He's not a knight, but that's OK

Actor Albert Finney, star of `Big Fish,' prefers to be a rebel

January 06, 2004|By Carrie Rickey | Carrie Rickey,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - As Albert Finney sees it, there's a fundamental difference between him, a robust bull barreling into a Gotham hotel suite, and the tall-tale spinner he plays in Tim Burton's new film Big Fish.

"I live stories rather than tell them," exclaims Finney, a lusty 67, the best-known British actor never to win an Oscar. He's likely to snag yet another nomination for his salty turn as the fantasist father of a realist son in Burton's fractured fairy tale, which goes into wide release Friday.

Zero-for-five with Tom Jones, Murder on the Orient Express, Under the Volcano, The Dresser and Erin Brockovich, Finney is supremely indifferent to honors, including the 2002 Emmy he won for portraying Winston Churchill in HBO's The Gathering Storm.

Maybe it's a generational thing. As the genteel Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson - the so-called generation of sirs - collected honors from the queen during the '60s, earthy Finney, son of a bookie, galloped through the decade on raging hormones and rakish charm.

His romantic conquests include Anouk Aimee, Jane Asher, Joan Baez and Jacqueline Bisset - and those are just the A's and B's. There were also Audrey Hepburn (his Two for the Road co-star), Rita Moreno, Carly Simon and - well, let's just say the probable tally of women he didn't romance is less than those who found him irresistible.

Like Michael Caine and Sean Connery, Finney bounded onto stage and screen as a roisterer, a kitchen-sink yob as opposed to the drawing-room gentleman. It would be tempting to tag these three the "generation of no-sirs," except that the queen has recently honored Sir Mike and Sir Sean. "They've let the side down," Finney roars amiably. "How can they be rebels?"

Though pleased for his peers, Finney believes "we should all be misters." So, is it true that the egalitarian has discreetly and politely refused repeated invitations to Buckingham Palace for the queen's annual honors, which include the peerage and knighthoods? Finney declines comment.

But the palace recently divulged a list of those who have refused honors. And there is Finney's name, in the excellent company of David Bowie, John Cleese, Michael Frayn, Lucian Freud, Doris Lessing and 294 others.

From his penthouse in the Waldorf Towers on a sparkling Sunday, Finney recalls a Manhattan weekend precisely 40 years ago. Tom Jones was a runaway smash, he was wowing Broadway with his performance in Luther, and on both sides of the Atlantic he was hailed as "the next Olivier."

The subject of mortality hangs lightly over the actor, like the scent of roasted chestnuts on the streets outside. This may be because in Big Fish he plays a dying man estranged from his son (Billy Crudup). Or it may be because the movie has prompted him to take stock of his relations with his late father and with his son, Simon, 45. (Simon's mother is the actress Jane Wenham, Finney's first wife. His second spouse was Aimee.)

"Sometimes you feel more at ease with a nephew and he with you," Finney reflects on the father/son condition. "It's not as complicated or as genetic or as responsible as the matter of being an elder to your own son.

"So if you ask me how my relationship with my son may have flavored my performance here," Finney says, anticipating the question, "I'll tell you that's a question for Simon." He shrugs broad shoulders with a grin nearly as wide. "Of course, I always think my relationship with my son is perfectly fine."

Two generations of Finney sons have entered what might be termed the other side of the family business. Finney's father was a bookie; his son breeds racehorses. Finney is an actor; his son is a cinematographer. "There is a link," says the actor, admitting that it is a slightly perverse one.

And yes, Simon has been a camera assistant on films starring his father, including The Browning Version (1994). "This enabled me to say to him, `You're out of the will if I'm out of focus.' "

And, no, the actor wouldn't dream of riding a thoroughbred. He only breeds them.

"Too dangerous," he says, suppressing a smile. "They're big."

Don't ask him how many he has, because the evasive charmer will tell you "too many." By the actor's admittedly imperfect census there are at least 11, nine in training in the States plus two mares in Ireland.

Which brings him to the subject of horse races, a much more reliable index of talent than Oscar races, in Finney's estimation.

"The Oscars are a race one doesn't enter. If you win an Oscar, it's a matter of opinion.

"But if a horse passes the post first, it means that he's the best at that day at that time."

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