Metro

‘Game of Thrones’ actor from Worcester had boisterous nature

Fingleton, a center at Holy Cross, during a 2002 practice.
Globe staff/File
Fingleton, a center at Holy Cross, during a 2002 practice.

On the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” he played a colossal, bearded creature named “Mag the Mighty,” a beastly-looking character draped in bones who rode atop a mammoth in the fantasy world created by George R.R. Martin.

Off screen, Neil Fingleton, who stood 7 feet 7 inches tall, was more than a remarkable physical presence. His boisterous personality, sharp wit, and compassion for those around him could be towering as well.

In Worcester, where he landed at age 16 after leaving his native England to play basketball and go to school in the United States, he was a beloved adopted son who seemed to touch everyone he knew. And news of his unexpected death over the weekend hit the community especially hard.

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“Everybody is really hurt about this,” said J.P. Ricciardi, who coached Mr. Fingleton in basketball at Holy Name Central Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Worcester in the 1990s. “It’s not an easy pill to swallow.”

Mr. Fingleton, who also played at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, died of unknown causes at the age of 36 at his home in England, according to his mother, Christine Soulsby. The family is awaiting autopsy results.

“It’s very difficult to come to terms with,” Soulsby said, calling her son’s death a tremendous loss. “He was such a big influence on so many people’s lives. . . . Neil was just a fine, big, strong gentleman.”

Both of his parents were 6 feet tall, and his siblings even taller. But Mr. Fingleton held the title in his family — and his home country. He was named the United Kingdom’s “tallest man” in 2007 by Guinness World Records.

“I have never been self-conscious about my height,” Guinness World Records quoted him as saying. “I am more conscious of going bald, so that should tell you. I never let my height play a negative part in my life. I always do what I want. Some tall people may be restricted, as they are constantly stared at or people ask the same questions over and over. This is the only bad thing about being tall — the stupid remarks and questions. Other than that, being tall is great.”

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When Mr. Fingleton came to Worcester, Ricciardi, his coach, helped make arrangements for him to live and go to school.

“I’m a better guy for having had him and having known him, and having had him as a part of my life,” said Ricciardi, who is now an executive with the New York Mets and served as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. “He touched a lot of people.”

Knowing no one at the time and without family nearby, Mr. Fingleton settled in with Phil Giarusso, a close friend of Ricciardi’s who acted as a surrogate parent — a job that extended well into Mr. Fingleton’s adult years.

Giarusso, who last saw Mr. Fingleton a few years ago around Christmas, said the second he laid eyes on the teenager, he knew his life was about to change.

“He came through the customs door ducking his head, and I looked at J.P. and I said, ‘Holy [expletive],’ ” said Giarusso, “ ‘Our lives are never going to be the same again.’ ”

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“The neighborhood took him in, and then the whole city really kind of took him in,” said Giarusso, who regularly kept in touch with the actor through Facebook. “No one cared that he was tall or that he played basketball. He really developed as a person and really got a sense of community and neighborhood. And the people were great. Everybody knew him and they liked him.”

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File
Neil Fingleton played basketball for Holy Name Central Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Worcester.

As a teenager, Mr. Fingleton spent time at the gym and hanging out at teammates’ houses, where they’d watch films such as “Full Metal Jacket” — Mr. Fingleton could do a spot-on impression of the sergeant — and eat meals together.

“My mother loved cooking for him,” said Jimmy Moore, who was on Mr. Fingleton’s high school basketball team. “He could sit down and easily eat eight to 10 chicken breasts.”

Mr. Fingleton took home many honors as a high school basketball player, including being named Gatorade Player of the Year in the state and a McDonald’s All-American.

When he graduated, he attended the University of North Carolina. In 2002, he transferred to Holy Cross, marking a return to Worcester.

After graduating two years later with a history degree, Mr. Fingleton continued to pursue his passion for basketball and played professionally in Greece, Italy, and Spain, according to Holy Cross Magazine.

But he hung up his jersey because of a persisting back injury several years later.

Mr. Fingleton shifted his focus to acting.

“During my time at Holy Cross, I never thought that someday basketball would be over for me,” he told the magazine in 2011. “Holy Cross gave me the enthusiasm to express myself as a person in whatever I choose to do. Now my enthusiasm lies within acting.”

Mr. Fingleton appeared in a reboot of the famed British sci-fi TV series “Doctor Who” and films including “X-Men: First Class” and “47 Ronin,” in which he played a samurai alongside actor Keanu Reeves.

Lisa Osmond, managing director of Oh So Small Productions and Mr. Fingleton’s talent agent, said she worked with the actor for roughly four years, helping him to find parts that matched his size.

“Neil was always a very professional, down-to-earth kind of guy,” she said in an e-mail. “He was a pleasure to work with.”

GAME OF THRONES episode 39 (season 4, episode 9): Neil Fingleton. photo: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO 15zoom
HBO
Neil Fingleton played a colossal, bearded creature named “Mag the Mighty.”

Mr. Fingleton’s death sent shock waves across the Internet Sunday, as people recalled one of his more notable roles — Mag the Mighty in “Game of Thrones.”

Neil Marshall directed the episode that featured Mr. Fingleton. He recalled him as an “impressive human being” who graced the set with laughter and talent.

“He was absolutely lovely and totally professional,” said Marshall. “He brought that character 100 percent. The makeup gets you so far, but so much of it was in his expression and the way he moved and behaved on camera.”

Despite his size, and the way he easily stood out in the crowd, Mr. Fingleton embraced his stature, say those who knew him, and continued to push himself in everything he did.

“He was a big guy, but more importantly, he had the biggest heart. He dreamed big, and he would have done anything in the world for anybody,” said Moore, his high school friend. “He was just a joy and pleasure to be around.”

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Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.