Timothy Findley, venerated author and playwright, died in his sleep Thursday at a hospital in France. He was 71.

Findley, a heavy smoker and drinker, was suffering from congestive heart failure, as well as from complications from a broken pelvis.

Findley began his career in the arts studying ballet and later became a successful actor, appearing on the stage in the 1950s with Alec Guinness at the Stratford Festival. Guinness later sponsored him to attend a British acting school.

He was appearing with actress Ruth Gordon in Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker when he started writing. Gordon and Wilder urged him to give up acting for a full-time writing career after his short story About Effie was published in The Tamarack Review in 1956.

Findley's first major literary success came with his third novel, The Wars, which was based partly on the family photos and First World War letters from an uncle. The novel raised themes found in much of his writing, including loneliness and survival in a mad world.

Findley's other well-known novels included Not Wanted on the Voyage and The Piano Man's Daughter. He also wrote plays, short stories and scripts for television, radio and film, among them The Whiteoaks of Jalna and The National Dream.

FROM ARTS CANADA: An Appreciation

He was an officer of the Order of Canada, and recipient of Governor General's awards for his 1977 novel The Wars and his play Elizabeth Rex in 2000.

He is survived by his longtime companion, Bill Whitehead.

A private funeral will be held in France, followed by memorial services in Toronto and Stratford, Ont.