Jon Finch Actor who brought a brooding intensity to Polanski's film 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'
Tuesday 15 January 2013
In the early 1970s, the actor Jon Finch brought a brooding intensity and a sense of simmering menace to Roman Polanski's The Tragedy Of Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy and seemed poised to make the transition from leading man to film star. Indeed, following Sean Connery's last appearance as James Bond, in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, he was one of several British actors considered by the Bond franchise producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to take over the role. Yet he turned the offer down and Roger Moore was cast as Bond in Live And Let Die. In 1973, Finch was approached to play Aramis in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers but showed little interest in the swashbuckling part, which instead went to Richard Chamberlain.
That year, Finch appeared in The Final Programme, written and directed by Robert Fuest, who had graduated from The Avengers TV series to helming two Dr Phibes black comedies starring Vincent Price. Another quest for eternal life, The Final Programme made the most of Finch's mesmerising presence and Byronic looks, and has become a cult classic but it was hardly William Shakespeare, Ian Fleming or Alexandre Dumas.
In 1975, Finch travelled to Australia to portray the legendary New South Wales bushranger Ben Hall in the eponymous 13-part TV series co-produced by the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. At the time, this earned him heart-throb status and a considerable female following. After another memorable performance – including a scene-stealing appearance in drag – as a devious informant supervisor in The New Avengers episode "Medium Rare" in 1977, he was offered another TV role, Raymond Doyle in the crime-action series The Professionals.
Despite the fact that in his twenties, he had enjoyed his time training with an SAS reserve regiment, Finch argued he "couldn't possibly play a policeman" and Martin Shaw, who had coincidentally also acted in Macbeth and The New Avengers, came to the rescue and became a household name.
These idiosyncratic choices were characteristic of Finch, who followed his own muse and was not driven or career-minded. "I never wanted to be a big star," he told Shock Cinema magazine in 2005. "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."
Born in Caterham, Surrey, in 1941, he was the son of a merchant banker and first trod the boards in his early teens. Acting remained a constant throughout his schooling and, after military service in a parachute regiment, eventually caused him to drop out of the SAS reserve so he could spend evenings and weekends in the theatre.
The early 1960s saw him make the most of the training then available in repertory companies as he juggled stage managing with acting in productions of She Stoops To Conquer and Night Of The Iguana. Finch first appeared on television in the then daytime soap opera Crossroads in 1964, and subsequently acted in the crime series Z-Cars and in one-off plays for both the BBC and ITV. In 1969, he proved a compelling watch as Simon King, an alien sent to Earth to prevent an alien invasion in the BBC sci-fi series Counterstrike (though sadly, only four of its 10 episodes survive in any form).
This brought him to the attention of Hammer, the powerhouse of gothic horror film-making in Britain, then entering a more exploitative chapter in its history. In 1970, Finch appeared alongside Ingrit Pitt, Kate O'Mara and Peter Cushing in the lesbian-themed The Vampire Lovers directed by Roy Ward Baker, and in The Horror Of Frankenstein, helmed by Jimmy Sangster and starring O'Mara again as well as Ralph Bates as the Baron and David Prowse as the Monster.
The next year, Finch had a small role in John Schlesinger's Sunday Bloody Sunday before moving on to the lead in Polanski's Macbeth. This unsettling film had a troubled production, in difficult weather conditions in the British Isles, while the experimental, atonal soundtrack by Third Ear Band added to the eerie atmosphere. Reviewers noted that Macbeth's bloodiest moments seemed to echo the murder of Polanski's pregnant wife Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson and his "disciples" in August 1969 but many praised Finch's masterful performance, which went from sotto voce to full throttle and introduced Shakespeare to a new generation.
Indeed, Finch would return to the Bard time and again, and proved equally commanding as Henry Bolingbroke to Derek Jacobi's Richard II (1978), the lead in Henry IV (1979) and Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing (1984), all for the BBC – and part of many students' courses – and with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Finch had leading-man looks but enjoyed being cast against type, as the cuckolded Lord Melbourne in Robert Bolt's Lady Caroline Lamb, with Sarah Miles in the title role and Chamberlain as her lover, Lord Byron. In Hitchcock's penultimate film Frenzy, he brought an effective ambivalence to the part of the ex-RAF officer framed for a series of "neck-tie" murders by their actual perpetrator, played by Barry Foster. Set around London's Covent Garden and Oxford Street, the film marked Hitchcock's return to the British Isles and is more a curio than a major part of his oeuvre though Finch contributed an insightful interview to its DVD version in 2001.
Happy as a jobbing actor, despite being diagnosed with diabetes in the mid-1970s, he popped up as a Communist suspect in the star-studded whodunit Death On The Nile, based on the Agatha Christie novel, in 1978, and should have featured as Kane in Ridley Scott's Alien the following year. However, he fell ill on set at the start of the shoot and was replaced by John Hurt. Ridley Scott subsequently cast him as the Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem in his 2005 epic movie Kingdom Of Heaven.
Finch might not always have picked the right project but he brought whatever was needed to a part, whether portraying a gangster hellbent on revenge after being framed for murder in an episode of the TV drama New Tricks in 2003 or playing the svengali who takes over from Phil Daniels masterminds Hazel O'Connor's rise to success in Brian Gibson's post-punk gem Breaking Glass in 1980.
Finch was found dead in his flat in Hastings.
Jon Finch, actor: born Caterham, Surrey 2 March 1941; married 1980 Catriona MacColl (divorced 1987); one daughter; died Hastings c. 28 December 2012.
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