By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Peter Finch awoke on Jan. 14, 1977, dressed, kissed his wife and began a familiar stroll to the nearby Beverly Hills Hotel.
The 64-year-old British actor often visited the hotel's bar, but this occasion was different. Finch was to appear on Good Morning America with director Sidney Lumet, promoting their new movie, Network.
Finch would later earn his second best actor nod (after Sunday Bloody Sunday), playing the mad prophet newsman Howard Beale, urging viewers to get mad as hell at life's injustice and not take it anymore.
But he wouldn't be alive to relish the honor.
Inside the hotel lobby, Finch felt tightness in his chest. He collapsed into a plush chair, felled by a massive heart attack.
An hour later, Finch was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Ten weeks after, he became the only actor ever to receive a posthumous Oscar.
Sunday night, Finch will likely gain company in that distinction.
Heath Ledger never had a chance to enjoy his best supporting actor nomination for The Dark Knight. The Australian-born actor died at age 28 of an accidental prescription drug overdose in a New York apartment, exactly one year before his nomination was announced on Jan. 22.
After winning every major award in his category before the Oscars — the result of fond remembrance and a stunning portrayal of Batman's archenemy, the Joker — Ledger is expected to complete the sweep at the Kodak Theatre.
It should be the kind of dramatic, spontaneous theater that makes the Oscars intriguing every year. Ledger's surviving family is rumored to be attending to accept the Oscar, as Finch's widow, Eletha, did in 1977.
Posthumous Oscar nominations aren't uncommon; Ledger is the 70th person to receive one in the academy's 81-year history. Fourteen deceased nominees — Walt Disney among them — have won the Oscar, mostly artists behind the camera, anonymous to moviegoers. Actors are who we see when we watch movies, so we care a bit more about them.
Ledger's nomination is only the eighth bestowed upon an actor who didn't live to enjoy the ceremony.
The first went to Jeanne Eagles in 1930, for best actress in The Letter. The most recent was Massimo Troisi, for best actor in 1996 for The Postman (Il Postino).
James Dean is the king of after-death honors, with two posthumous nominations in the mid 1950s: best actor for Giant and supporting actor for East of Eden.
Sir Ralph Richardson (Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes) was a supporting actor finalist in 1985. Spencer Tracy was a sentimental best actor nominee in 1968 for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
None of those actors had Ledger's year-end awards momentum, or the Internet-era buzz that practically fills out academy voters' ballots.
Sunday night, an envelope will open in the Kodak Theatre, and so will tear ducts. And somewhere in the hereafter, Finch will welcome Ledger into the Academy Awards' saddest, most exclusive club.
Information from the Associated Press, Internet Movie Database, Los Angeles Times and Elaine Dundy's book "Finch, Bloody Finch" was used in this report.