The Alien creature, at one point dubbed “Kane’s son” by Ash, demands birth from the chest of John Hurt in a spectacular and gory fashion. But though Kane was always to father the Alien, the role of Kane himself changed hands during the film’s production. In fact, the role had to be recast after filming had already commenced. In the beginning, the actor portraying Kane was Shakespearean stage veteran, Jon Finch.
The story of Finch’s departure is somewhat muddled. Most sources agree that Finch left the film due to a diabetic attack, which is denied by Finch himself. Some say that Finch’s illness revealed itself before the cameras, another says it took place in a plasterer’s chair. Some say he filmed for weeks, some say he filmed for days, and some say he filmed for merely one shot.
“I had cast Jon Finch, who was Polanski’s Macbeth, as Kane,” Ridley Scott told Empire magazine. “First day, first shot, Jon collapsed. I talked to him and he said, ‘I’m a diabetic…’ He had gone yellow and couldn’t get up — we had to lift him out of the scene. He was fine, but he had to recuperate. He hadn’t taken his insulin and was drinking too much Coca-Cola.” Finch’s departure sent Scott back to his Kane wishlist. He settled for John Hurt, who had turned down the role before due to a prior engagement. “That night we looked at the book and came across John Hurt, who I have always liked.” Luckily for Scott, Hurt was now free to take over the role.
The story is not as simple as Ridley suggests, however. Special effects supervisor Brian Johnson tells an alternate take on Finch’s sudden illness: “Jon Finch was the character that John Hurt took over. And Jon Finch went into the sculptor’s place to have his life mask done, and he hadn’t told anybody he was a diabetic, and he had to discover while he was inside his life mask. And he actually passed out. And they went, ‘okay John’, and there was no response. And they got the ambulance out there and dragged him out. Because he hadn’t declared that on his insurance, the company couldn’t go on using him.”
Art director Roger Christian’s version is closer to Scott’s than Johnson’s, though he credits the set smoke, as well as the diabetes, with Finch’s departure: “[Finch] looked really ill [on the Alien set]. Despite what the books and the other sites say, he actually did three days of shooting. But the smoke, after the first two or three days… Ridley loves smoke, and that was when we were using the bee-puffer, the incense smoke. At that stage, that was really upsetting [Finch], plus there was the diabetes, as it transpired. But no, he did more than one shot – he was there for the first couple of days. He was really trying, and he looked great, actually, as the character. And then he got so ill he just couldn’t carry on, and Hurt just took over and Ridley didn’t have to re-shoot that much; just the parts with [Finch].”
HR Giger wrote in his diary that on July 4th 1978 “Jon Finch, the main actor, is sick again and had to go to the hospital.” That Finch was sick ‘again’ informs us that he certainly worked several days on set, and that his difficulties were reccuring. Giger also noted that production designer Michael Seymour was “delighted” with Finch’s illness because “this gives him at least three more days to build the sets.”
Finch himself explained the situation on the Alien Anthology but, curiously, diabetes is not attributed at all: “Well, the first time I nearly worked with [Ridley Scott] was on The Duellists, which was his first picture,” he said. “And he sent the script to my then-agent, who I’d just left … of course, the agent hadn’t actually sent the script to me, so I lost out on The Duellists … and then we did Alien, and I did, I think, about three days on that, plus all the building of the chest and the neck and the head and all that stuff, you know. And after three days, I had an extremely bad bronchial attack for the first time in my life—never happened since—and ended up in intensive care and had to take two weeks off after that. So, you know, I couldn’t work it. So sadly, I missed that one, and John [Hurt] did it.”
The closest version of the truth would seem to incorporate everything we’ve been told: that Finch filmed for three days and even sat for his life-cast sessions but, due to set smoke, suffered a bronchial attack and was hospitalised. Initially, on set, Finch attributes his illness to diabetes. The two weeks needed for recovery necessitate Finch’s withdrawal from the film, and Hurt is signed and cast to fulfil the pivotal role of Kane.