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.
3. Finley came close to being crushed for real in filming the Phantom’s origin.
Winslow is horribly disfigured after being cought in a record press that he’s trying to destroy, turning him into the Phantom, but the scene nearly went badly wrong. The scene was shot in a real pressing plant at the Pressman Toys factory (the company founded by producer Edward R. Pressman‘s father), with foam pads and chocks put in between to stop it from closing. But on one take, the chocks snapped from the pressure, and the press began to close gradually. Fortunately, Finley was pulled out long before he was in real danger.
4. Sissy Spacek worked as the set dresser on the film.
Stick around through the credits and you’ll find one rather surprising name among the technical crew, with future Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek named as a set dresser — particularly odd, considering that she’s just starred in her breakout role, in Terrence Malick‘s “Badlands.” The reality of it is quite simple: Malick had met her boyfriend Jack Fisk the previous year when he was working as the art director on “Badlands.” Fisk then got the opportunity to make his debut as Production Designer on “Phantom of the Paradise,” and Spacek went with him, working with him during the shoot. The pair would marry not long after production wrapped, and a year later, Fisk would suggest to Spacek that she audition for the lead in De Palma’s “Carrie,” on which he was art director. Spacek would go on to win an Oscar nomination for her indelible performance in that film.
5. It was a box-office disappointment, but huge in Winnipeg.
Hopes were high for “Phantom of the Paradise:” 20th Century Fox bought the negative for $2 million, which was then a record for an independently-produced film. But for the most part, the film received poor reviews, and died at the box office. And yet, there was one place where it became a monster hit: Winnipeg, Canada. Even in the rest of the country, the film didn’t play for long, and yet in Winnipeg, it was a monster hit, playing continually in theaters for four-and-a-half-months, with 20,000 copies of the soundtrack being snapped up. To this day, it’s unsure why the film performed so well when it opened on December 26th (two months after the full release), although it’s believed that the luxury Garrick cinema, and an atypically young audience, of around ten or so, helped it become a cult that continues in the city to this day.
William Finley – “Faust” (from the “Phantom of the Paradise” soundtrack)