Barbara Wilkins
December 06, 1976 12:00 PM

The TV network anchormen bore up, however bleary-eyed, during the enervating election night this year, but who’s to say an overwrought newscaster won’t flip out in living color someday? In the acidulous new film Network, one does—an avuncular broadcaster played by British actor Peter Finch. He threatens on-camera suicide after being fired because of low ratings. “It’s a wonderful, bravura part,” allows Finch, who ought to be pleased. He steals the film from co-stars Faye Dunaway and William Holden, and puts himself in line for his first Oscar nomination since 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday.

It has been a remarkable turnabout for the debonair Finch, 60, who figured to be picking bananas now instead of awards. Two years ago, bored with acting and jaded after decades of roistering with booze and women, Finch moved full-time to a 100-acre banana-and-coconut farm in Jamaica. His idea was to rusticate there in a tropical idyll, like a British Brando, with his Jamaican third wife, Eletha, 27 years his junior. They have lived together for 11 years, the last three in marriage.

Finch’s paradise was for the birds. “Scripts kept coming my way,” Peter recalls, “but I told my manager I couldn’t do them because I had to pick a crop of bananas. I forgot I was there to take it easy after years of getting up at 5 a.m. to make films. I was out in the fields hacking away with a machete. The laborers thought I was mad; my wife knew I was.”

It took Paddy Chayefsky’s Network screenplay to persuade Finch to rush to L.A. with Eletha, their daughter, Diana, 6, and her own son, Christopher, 14. “All the telephone lines in Jamaica were down,” Finch explains. “I had some anxious moments. I was afraid they’d offer it to someone else.”

Finch prepared for his role as Network’s demented Howard Beale by tuning into Cronkite, Chancellor and Reasoner every night. Finch even traveled to New York to shadow his favorite, Chancellor, through a day’s routine. The dapper Finch certainly looks the anchorman part with his silvering hair, craggy face and crinkly blue eyes. It was more difficult for him to sully his elegant Oxbridge accent with Americanese, a problem he solved only by taping his lines in private.

As for feigning madness, Peter jokes, “With my background I’m supposed to be a homicidal maniac.” Peter was born into an upper-crust London family. His parents divorced when he was 2, and Finch did not see his mother for the next 30 years, learning meanwhile that he was actually the offspring of her liaison with a Scotsman. Peter was sent to live near Paris with his paternal grandmother, a Bohemian Theosophist who, he recalls fondly, “was sort of the Vanessa Redgrave of her day. I saw Nijinsky dance in her drawing room. A neighbor who was an animal painter kept live tigers.”

When Peter was a lad of 10, his grandmother took him to India to study Buddhism. “I had a saffron robe, a shaved head and a begging bowl,” he marvels. “The British Raj objected and I was rescued from, I suppose, a life of meditation in Tibet.”

His next stop was Australia, where Peter was raised by his grandmother’s ex-husband, “a warm, lovely human being who gave me an anchor in my life.” Schooled in Sydney, Finch drifted through jobs as a cub reporter, sheepman, waiter, artificial flower salesman and vaudeville comedian’s straight man. He finally concluded, “If I’m going through life broke, I might as well live in the company of cheerful idiots like actors.” In World War II Finch was an antiaircraft gunner. When the war ended (“You’ve been a shocking gunner,” said his CO, “but bloody funny”), Finch and several friends founded a theater group which, idealistically, staged Molière comedies for factory workmen during lunch breaks.

Peter was noticed by Laurence Olivier, who was touring with the Old Vic. “He told me that when I came to London I should look him up.” Peter and his war bride, Russian ballerina Tamara Tchinarova (their daughter, Anita, now 26, is a London actress), did just that. Olivier cast Peter directly into a London hit with Edith Evans and Finch’s career took off.

So did his reputation for after-hours excesses with his actor chums. “The group was Trevor Howard, Errol Flynn and I,” Peter observes. “You can imagine it had something to do with alcohol.” (Finch has since given up smoking and often takes nothing stronger than Perrier water at lunch.) His second marriage, to South African actress Yolande Turner, with whom he had two more children, ended in scandal when he was caught, as he puts it, “flagrante delicto” with singer Shirley Bassey. “Unbeknownst to us,” he reminisces, “we were being followed by the men in the bowler hats. Shirley and I agreed that nothing puts the candles out like a husband calling up and saying, ‘I’m going to sue you.’ She and I are still the greatest of friends.”

By the early ’60s, Finch had carved out a movie career partly based on “Jungle Jim white hunters and district commissioners. But I can honestly say I’ve never made a film just for money,” he adds, “and I’ve been broke. If you have 50 years in the business, you can probably count on only five good movies.” In addition to Network, Finch’s are The Nun’s Story, The Pumpkin Eater, Far from the Madding Crowd and Sunday Bloody Sunday.

For the time being, Peter and Eletha are holed up in a Sunset Strip apartment while redecorating their new home in Benedict Canyon, down the road from Fred Astaire’s place. A California alien who doesn’t drive, Finch walks four or five bracing miles a day and otherwise hitches rides from Eletha in their Mercedes 250.

Finch has sold his Jamaican farm, kept the house and has no regrets. “There are moments such as when your bananas make top price in the open market that are more rewarding than getting an Oscar,” he reckons. “But I learned a lot there and got it out of my system.”

Finch’s next project is a made-for-NBC saga on the Israeli raid at Entebbe, scheduled for next spring. “Success is not two cars or a swimming pool,” Finch reflects. “It’s the approval of your peers.” Now he’s having it both ways. Actors like Roddy McDowell send him fan notes and David Niven is a good friend. “I always remember,” Finch muses, “that when Mastroianni would hear a complaining actor, he’d say, ‘Oh, this business! Get down by the side of your swimming pool and thank God!’ ”

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