CULT movie enthusiasts went into mourning on the weekend with news of the passing of William Finley on Saturday at the age of 69. Finley was a character actor with credits on several cult films such as Sisters, Eaten Alive and The Fury. But in Manitoba, he was especially celebrated for playing the title role in the ultimate Winnipeg cult movie The Phantom of the Paradise.
In that 1974 film by director Brian De Palma, Finley also played the Phantom's alter-ego Winslow Leach, a sensitive songwriter driven into homicidal mania by the corrupt music industry. While the film was a critical and box office bomb, it was an anomalous hit in Winnipeg, where it ran in local theatres for more than a year.
The Brooklyn resident died after a long illness and was remembered with affection by Gloria Dignazio, the organizer of Phantompalooza I, a 2005 event held in Winnipeg for the film's fiercely loyal devotees.
"You could tell Bill loved it," Dignazio said of Finley's reaction to the first festival. "It gave him a huge boost. We made (Finley and fellow guest Gerrit Graham) feel like rock stars."
Dignazio credits Finley with inspiring the followup Phantompalooza II in April, 2006 which saw Phantom cast members Paul Williams, Jessica Harper and three members of the movie's house band, the Juicy Fruits, join Finley and Graham on the guest list.
"I keep picturing him in 2005 when he said, 'We have to do this again! We have to bring in the whole cast!'" Dignazio said. "For us, it was like God speaking."
At the time, Finley said he was going to appeal to director Brian de Palma himself to appear at the fest while working with the director on the film Black Dahlia in Bulgaria, apparently to no avail.
Doug Carlson, the organizer of the second Phantompalooza recalls Finley being stunned by the reaction he received in Winnipeg, which started when he checked into the Marlborough Hotel for the first convention.
"As soon as the clerk heard the name William Finley, he said, 'We have something for you,' and pulled out a stack of cards and welcome letters from fans," Carlson recalls. "It was about a foot high."
Dignazio says she is hoping to mark Finley's passing with some kind of "celebration of his life" in the near future, although it is too soon to say what form that tribute will take.