British actor who was blessed with one of the most expressive faces in film and lauded as 'the best actor in the world'
Published 09/01/2011 | 05:00
PETE Postlethwaite, who died on January 2 aged 64, was marked out by, and blessed with, one of the most remarkable faces of any British actor this past half century.
Equipped with prominent cheekbones and equally conspicuous penetrating eyes, he was able to convey, with the most imperceptible shifts in emphasis, whole worlds of pride, perturbation, suffering, resignation, wonder and warmth.
The quiet mournfulness of his flinty physiognomy anchored many of the roles he undertook with a rare quality of humanity, integrity and vulnerability.
At the dawn of his career, the head of Bristol Old Vic drama school advised him that with a face like "a stone archway" he couldn't go wrong. He himself would later concede that he owed much to that "carved-out face".
Rarely short of work from the moment he left the school in 1970, Postlethwaite grew from being a jobbing actor into a widely admired star -- although with typical modesty he declared after a string of high-profile screen successes that he was "not a bankable name, not an A-list star".
He achieved a mainstream breakthrough with his distinctive, linchpin contribution to the 1995 Hollywood thriller The Usual Suspects, in which he played Mr Kobayashi, the lawyer and enforcer of the mysterious Keyser Söze; and that success underlined the way Postlethwaite could achieve maximum impact with the slenderest of means.
Steven Spielberg famously dubbed Postlethwaite "the best actor in the world" after casting him as a dinosaur hunter in the The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The actor's jokily self-effacing explanation of that endorsement was: "I'm sure what Spielberg actually said was, 'The thing about Pete is that he thinks he's the best actor in the world'."
If there was a through-line that informed all his playing, it was that he kept his ego out of the limelight. "The first thing you must do is leave 'you' in the dressing room," he counselled. "Don't try and make the character 'you'."
Born on February 16, 1945 in industrial Warrington, Cheshire, into a working-class Catholic family, Peter William Postlethwaite was the youngest of four children. His father, William, did a variety of jobs, from wooden barrel-making to working as a school caretaker.
In contrast to the brutal postwar working-class world depicted in Distant Voices, Still Lives, Postlethwaite maintained that his was a happy and secure childhood.
As a teenager he attended a boarding seminary, and felt he had a vocation to become a Catholic priest. Aged 17, though, he started to see his first plays -- Look Back in Anger, Murder in the Cathedral and Waiting for Godot -- and his thoughts turned instead to acting. Not hailing from a theatrical background, he decided to train first as a teacher -- in drama and PE -- at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill.
He suffered from an abiding feeling at this stage that the acting life was not for his sort: "Those were the days when you were expected to have a dinner suit and bow tie. It really was 'Anyone for tennis?'" he recalled.
Eventually, following a brief career teaching at Loreto College, a girls' school in Manchester, he enrolled as a student at the Bristol Old Vic at the relatively mature age of 24, having worked at a sheet-metal factory to try to meet the costs of his tuition.
Following his graduation, he worked in London (particularly at the Royal Court) and in provincial theatres, notably the Liverpool Everyman from 1974, which had been galvanised by a prodigious intake of talent that included Jonathan Pryce, Bill Nighy, Antony Sher -- and Julie Walters. He formed a strong attachment with Walters; the pair were lovers in the latter half of the Seventies, and lived a bedsit life in Soho.
He worked at the Bristol Old Vic and at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, where his work took in a notable Duchess of Malfi, starring Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins (1980). And there was stalwart work too at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he joined in 1982, where his many credits included the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream during the 1986 season.
Postlethwaite never landed the plum roles at the RSC, though, and it wasn't until his later years -- when he undertook a touring Macbeth in 1998, delivered a luminous, quavering Prospero in The Tempest at the Royal Exchange (2007) and then, to more mixed reviews, played King Lear for Rupert Goold at the Liverpool Everyman (2009) -- that he showed the world the potency he could bring to the leading parts.
In the Eighties and Nineties, however, the film world finally cottoned on fully to what he could do. A significant breakthrough was In the Name of the Father (1993), in which he starred opposite Daniel Day-Lewis as Giuseppe Conlon, the wrongly incarcerated father of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. For this role, he garnered an Oscar nomination.
He starred in many successful films after that, including Alien 3, Amistad, Brassed Off, The Shipping News, The Constant Gardener and (as Friar Laurence) in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. One could say that he excelled especially at proud men, difficult men, and flawed fathers, but that would belie his versatility. A notable romantic leading role eluded him throughout his career, however.
While there are no singular small-screen roles for which he will be particularly remembered, he arguably made his greatest mark playing Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill in ITV's Sharpe series, opposite Sean Bean.
In recent years, married to the former BBC producer Jacqueline Morrish, he brought up his family in Shropshire, near Bishop's Castle. A keen environmentalist, he retained a strong sense of socialist principle and questing idealism.
At the premiere of the part-animated climate change feature The Age of Stupid in 2009, in which he starred as a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, he warned the then energy minister Ed Miliband that he would return his OBE (bestowed in 2004) if the government gave the go-ahead for new coal-fired units at Kingsnorth power station.
A smoker since the age of 10, he survived a brush with cancer some 20 years ago, but suffered a renewed bout of the disease that eventually claimed him.
In an interview ahead of his performance as Prospero at the Royal Exchange, he revealed that a strong sense of mortality governed his life-choices. "Let death be your adviser," he said, "you have to live every day as fully as you can."
Pete Postlethwaite is survived by his wife and by their son and daughter.