Finch was nominated for an Oscar for Network and went on to posthumously win the award, which was accepted by his widow, Eletha Finch. Although James Dean, Spencer Tracy and Massimo Troisi were also posthumously nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Finch was the first actor to have won the award posthumously, as well as the first Australian actor to win a Best Actor award. He was the only posthumous winner of an Oscar in an acting category until fellow Australian Heath Ledger won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2009; there were many earlier posthumous Oscar winners in non-acting categories. Finch also won five Best Actor awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), including one for Network.
In 1934–35 he appeared in a number of productions for Doris Fitton at the Savoy Theatre, some with a young Sumner Locke Elliott. He also worked as a sideshow spruiker at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, in vaudeville with Joe Cody and as a foil to American comedian Bert le Blanc. At age 19 Finch toured Australia with George Sorlie's travelling troupe.
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George Finch was born in New South Wales, Australia, but was educated in Paris and Zürich. He was a research chemist when he moved to Britain in 1912 and later served during the First World War with the Royal Army Ordnance Depot and the Royal Field Artillery. In 1915, at Portsmouth, Hampshire, George married Alicia Fisher, the daughter of a Kent barrister. However, George Finch was not Peter Finch's biological father. He learned only in his mid-40s that his biological father was Wentworth Edward Dallas "Jock" Campbell, an Indian Army officer, whose adultery with Finch's mother was the cause of George and Alicia's divorce, when Peter was two years old. Alicia Finch married Jock Campbell in 1922.
Finch returned to Australia to make The Shiralee (1957), one of his favourite parts, and the tenth most popular movie at the British box office that year. He followed it with another Australian story, the bushranger tale Robbery Under Arms (1957), which did less well. However exhibitors still voted Finch the third most popular British star of 1957, and the fifth most popular overall, regardless of nationality.
George gained custody of Peter, who was taken from his biological mother and brought up by his adoptive paternal grandmother, Laura Finch (formerly Black) in Vaucresson, France. In 1925 Laura took Peter with her to Adyar, a theosophical community near Madras, India, for a number of months, and the young boy lived for a time in a Buddhist monastery. Undoubtedly, as a result of his childhood contact with Buddhism, Finch always claimed to be a Buddhist. He is reported to have said: "I think a man dying on a cross is a ghastly symbol for a religion. And I think a man sitting under a bo tree and becoming enlightened is a beautiful one."