As announced yesterday on Edgar Wright’s blog, Edgar Wright Here, beloved character actor and lifelong Brian DePalma collaborator William Finley has tragically passed away at the age of 69 in New York. Finley was adored by genre fans for his many quirky and eclectic film appearances, particularly as the unforgettable star of DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise.
Finley was best known for his starring role as debased musical genius Winslow Leach in DePalma’s 1974 rock opera masterpiece, but he also appeared memorably in the director’s The Fury, Sisters, and Murder a la Mode, as well as in The Wedding Party with Jill Clayburgh and Robert DeNiro, and in horror legend Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, Night Terrors and The Funhouse. Finley’s last cinematic appearance was in De Palma’s Black Dahlia in 2006.
Finley’s professional relationship with De Palma dated all the way back to the early 1960s, when DePalma was still making student films. Finley appeared in DePalma’s third short, Woton’s Wake, in 1962, and would continue to work intermittently with the director for over 40 years. He was an amazingly impassioned and versatile performer, modulating effortlessly between theatrical bombasticism, vaudevillian silliness, and poignant vulnerability. His signature performance in Phantom, as a tortured creative idealist exploited by a corrupt, demonic music industry executive represented the fullest demonstration of Finley’s captivating range of screen presences, cataloguing his character’s Cheney-esque transmogrification from a hapless, love-struck songwriter to a deformed and homicidal mutant.
Finley was multi-talented, and in addition to his immortal contributions as a performer, he also wrote the screenplay for the 1983 comedy The First Time, about a nerdy film student questing for sexual escapades (available streaming on Hulu+ here, if you’re interested) and co-authored the 1985 book Racewalking. His performance of the Paul Williams ballad “Faust” in Phantom is one of the film’s most memorable sequences.
Finley is survived by his wife Susan, and by his son Dashiell who, perhaps inspired by his father’s iconic career, recently graduated from NYU Film School. The details of William’s death remain unknown publicly at this time, but Susan reports her husband had been ill for a long time and finally succumbed in the late morning of April 14, 2012. Finley’s death comes as a tragic and unexpected shock for film buffs, and for the cinematic community as a whole. He will be sorely missed, but his contributions to the medium will never be forgotten.