Michael Adams salutes an Australian actor who learned early on that the world’s a stage.
The downside to Heath Ledger’s Oscar win was the media reducing Peter Finch to a footnote as the only other posthumous recipient. It was unfortunate because it ignored their other uncanny Academy Award coincidence — Ledger was snubbed for a statuette for Brokeback Mountain, just as his predecessor had been for 1970’s gay-cinema landmark Sunday, Bloody Sunday— but more importantly because Finch shouldn’t just be referred to in passing.
Born in England on September 18, 1916, Finch was the son of Australian chemist and Everest mountaineer George Ingle-Finch and Alicia Ingle-Finch, an adulteress who became pregnant with Peter via the seed of one Major Jock Campbell, a Highlander in the Black Watch. With his parents separated, the young lad went to live with his “very eccentric” grandmother Laura, and they flitted between France and England before, at age nine, she whisked him off to India, where he briefly became a Buddhist monk. Grandma then put him on a ship to Australia — alone— and once in Sydney, aged 10, he was enrolled at a Liberal Catholic school that taught its students, among other things, astrology and masturbation. His grandfather Charles, a respected member of Australian society, would have none of it— and stuck young Peter in a strict government school. The boy quit at 16 and got a job as a copy boy on the Sydney Sun newspaper.
Finch was soon fired and lived rough ‘n’ ready in Kings Cross, where he developed a taste for cheap sherry and worked griller jobs. A born mimic, he honed his craft in amateur dramatic societies — and learned the ways of love in legendary madam Kate Leigh’s brothel, paying for the girls’ services with his recitations of poetry and Shakespeare. When work dried up all together on account of the Depression, he travelled around Australia living off the dole between jobs as a jackaroo.
Once back in Sydney in the mid-1930s Finch got his first break into professional acting as straight man to a travelling American comedian, made national headlines for bravery when he tried to rescue another drowning visiting celebrity and took to the road with George Sortie’s tent shows. Segueing onto the ABC’s airwaves, he became known as “Radio’s Great Lover” — a reputation he embraced by reputedly bedding half of Sydney’s women. Waking up late and drunk one morning, he reputedly swam across Sydney Harbour so as to sober up and make it to the ABC studio on time.
When WWII arrived, Finch signed up — and found himself in Darwin when the Japanese bombed. What Hugh Jackman played on screen, the 26-year-old lived for months, as a member of an “ack-ack” unit. In the service he also gained experience as an entertainer, with his show “Finch’s Follies” playing to thousands of troops. Finch’s ascendancy continued apace during and after the war. Having already starred in 1938’s Dad And Dove Come To Town, in 1944 he made The Rats Of Tobruk for Charles Chauvel. Having founded an acting troupe based on Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre — between marrying a gorgeous Russian ballerina and prodigious around-the-clock drinking sessions at the Journalists’ Club — Finch found himself courted by Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh during their 1968 tour down under.
He went to London to act under contract to Sir Larry— and promptly cuckolded him by becoming one of crackpot Vivien’s great loves. His association with the Oliviers, messy though it was, saw him become an international star — he soon was playing opposite Orson Welles on stage. In the 1950s, with the Australian film industry all but dead, Finch’s stardom provided a local-boy link for visiting British productions, such as A Town Like Alice, The Shirolee and Robbery Under Arms. And he anticipated Russell Crowe by half a century as the Sheriff Of Nottingham in 1952’s The Story Of Robin Hood.
Kidnapped (1959) saw him co-star with a youngster named Peter O’Toole. The association led to one of the great drinking partnerships and the magnificent story which had the two of them, one night in the 1960s, buying the pub they were boozing in to avoid closing time. Despite the drinking, which saw him contract hepatitis, and the three more marriages, Finch got better with age. He won true critical acclaim in The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960) and Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) before the triumphs of Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971 and his final, Oscar-winning role as “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale in Network (1976).
Finch was hot on the Oscar trail in January 1977 when his long-abused heart stopped knocking in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was 60. But don’t think of him as having died before his time. Forty years earlier his roustabout mates — poets, artists, hookers and thieves in Kings Cross— had toasted him thus: “To a person who at 21 has been through more than a man of 60!”