By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 16, 2012 at 11:05AM
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.