Review: Autobiography Pete Postlethwaite: A Spectacle of Dust
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20
Published 23/07/2011 | 05:00
Pete Postlethwaite, who died in January of this year after a long battle with cancer, hadn't an Irish bone in his body.
Yet he portrayed Irish characters on screen at least four times, most recently in Ben Affleck's thriller The Town, and most memorably in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, the film that made him a star.
His extraordinarily moving portrayal of Guildford Four father Giuseppe Conlon won the hearts of Irish audiences, and ensured he was in huge demand as an actor for the rest of his life.
Postlethwaite had already started work on his autobiography when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: he decided to finish it, and A Spectacle of Dust provides a vivid and honest account of his eventful life.
He was born in the town of Warrington, Lancashire, on February 7, 1946, and was raised in what he describes as a "two up and two down" terraced house with his parents and three siblings. His childhood sounds like something from a DH Lawrence novel -- broken biscuits as a treat on Fridays, and baths taken in a steel tub in front of the fire. But his parents were warm, loving and Catholic: young Peter considered training for the priesthood himself before turning first to teaching, then acting.
He did his training at the Bristol Old Vic, where a teacher bluntly described his distinctive and rather deprived-looking face as "like a f***ing stone archway".
But that face and his rumbling northern voice quickly got him noticed when he embarked on his stage career.
Postlethwaite earned his stripes at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre during the 1970s as part of a talented group of repertory players that included Trevor Eve, Antony Sher, Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy and Julie Walters, with whom Pete was for a time romantically involved.
Inspired by new works from writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale, the Everyman players brought theatre to the people in highly politicised productions that took no prisoners. Postlethwaite recalls being bothered by a persistent heckler during a production of Alan Bleasdale's Scully in Chester. "I mooned him at some speed," the actor writes, "then demanded 'Where were your lips, then?'"
Postlethwaite left the Everyman after suffering a kind of creative meltdown during a summer tour in the late 1970s, but rebounded with a distinguished run as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. In his autobiography he's disarmingly honest about his love of beer and cigarettes, and during his time with the RSC he almost killed himself when his sports car overturned.
His first major film role was playing a demonic father in Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988, but it was In the Name of the Father that made him a star. When Jim Sheridan interviewed him for the part of Giuseppe Conlon on the advice of Daniel Day Lewis, Pete turned up at London's Grosvenor House in character, and spent three hours talking to the director as Giuseppe.
His performance earned him an Oscar nomination, and soon the Hollywood offers flooded in. He shone in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, and worked with Steven Spielberg twice, on The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. Spielberg later described him as "the best actor in the world".
But Postlethwaite never lost the run of himself. He was devoted to his wife Jax and their two children, and often said no to big offers because it would mean too much time away from home.
He turned down the lead in Saving Private Ryan in order to tour with a production of Macbeth, and was living his dream of playing King Lear when he first fell ill with cancer.
He fought the disease with northern stubbornness, and in the book's moving final chapter he accepts his mortality but plans to reach his 65th birthday. Sadly, he missed it by a month.