I knew William Finley because we acted together in a movie, directed by Brian de Palma, called “Phantom of the Paradise”. In the 70’s, Bill and I spent two months in each others face in Dallas, Texas, shooting this rock-and-roll redo of “Phantom of the Opera.” Bill played the phantom, and I his muse.
It was my first movie, and on the first day of shooting, I was clueless and terrified, wracked with self-doubt and fears of screwing up.
My condition was not helped by the fact that we started the day with a scene in which I was sexually assaulted by a 400-pound man (wearing turquoise boxer shorts and cowboy boots). This did nothing to allay my fear that I had chosen the wrong profession.
But then Finley showed up. We had a key scene together, the one in which our characters met for the first time…
Bill was tall, kind, smart, focused, and almost immediately I appointed him my big brother, my protector…and my explainer. All day long the crew shouted mysterious things (like, “Checking the gate!”“Bring in the baby junior!” “Set up for the martini shot!” “Hit your mark, you stupid cow!”), and Bill patiently translated for me.
But mostly, he was just reassuring. He treated me with respect and kindness, as if he had complete confidence in me. He may never have said the words out loud, but he made me believe that he was thinking, “You’ve got this. You’re gonna be fine.” And once I calmed down and got over myself a little, I had one of the better acting lessons of my life, just by watching Bill’s skill and commitment in the creation of his character.
I can’t tell you how much I valued his warm friendship and his talent.
Whenever he was not on set, I missed him.
After the Dallas days, I did not see as much of Bill and his family as I’d have liked, as we lived on opposite coasts.
But he was one of those rare people who, even if you know them for a limited time, etch their initials on your heart.
To paraphrase a line from “Phantom,” we’ll remember you forever, Finley.
(For more on William Finley, click here.)