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Actor and singer Vesa-Matti Loiri dies at 77

Loiri was one of Finland's most beloved cultural figures over six decades, playing comic and tragic roles on screen and stage, alongside a musical career.

Vesa-Matti Loiri (1945-2022), photographed at home in Espoo in May 2018. Image: Juha Metso / AOP

The iconic actor and musician Vesa-Matti Loiri has died at the age of 77.

Loiri's death was confirmed on Wednesday by his manager Pete Eklund, who said that the entertainer received a grim cancer diagnosis in January. In Eklund's words, Loiri accepted the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

President Sauli Niinistö eulogised the actor on Twitter, saying: "The greatest of the greats, the deeply respected Vesa-Matti Loiri, is gone. You touched us, the Finnish soul, so deeply. Have a good trip into the unknown, dear friend."

Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) joined in the tributes, saying in a tweet "Rest in peace Vesa-Matti Loiri, interpreter of the Finnish soul. You will be remembered."

One of the most dominant figures in Finnish culture over the past six decades, Loiri made his screen debut at the age of 17 in Mikko Niskanen's film Pojat (The Boys) in 1962. Niskanen selected him from about 1,000 youngsters who auditioned for the tragic part.

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"I've had a very rich life with ups and downs," said Loiri, seen here in 1969. Image: Yle kuvapalvelu

"Even at that age, he had a unique personal charm, which only strengthened over the years, Niskanen recalled later.

Loiri studied at the Helsinki Theatre Academy from 1963 to 1966, when he was hired by the Helsinki City Theatre, where he worked until the early 1970s. He was then a mainstay at Turku City Theatre through most of the '70s.

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Loiri as the blacksmith Ilmari in Rauta-aika (The Iron Age). Image: Antero Tenhunen / Yle

In 1982, he played the lead role as the blacksmith Ilmari in Rauta-aika (The Iron Age), a blockbuster Yle miniseries based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, with a screenplay by celebrated author Paavo Haavikko.

Uuno Turhapuro, a Finnish everyman

Loiri's most famous role, though, was purely as an entertainer in the slapstick Uuno Turhapuro films, directed by Spede Pasanen.

He premiered the role of the slovenly, hapless Turhapuro in a skit on Pasanen's TV comedy show in 1971. Together they developed it over 20 films until 2004.

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Loiri created the role of Uuno Turhapuro with director Spede Pasanen. Loiri is seen here with co-actor Pentti Siimes. Image: Kalle Kultala / Yle

Loiri reflected on the reasons for Uuno's popularity as a Finnish everyman in an Yle interview in 2004.

"It's so easy for us to recognise ourselves in the role. Uuno is anarchistic in a way. Partly due to his laziness, he refuses to take on the role of being a model member of society. Uuno has so many dreams and such an imagination," Loiri mused.

A rare actor who could jump from such absurd comic roles to serious interpretations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Aleksis Kivi, Loiri was massively popular while retaining the respect of artistic circles and critics.

Leino poems in song from the '60s to the 2000s

Loiri was also talented as a musician and is best remembered for his raspy voice in later years. He represented Finland in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, but his warm baritone and unassuming delivery were best suited to musical adaptations of Eino Leino's poems. He began recording these with noted composer Kaj Chydenius in the late 1960s, returning to them well into the 2000s.

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Loiri with pop singer Alma at the president's Independence Day ball in 2017. Image: AOP

In 2016, Loiri released the album Pyhät teksit (Sacred Texts), based on the thoughts of various religions.

Altogether Loiri appeared in some 60 films and released 34 albums.

Born on January 4, 1945 in Helsinki, he was married three times and had five children.

Personal tragedies

The actor was not spared tragedies in life. His eldest son died in a car accident in 1994, following his mother's death in the same way in 1977. Another son died suddenly in 2019 at the age of 37.

"I've had a very rich life with ups and downs. I think it suits my personality very well," said Loiri.

"I experience life in a Zen way, but by walking the karmic path. How much one can stand depends on one's personal resources," he reflected in an Yle interview in 2006.

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In 2014, Loiri attended a football match in Helsinki with President Sauli Niinistö and football star Jari Litmanen. Image: Petteri Paalasmaa / AOP

The writer Jari Tervo summed up Loiri's importance in his 700-page biography of Loiri, published in 2019.

According to Tervo, "He is the last and brightest star of the post-war and pre-internet Finnish unified culture. When he dies, an era is buried."

15.07: Updated with Niinistö and Marin comments.