In Memory Of William Finley (1942-2012), 5 Things You Might Not Know About 'Phantom Of The Paradise'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
April 16, 2012 11:05 AM
11 Comments
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Sad news came in over the weekend, as it was announced yesterday that actor William Finley, best known for his work with Brian De Palma, had passed away on Saturdayat the age of 69. The actor was a long-time friend of De Palma, having appeared in his early films "Woton's Wake," "Murder a la Mod" and "The Wedding Party," before turning heads as Emil Breton, the husband of Margot Kidder's character, in the director's breakout picture "Sisters."

The duo would go on to work together many times, with Finley cropping up in "The Fury," "Dressed To Kill" (as the uncredited voice of killer Bobbi) and most recently, in "The Black Dahlia," but there's one, or rather two parts that the actor will forever be remembered for: as Winslow Leach/The Phantom, the songwriter ripped off and framed by Satanic record producer Swan (Paul Williams), only to be reborn after a horrific mutilation as The Phantom, in De Palma's rock opera classic "Phantom of the Paradise," his riff on "Phantom of the Opera."

The film's had an ever-growing cult in the years since its release, thanks to the support of people like Edgar Wright (who, sadly, had written an email to Finley, a fan of the director's only a few hours after Finley passed away -- you can read Wright's touching account and tribute over on his website), and Finley's performance in the picture is absolutely wonderful, a tragic monster that deserves to live alongside Lon Chaney in the Phantom hall of fame. In memory of the actor, you can find five tidbits about the film that you might not be aware of. And if you've never seen it, the film's available on DVD now.

1. De Palma wanted 50s throwbacks Sha-Na-Na to play The Juicy Fruits.
When the project was first being developed (back when it was called "Phantom of the Fillmore" -- changed because they couldn't get the rights to the name of the famous San Francisco music venue from promoter Bill Graham), De Palma hoped that The Rolling Stones, or someone of their ilk, would write the songs for the film, and play The Juicy Fruits. But given that he hadn't yet had his breakout hit, the band's management wouldn't return his phone calls, and he was forced to look elsewhere. His first thought were the 1950s nostalgia fiends Sha Na Na, who had first gained fame at Woodstock, and would later topline a Monkees-style variety series from 1977-1981. Partly because negotiations proved tricky, and partly because songwriter Paul Williams prefered to put a custom band, they didn't get the gig, but they would get a chance at big-screen infamy before too long: they play Johnny Casino and the Gamblers in "Grease."

2. Jon Voight, Linda Ronstadt and Peter Boyle all could have ended up with parts.
The Phantom was undoubtedly Finley's trademark role, but despite De Palma having written the role for his friend, he nearly missed out due to worries about bankability. Actor Gerrit Graham, who plays Beef in the film, has said that the original plan of the producers was for Paul Williams to play Winslow, Graham to play the evil Swan, and Peter Boyle to play Beef. Boyle turned down the part in favor of his seminal role of "Young Frankenstein," so Graham moved over to Beef, and Williams, worried he wouldn't be imposing enough to play The Phantom, played Swan, but not before Jon Voight was considered. Fortunately, this left room for Finley to step in and play the part he was always meant for. Meanwhile, Jessica Harper (who, of course, would go to star in "Suspiria," wasn't the only actress up for the part of Phoenix: musical superstar Linda Ronstadt was also in the running.

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11 Comments

  • Larry C. Lyons | September 2, 2012 4:16 PMReply

    I grew up in Winnipeg, now living in the Washington, DC area. I remember very much how Phantom of the Paradise had an impact on kids my age when I saw it age 15 in 1975. I think Mr. Finley's performance as Winslow Leach had much to do with that. His character was so much of what Winnipeg was at the time, that of course it resonated with us. And have stayed with us ever since. Whenever it plays in this area I still make a point of seeing it.

  • Ed Griffiths | April 23, 2012 9:41 AMReply

    I'm a Winnipegger now resident in London and for many years I was under the impression that PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE had been a big global hit because of its notoriety and popularity in my native city. I remember all the young people seemed to know it. I was too young to see it at the cinema but remember being surprised how rarely it screened at London's many repertory cinemas when I emigrated there in the latter 1980s.

    William Finley is a great loss - one of those character actors with an effortless quality of presence to them. I wish he'd done more movie work. His last turn as the murderer in THE BLACK DAHLIA was characteristically brilliant.

    For me, his 'Phantom' is one of the most tragic, funny and sympathetic characters in cinema. His last scene as the Phantom playing in the deserted record studio is, for me, unforgettable.

    Haunt those super-creeps forever, Bill!

  • Lois Punton | April 18, 2012 4:38 PMReply

    I too grew up in the 'Peg and remember going to see Phantom with our group of friends more than a few times. The movie spoke to us largely due to Mr. Finley and his fabulous performance. Many of us are deeply saddened by this loss. I still have the original soundtrack on LP and even though I haven't played it in decades I still sing those songs. Thanks for the memories, Bill. We will always remember you. RIParadise

  • Zinjo | April 17, 2012 4:43 PMReply

    OMG-LMAO

    That is SOOO true!
    I grew up in the The 'Peg and I remember my sister and cousins seeing it. I don't believe it was the Garrick theater so much (a remnant of the opulent Vaudeville theaters from the '20s, of which there were many in the city at the time...) but more that city's attraction to it is similar to Rocky Horror's enduring popularity in NY and LA. Somehow it hit a chord with the youth in the city at that time and inexplicably it has been passed down generation to generation. It was cool and corny, scary and fun and nearly everyone I knew had a copy of the sound track before long and just as many had seen it multiple times. It continues to be a local phenomenon, much like the Loc Ness Monster...

  • Tony DeSoto | April 17, 2012 12:04 PMReply

    William Finley was a significant part of my childhood. I saw Phantom in Kenner, Louisiana in the 4th grade (1977), and the film NEVER left me when I left that theatre. 35 years later, I still carry the haunting tale in my mind and heart. I am one of those who has seen the movie every year since. I hope Finley was a man of faith. I look forward to meeting him one day in Heaven.

  • Craig Wallace | April 16, 2012 7:38 PMReply

    OMG!!!!! My all-time FAVORITE movie, and the main character is now dead. Phantompalooza will never be the same :( I was lucky enough to meet Geritt Graham (aka Beef) but never William (aka Winslow akaka The Phantom)

    Rest in Peace William . . . you and the cast made my childhood exciting during the 14 trips to the movie theater to see Phantom of the Paradise (1975) . . . The music, the drama, the comedy, and now the sadness . . . .

    This fan will always remember!

  • Craig Wallace | April 16, 2012 7:39 PM

    oh . . . and yes . . I was one of those 12 year olds in Winnipeg :)

  • Popcorn Slayer | April 16, 2012 12:32 PMReply

    Finley was one of the few bright spots of THE BLACK DAHLIA. Too bad we didn't see more of him outside of De Palma's oeuvre.

  • Joanna | May 16, 2012 2:21 AM

    William did some movie with Tobe Hooper, including Eaten Alive, Night Terrors, (with Robert Englund, who posted a Tweet tribute. OY! Freddy Kruegger's mellowing, big time. ;) ) There's the movie Silent Rage, where Bill played this scientist guy who ends up getting killed by the guy he helped keep alive.) I love him in Murder a la Mod, though, where he plays this character who doesn't say a word, but he's funny as all get out! Good character actors can do that!

    Like others on this site, I'm a 'Pegger' who DID get to meet Mr. Finley. I got both books of Faust autographed by him and gave him a Thank You hug. Most of the lessons I learned from Winslow were learned in reverse, as it were, since I figured out THE single thing he did, that cost him his music (handing it over to Philbin) is something you just do NOT do. ...never give the ORIGINAL WORK, always copies! Keep notes on your work, or a blog. Paper and internet evidence together makes it easier to prove authorship.

    Another thing; stand your ground. As a writer, I've heard stories from others who were so desperate to be published that they whittled away at their own work to the point that what ended up getting them published wasn't even recognizable. I'm not suggesting blowing up someone's car or assaulting them in the shower with a plunger (especially if the plunger's been used previously. Yuk!) Just stand up for yourself and what you created.

    While William's created many memorable characters, Winslow 'sings' to those of us who want to make their own mark on the world. Both actor and character succeeded in doing just that!

    If you want, go to Swanarchives.org. In the NEWS section, there is a really nice write up about William, by one of Phantompalooza's organizers. And some highlighted names will allow you to read and see some moments and insights fans don't often get to see or find out about.

  • evilnik | April 16, 2012 11:59 AMReply

    brilliant tribute

  • tyrannosaurus max | April 16, 2012 11:50 AMReply

    Great film, great actor. Rest In Peace, Finley.

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