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OBITUARIES : Mali Finn, 1938 - 2007

Award-winning casting director for movies, TV

December 08, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Mali Finn, an award-winning Hollywood casting director whose credits include "Titanic," "L.A. Confidential" and "The Matrix," has died. She was 69.

Finn died of melanoma Nov. 28 at her home in Sonoma Calif., her son, David, said.

A former English and drama teacher, Finn launched her Hollywood casting career after she and her husband, Donn, a theater professor, moved from Holland, Mich., to Newport Beach in 1981.

Finn had a handful of casting credits behind her, including the 1987 film "The Untouchables," when she formed Mali Finn Casting in 1989.

From then until cancer forced her to retire in 2006, she cast nearly 80 movies and TV series, including the films "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," "The Client," "The Green Mile," "Batman & Robin," "Phone Booth," "North Country" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Director Curtis Hanson worked with Finn on four of his films -- "L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys," "8 Mile" and "Lucky You."

"The world of each was very specific, and Mali loved plunging into those worlds, trying to help make the movie as truthful a representation as possible," Hanson told The Times via e-mail this week.

He said they always did a lot of local casting -- of pros and non-pros alike.

"Mali's M.O. was to go to the place, submerge herself, soak up as much of the people and their environment as possible," he said.

When she was in Detroit during preproduction for "8 Mile" and looking for rappers to be in Eminem's crew or to be his adversaries, Hanson said, "I heard many comments about the figure she cut, hanging out at the hip-hop clubs, making notes, getting telephone numbers."

Casting, he said, "can be a very tedious process, but Mali's enthusiasm never flagged."

Director James Cameron, whose "Titanic," "True Lies," "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and the upcoming "Battle Angel," were cast by Finn, was another admirer of her work.

"Mali was a genius at finding undiscovered treasure amongst the sea of new faces," he said in a statement. "Many of this generation of stars owe their starts to her. She was a great creative partner, and I will miss her deeply."

After the opening of his 1997 blockbuster "Titanic," which won 11 Oscars, Cameron inscribed a poster of the film to Finn, saying, "You have the nose of a bloodhound for finding talent."

That included the memorable casting of 1930s Hollywood leading lady Gloria Stuart as Old Rose, the centenarian counterpart of Kate Winslet's character in "Titanic."

Stuart told The Times this week that she did not have an agent when Finn called to ask if she would be interested in interviewing for the supporting role that earned her a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Oscar nomination.

Stuart, who was then 85, said of being videotaped during the interview at her home: "I had a feeling that she was playing lady detective on my voice quality, my gestures, my appearance, my attitude. I think she was adding everything up as I talked to her."

Stuart said Finn became "a very dear friend" and accompanied her to the Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony.

In a 2006 interview with Back Stage West, Finn focused on how she collaborated with each director in casting a film. "I've never walked in and said, 'This is somebody that's got to do this' " role, she said. "I don't work that way with directors. I want to get inside the director's head, and it's a creative process. I want to enter his or her world. It's so much a collaboration."

Finn was born Mary Alice Mann on March 8, 1938, in Danville, Ill., and later moved to Minneapolis. She began acting in third grade and received a bachelor's degree in theater from the University of Minnesota.

She later went on two USO tours in the Far East, playing Katrin in "I Remember Mama." For 15 years, she taught English, theater and creative drama at the first-grade through university levels in Minneapolis and Holland, Mich.

After moving to Newport Beach, Finn recalled in the interview with Back Stage West, "I said flippantly, 'I think I'll get in show business.' "

She had heard about casting director Dodie McLean at Warner Bros. and got her foot in the door by offering to work for free. She eventually got a job with casting director Michael McLean and then with casting director Lynn Stalmaster.

Finn won a best casting Emmy Award and an Artios Award from the Casting Society of America in 2001 for the HBO baseball movie "61*." She also won best casting Artios Awards in 1998 for "L.A. Confidential" and the independent feature film "Sunday."

In addition to her husband and son, Finn is survived by her mother, Betty; her brother, John; her sister, Kitty; and two grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be sent to the Film Independent, Attn. Project: Involve -- Mali Finn Fund, 9911 Pico Blvd., 11th floor, Los Angeles, CA 90036; or in Finn's name to Hospice by the Bay, 17 E. Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Suite 100, Larkspur, CA 94939. A memorial service will be held in Los Angeles in early 2008.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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