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

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

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)

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I liked this movie and Sisters, too. It was strange how he went from the passionate Emil Breton to the geeky Winslow Leach, who acted like he’d never even touched a girl! There are even fanfics about Phantom of the Paradise! I watched Phantompalooza and laughed when he talked about the Phantom/Winslow action figure and Darth Vader’s voicebox was inspired by the movie!


What an incredible loss! There will never be another Phantom as down to earth and as relatable as William Finley. Thank you for leaving us this bit of your soul on celluloid for the generations to discover and enjoy forever. R.I.P. May Your Dreams Never End Winslow Leach

Larry C. Lyons

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

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

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



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

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

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!

Popcorn Slayer

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.


brilliant tribute

tyrannosaurus max

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

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