William Finley: Actor best known for his work with Brian De Palma

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The Independent Online

William Finley is best-known for his roles in nine of Brian De Palma's films, a disturbing, lanky, goggle-eyed presence, notably the maniacal, disfigured anti-hero of The Phantom of the Paradise.

He appeared in a number of other (usually horror) films, including three by Tobe Hooper.

Finley met De Palma when they were both studying drama at Columbia University but when a fire destroyed all the facilities they temporarily transferred to Sarah Lawrence College to study with Wilford Leach. Finley took the title role in De Palma's first film, Woton's Wake (1962), a short parody of silent horror films that involved much grimacing and grotesque make-up. The following year De Palma, co-directing with Leach, embarked on The Wedding Party, the director's most experimental film, again sometimes evoking silent cinema but with highly disjunctive editing. The large cast included the young Jill Clayburgh and an actor then credited as Robert Denero, with Finley sporting distinctive bottle-bottom spectacles. However, distribution problems meant that it was only released in 1969.

In the meantime De Palma had made the Peeping Tom-inspired Murder à la Mod (1968), a bizarre story of a film-maker forced to make a low-grade porno to support himself and pay for his divorce, while his apartment block is stalked by the strange figure of Otto (Finley). The cheesy psychedelic-rock theme song ("Murder à la Mod, la Mod / Is not so strange / Is not so odd") was written and performed by Finley.

Finley and De Palma's next project was even more outré. The experimental theatre troupe The Performance Group staged Richard Schechner's "happening"-type adaptation of Euripides' The Bacchae with Finley in the title role. Dionysus in 69 (1970) is compiled from two performances and uses split screens. The New York Times praised Finley's performance in a review which perhaps marks the only time the words "De Palma" and "understated" have appeared in the same sentence.

De Palma's breakthrough came with Sisters (1973), a Hitchcockian story of a murder and the separation of Siamese twins, with Finley as the survivor's husband. His next film gave Finley his signature role. Phantom of the Paradise (1974) is a grand guignol rock opera mash-up of Leroux, Faust, Frankenstein, Caligari and Dorian Gray. Though the lead role was written for Finley, studio politics meant that he was only confirmed when the co-star, composer Paul Williams, fearing the film's attack on the record industry would rebound on his career, declined.

Though Williams performed most of the music, Finley chimed in with the song "Faust". The hero's disfigurement came from being caught in a record press and a special effects mix-up mean that Finley only just escaped being crushed for real. Though initially a flop (except, unaccountably, in Winnipeg), it became a cult film and eventually an action figure of Finley was released.

However, from now on, Finley appeared further down the cast list while always making an impression, as in his first credits outside a De Palma film, the TV murder mystery Last Hours Before Morning (1975) and Eaten Alive (1977), the first of three films with Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. By 1978 De Palma could get Kirk Douglas to star in his supernatural thriller The Fury, though there was still a place for Finley, who also took a role in John Huston's comedy drama Wise Blood (1979) and played a geeky experimental pharmacologist in the decidedly odd Simon (1980) a brainwashing-conspiracy comedy.

Finley provided Michael Caine's breathy "female" voice in De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) and the following year played Marco the Magnificent, a cynical shock-haired magician who "impales" a volunteer – actually his daughter – in Hooper's deranged carnival horror The Funhouse.

In the fantasy revenge film Silent Rage (1982) Finley had a more significant role as one of three doctors who save the life of a murderer using an experimental serum accidentally making him indestructible. In 1983 came Finley's only screenplay, The First Time (1983), a weird teen comedy about a young film student's amorous adventures. In 1985 he co-authored an introduction to race-walking.

Finley's career ended with a series of low-impact projects. Double Negative (1985) is a micro-budget crime drama about a horror film director who, realising his producers are planning an insurance fraud, steals his film to save it from being "lost". There were also a few TV appearances, including uncredited appearances in Sabrina the Teenage Witch (as a werewolf) and Masters of Horror. His final credit was back with De Palma, playing a psychopathic taxidermist in The Black Dahlia (2006).

William Franklin Finley III, actor: born Manhattan 9 September 1940; married 1975 Susan (one son); died Manhattan 14 April 2012.