With the lithe grace of a seasoned athlete, Peter Finch lifted the tea bag from the teapot and, holding it by the trademark at the end of its string, dropped it into an ashtray. His aim was accurate, and he permitted himself a dour smile.
"They call me Dead Eye," he said. "I never miss. "Known on three continents as a superb tea bag marksman. Denied recognition in England and my native Australia, however, because tea bags are loathed there. Thus, never had a chance to compete in the Olympics." He sipped his tea and looked without much enthusiasm at a breakfast roll. Finch had stopped in Chicago to talk about "Far From the Madding Crowd," now at the Loop Theater. He plays Boldwood, the aristocratic farmer who doesn't get the girl, in the film version of Thomas Hardy's novel.
"I imagine people will have a difference of opinion about this movie," he said. "It moves at a leisurely pace. It doesn't dash around at a breakneck clip like so many of these long roadshow pictures. Personally, I like that. The parts of a film should be in proportion to the whole, and a long film pasted together out of quick little scenes makes me dizzy."
The Boldwood role is a typical one for Finch, who often plays a very refined tough guy. In recent British films like "No Love for Johnnie" (1961) and "The Girl with Green Eyes" (1964) he has played similar characters: handsome, masculine, outwardly a gentleman, but with a hidden streak of cruelty and conceit.
"My own original impression was that Hardy's book wouldn't make a very good movie," Finch said. "It was a very deliberate sort of Victorian novel. I was afraid they'd try to speed it up and lose the flavor. But they didn't. John Schlesinger (the director) was very wise to frame all of his scenes with those beautifully photographed landscapes; it gives the movie an open, natural pace."
Finch, who lives in Jamaica, divides his year between acting and painting and has recently limited himself to one or two films a year. Among his recent ones: "The Pumpkin Eater," "Judith," "Flight of the Phoenix" and "10:30 p.m. Summer," which "was most interesting to make," Finch said, "Melina Mercouri and Romy Schneider were in it, and Jules Dassin of course is a fascinating director. But I'm afraid it wasn't very successful. Rather murky, in fact. Incredibly confused, to be blunt."
His next film is "The Legend of Lylah Claire," directed by Robert Aldrich. "I don't know how to describe it," he said. "It's sort of a gothic horror story about Hollywood, done tongue in cheek. Nice if you don't take it too seriously. I played opposite Kim Novak, who was very good to work with, very smooth in front of the cameras."
What about Julie Christie, his leading lady in "Far From the Madding Crowd"?
"A good actress. She's a bit too nervous at the moment. Not as an actress, but as a person; she's usually in a state of high tension, but that will unwind after she's made a few more films."
Finch, who has made 31 films, said he has made only one which he personally liked and which was also a substantial commercial success: Fred Zinnemann's "The Nun's Story" (1958). "All of the others have either been films I liked that didn't make money or films I didn't like that did make money," he said.
"And then there was the Oscar Wilde case ["The Trials of Oscar Wilde']. A film I despised, which didn't make money. That was a fiasco from the beginning. For some peculiar reason, two films about Oscar Wilde were started at the same time, back in 1959 or 1960. I played Wilde in one, and Robert Morley was in the other."
He smiled in retrospect. "As it turned out," he said, "at that particular moment there was no market for any Oscar Wilde movie at all."