Albert Finney, a British actor who found worldwide acclaim in 1963 as the raffish 18th-century roustabout Tom Jones and who carved an independent path in the theater and in films, portraying Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, a Southern lawyer in “Erin Brockovich” and an Irish mob boss in “Miller’s Crossing,” died Feb. 7 at a London hospital. He was 82.
His family announced the death. He reportedly had an infection and had been treated several years earlier for kidney cancer.
Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Mr. Finney first gained notice on-screen in 1960 in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” a gritty study of alienation and anger in which he played a factory worker juggling relationships with two women.
Throughout his career, in roles ranging from playboy to pope, from Hamlet to Winston Churchill, he had a way of dominating any scene in which he appeared. Early on, Time magazine lauded him as “the most brilliant actor of his age in the English-speaking world.”
Mr. Finney was sometimes proclaimed the heir to British actor Laurence Olivier or even Marlon Brando. He had a deep voice, expressive blue eyes and a brooding, steely focus that, in some scenes, erupted into fury.
“Concentration is the secret,” he told Britain’s Independent newspaper in 1997. “You try and ‘be there.’ When you do a scene, you’re there and nothing else is going on.”
His most exuberant role, which vaulted him to stardom, came in “Tom Jones,” based on Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel. Mr. Finney stepped with gusto into his role as an adventurous, high-spirited rogue, “of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.”
Handsome, charismatic and given to mischief, Mr. Finney’s character is more of a lover than a fighter but adept at both. He exudes a powerful charm and sex appeal, particularly during a tour de force dinner-table scene with actress Joyce Redman. Without saying a word, the two actors gaze at each other while devouring lobster, oysters, chicken and an assortment of fruits, before stealing away to a bedroom. It remains one of the most memorable seduction scenes in film history.
“Tom Jones” won four Academy Awards, including best picture. Mr. Finney was nominated for an Oscar as best actor but went home empty-handed. He was nominated three more times for best actor: for playing Poirot, the Belgian detective in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974); for his role as an aging Shakespearean actor losing his grip on reality in “The Dresser” (1983); and for playing an alcoholic British diplomat in “Under the Volcano” (1984). Mr. Finney also was nominated once for supporting actor, playing a lawyer who hires Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” (2000). He was sometimes called the greatest actor never to win an Oscar.
He was cast as Tom Jones only because he turned down the starring role in “Lawrence of Arabia,” which made a star of Peter O’Toole — who was in the same acting class as Mr. Finney and a frequent drinking companion.
The offer was tied to a long-term contract with the film’s producer, which Mr. Finney rejected. “I didn’t know where I want to be in five years’ time,” he later said, “or tomorrow for that matter.”
Because “Tom Jones” was not expected to be a major hit, Mr. Finney took a small salary and a percentage of the film’s profits — which turned out to be enormous. He became a millionaire at 27, enabling him to resist the commercial lures of Hollywood.
He appeared in the stylish “Two for the Road” (1967) with Audrey Hepburn — with whom he had a torrid romance — but preferred to practice his craft on the stage. His 1975 performance of “Hamlet” at London’s National Theatre was praised in the New York Times by critic Benedict Nightingale as “passionate and powerful, full of scalding humor and savage contempt. Here, for once, is a Hamlet who is what he accuses himself, ‘very proud, revengeful and ambitious.’ ”
During the early 1980s, Mr. Finney appeared regularly in productions of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Co. During the same years, he had roles as Pope John Paul II in a TV movie, as a shaven-headed Daddy Warbucks in a screen version of “Annie” and as a California writer whose marriage is collapsing in “Shoot the Moon.” Alan Parker, who directed the 1982 film, co-starring Diane Keaton, struggled to get the best performance he could from Mr. Finney.
Somehow, Mr. Finney found an inner fire for a scene in which he drives a car over his family’s tennis court, enraged that his wife and children are moving on without him.
The role “reminded me of times when my own behavior has been monstrous,” Mr. Finney — who was married three times and had countless affairs — said. “Well, one of the things you obviously use as an actor in a quite ruthless way sometimes is your personal life.”
In later years, Mr. Finney found new acclaim after appearing in “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Playing an Irish American crime boss, he was suave and malevolent at the same time.
“You haven’t bought any license to kill bookies,” he says in one scene, “and today I ain’t sellin’ any. Now take your flunkie and dangle.”
In 2002, Mr. Finney portrayed Churchill in BBC-produced television film, “The Gathering Storm” (2002) for which he received an Emmy Award. He played Billy Crudup’s dying father in “Big Fish,” a well-received 2003 film directed by Tim Burton. In 2007, he had another role as a father in Sidney Lumet’s crime drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” playing the father of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.
Mr. Finney’s final film role was in the 2012 James Bond film “Skyfall,” in which he played a Scottish gamekeeper who had been an early mentor and father figure to a young Bond, played by Daniel Craig. In one scene, Mr. Finney dispatches a couple of villains with a double-barreled shotgun, ending the encounter with a laconic, “Welcome to Scotland.”
Albert Finney was born May 9, 1936, in Salford, England, near Manchester. His father was a bookie, taking illegal bets on horse races.
Except for sports and acting, Mr. Finney did poorly in school. A teacher recommended him for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and he found early encouragement from actor Charles Laughton and Olivier, to whom he was an understudy in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.”
Mr. Finney’s marriages to actresses Jane Wenham and Anouk Aimee ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 2006, Pene Delmage; a son from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Finney recalled that when he first gained renown in 1960 with “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” a theater put his name on the marquee. When his parents came to see him in London, his father — whose name was also Albert Finney — lingered in the street, looking at the marquee.
“I went back and said ‘Come on Dad, I’ve got to get back,’ ” Mr. Finney said. “But he stayed there, gazing. ‘I never thought I’d see my name in lights,’ he said.”