Pete Postlethwaite, actor on film, television and stage and Oscar nominee, died on 2 January 2011. He was 64.
Born in February 1946 in Warrington, his childhood was a happy one. But his initial interest in becoming an actor was tempered by caution, as The Independent tells us through his own words:
He studied to become a teacher at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham. “I thought, ‘You can’t possibly be an actor, somebody from Warrington. It’s not what you do.’ So I thought I’d go and teach for a couple of years, and if at the end of that time I still wanted to act then I’d do it.”
Having decided he did still want to act, he put himself through the Bristol Old Vic by working at a sheet-metal factory to pay his tuition fees, then took up with the Liverpool Everyman Theatre from 1974, including Julie Walters, who became his girlfriend in the late Seventies. The Daily Telegraph quotes her on him:
Julie Walters, instantly taken by his “extraordinary, mad, impish eyes either side of a big, battered nose and high wide cheekbones”, recalls the unpredictable daring of his early turns in her memoirs. Once he was performing in Brecht’s Coriolanus when two girls in the audience started to giggle. “He leapt from the stage and aimed a good portion of his monologue at these poor girls, as if they were part of the crowd in the play. They screamed as he approached them and then sat there in petrified silence.”
Much of his early work was in theatre. Although he had some television roles in the late Seventies and early Eighties, his big TV breakthrough came in Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988, according to The Independent:
In Terence Davies’ autobiographical study of working-class life during wartime, Postlethwaite appeared in a series of disturbing flashbacks as the violent father, though he confessed later that he felt uneasy acting in a family context so removed from his own contented upbringing.
But despite memorable roles in programmes such as the Sharpe series and The Sins, his biggest public successes came on the big screen, as The Guardian relates:
He was perhaps more at home as Danny, the leader of the Yorkshire colliery brass band, in Mark Herman’s Ealing-esque comedy Brassed Off (1996). In the following year, continuing to show his versatility, Postlethwaite made two films for Steven Spielberg, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, in which he hunted the biggest game imaginable (a T-Rex) and the well-meaning abolitionist drama Amistad, as a pro-slavery prosecutor. Spielberg said that Postlethwaite was “the best actor in the world”. Postlethwaite joked: “I’m sure what Spielberg actually said was, ‘The thing about Pete is that he thinks he’s the best actor in the world’.”
The Telegraph notes that
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.
but adds: “The film world’s gain was often television’s loss”, reflecting on his relatively small number of television roles compared to film jobs.
All the newspapers note his commitment to socialist and environmental issues – so here’s The Guardian on one of his last works:
In 2009, Postlethwaite made a documentary, The Age of Stupid, on climate change, a subject he felt passionately about. In the film, he plays the last man alive. Postlethwaite, a political activist who practised what he preached, lived in Shropshire with his wife, Jacqui, in an eco-house complete with wind turbine and solar panelling.
Back to the Telegraph for the final word, though – from their sub-header and first paragraph:
Pete Postlethwaite… 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.
(Peter William Postlethwaite OBE, born 7 February 1946 in Warrington, died 2 January 2011 in Shrewsbury)