man!

1970s and 1980s: Recorded an LP of his own compositions which he sang on The Johnny Carson Show. Oscar nominations for Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Dresser (1983), and Under the Volcano (1984). Starred in Scrooge (1970), for which he won a Golden Globe, and Miller's Crossing (1990.)

1990s: The Playboys (1992), A Man of No Importance (1994), Karaoke (1996), Cold Lazarus (1996), and Nostromo (1997) on screen, and Art on stage.