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Pete Postlethwaite, 1945 - 2011

David Hudson

"Pete Postlethwaite, the Oscar-nominated British actor, has died at the age of 64," reports Martin Beckford in the Telegraph. "He died in hospital on Sunday after a lengthy battle with cancer.... After beginning his career on the stage, his breakthrough film performance was in 1988's Distant Voices, Still Lives. He was then nominated for the best supporting actor Academy Award in 1993 for his performance in In the Name of the Father. Postlethwaite went on to star in several of the most popular films of the 1990s, including The Usual Suspects, Brassed Off and Romeo + Juliet."

"Mr Postlethwaite, who was made an OBE in the 2004 New Year's Honours List, was described by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg as 'the best actor in the world.'" The Press Association: "They worked together on The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad. In response to the praise, Mr 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."'"

Anna Robinson in the Alt Film Guide: "Among Postlethwaite's other film credits are Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Lasse Hallström's The Shipping News (2001), Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener (2005), John Moore's The Omen (2006), Louis Leterrier's Clash of the Titans (2010), and Ben Affleck's The Town (2010)."

Updates: Ray Pride has the riveting trailer for the 2009 Young Vic production of King Lear.

"Pete Postlethwaite had one of those faces — weathered, folded, kneaded, endlessly interesting — that demanded to be on camera, even as it denied him any possibility of leading man status." Guy Lodge at In Contention: "And yet, in the latter half of his career, Postlethwaite... made a convincing case for the character actor as star. Neither his visage nor his gratifyingly alliterative name threatened more than a career as 'that guy,' but somehow we got to know him better than that." In his final film performance, he gave us a "vivid, knowing character sketch in Ben Affleck's The Town — it's a cruel irony that we last saw Postlethwaite on screen as a man who knew his number was up, but he couldn't have asked for a more affecting exit."

"In recent years Postlethwaite became known as much for his political activism as his acting," writes Matthew Weaver in the Guardian. "He was the front man in the climate change film The Age of Stupid, arriving at the 2009 London premiere on a bicycle. After the film's release he threatened to hand back the OBE he was awarded in 2004 in protest at the government's controversial decision to give the go-ahead for Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent. He also adapted his home to become environmentally responsible, installing a wind turbine and other features. In 2003 he marched against the war in Iraq and was a vocal supporter of the Make Poverty History campaign." Also: Rosanna Greenstreet's quick Q&A with Postlethwaite in January 2009 and the Guardian's last interview (video, 3'35").

Former UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott in the Guardian: "I first saw Brassed Off — the tale about the troubles faced by a colliery brass band, following the closure of their pit — in June 1997. The story, loosely based on the Grimethorpe Colliery Band was moving but it was Pete Postlethwaite's speech right at the end that had a deep effect on me. His character, band leader Danny, after spending his life wanting to win the national brass band trophy, symbolically turns it down because he knows it's the only way he can get publicity for the 1000 miners who were sacked from his pit. The line that got me was: 'This government has systematically destroyed an entire industry — our industry. And not just our industry — our communities, our homes, our lives. All in the name of 'progress'. And for a few lousy bob.' You can watch it here. I defy you not to cry."

And Catherine Shoard collects and comments on about twenty more clips as well.

"One more film is coming in 2011 (the British comedy Killing Bono)," writes Nathaniel R. "His odd but memorable features probably insured that he'd play his fare share of criminals. But despite his recent bloody role in The Town, Postlethwaite being the thorns in the rose bush, I personally associate him with more noble turns.... I was so in love with Baz Luhrmann's dizzyingly erratic Romeo + Juliet (1996) that Father Laurence, who sets all the fake death in motion to unfortunately disastrous effect, is still my favorite of his roles."

Viewing (1'46"). The BBC's report.


Catherine Grant's latest walloping roundup of links at Film Studies for Free: "The Working-Class Hero in International Cinema: in Memory of Pete Postlethwaite."

"He was at ease in switching the masks of tragedy and comedy," writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. "The working-class martinet father he played in Terence Davies's film Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), which Postlethwaite credited as his big break, can be seen as paradigmatic of his career. Postlethwaite powerfully conveyed the father's double-sided nature: at one moment he is tenderly kissing his children goodnight, the next he is ripping the tablecloth off in a rage."

On that same page, Michael Coveney writes: "After training at the Bristol Old Vic school, Peter Postlethwaite (as he was known for the first decade of his career) joined the Liverpool Everyman under the direction of John McGrath and then Alan Dossor. That period in the early 1970s still shines like a distant beacon of engaged repertory theatre, producing new plays of local interest — by McGrath, CG Bond, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Mike Stott — with a crack troupe of brilliant new actors. Dossor had been a fine actor himself; he had an eye for new and socially committed talent. Postlethwaite stood out, first among equals, in such good company: Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, Kate Fahy, Jonathan Pryce, Nick Stringer, Bill Nighy, Antony Sher, Trevor Eve, Bernard Hill. Of course, he was always described as potato-faced, bloke-ish, searingly truthful and blissfully funny. But he had an edge, an ambiguity, and a gleaming maniacal quality, too."

And Nick Hamm: "He punctured pretentiousness and established a level of truth in his work as an actor. Woe betide the director who hadn't done his homework or was trying to put one over on him.... I was privileged to have Pete star in my film Killing Bono. He had always wanted to be part of the project, but before we started shooting he told me that he was ill with cancer. We talked and it became clear that even though he was undergoing chemotherapy he still wanted to be part of the story. More than that, he wanted the discipline and motivation of work so we gave it to him." On the set, "He was shaking with the cold and the effects of the chemo, but he wanted to carry on. Here was this great actor patently unwell and in pain but professional and astonishing until the end."

Further proving itself to be the UK's greatest paper and one of the best in the world, the Guardian rolls on. Tim Lusher gathers remembrances from director Rupert Goold and actors Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson.

Maev Kennedy has more: "He was called 'quite simply the most exciting, exhilarating actor of his generation' by Julie Walters, a former girlfriend who first met him at the Everyman theatre in Liverpool, where both perfected their art. 'He invented "edgy." He was an exhilarating person and actor.'... Jim Sheridan, director of the [In the Name of the Father], said: 'He was amazing. Everybody loved him. He was an amazing character and a lovely man. He was a great warrior. He looked indestructible, that was the thing about him.' Bill Nighy, another Everyman veteran, called him 'a rare and remarkable man,' adding: 'I was honoured by his friendship — he is irreplaceable.' Stephen Fry tweeted: 'The loss of the great Pete Postlethwaite is a very sad way to begin a year,' and Simon Pegg, also on Twitter, called him 'one of our finest actors,' adding that he first saw him on stage at the RSC in 1986. 'Owned the stage, he did.'"


Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Stupid, tells a fantastic story in which Ed Miliband has a starring role. Then: "Many people have said how lucky it was that an actor of Pete's stature and ability happened to be interested in climate change. Rubbish. Pete was the best actor of his generation because of his integrity. And because of his integrity he dedicated a big part of his life to fighting the biggest battle humanity has ever faced. I am honoured to have been at his side while he did so."

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr: "By dint of physiognomy — that gaunt frame; the adam's apple like a raw fist; big, sad eyes that had seen things you were glad you hadn't — Pete Postlethwaite was a valued character actor. And like all the greats of his tribe, from Peter Lorre to Steve Buscemi, you could argue that he was ill-served by the film industry. He was too funny-looking for lead roles yet possessed of a squirrely, unpredictable energy that the movies know they need if the leads are to be taken at all seriously. He was the reality principle and, in his most striking appearances, he was threat personified."

Listening (14'46"). Fresh Air remembers Postlethwaite.

"Although his tough, etched features and raspy line-readings (he was a life-long cigarette smoker) gave casting directors an easy reason to pin him as tricksters and criminals, Mr Postlethwaite had a gentler side and a glint of humor in his eyes that gave depth and nuance to even the most menacing of turns," writes Steven Rea at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips: "He gave his all in each performance, sometimes (as in his death scene in The Town) a little more than was needed. But he could never be mistaken for anyone else. And that, among other things, is what makes a memorable character actor a memorable character actor."

Updates, 1/4: The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, first on In the Name of the Father: "I believe Postlethwaite's overwhelmingly powerful performance as Guiseppe Conlon, the tragic, sacrificial figure who was to die in prison before his son is released, actually played an important part in popularising a new conciliatory mood in the political circles of 1990s Britain, which was to lead to the Good Friday agreement." Then: "What gave Postlethwaite his iconic status with another kind of moviegoer was his portrayal of the sinister, uncanny Mr Kobayashi in Bryan Singer's modern noir The Usual Suspects (1995). In the course of its head-spinning plot, Kobayashi emerges as a man who works for, or claims to work for, the mythical criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. Söze is an underworld Satan, and Kobayashi is his emissary on earth, and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie certainly allows the audience to suspect at various stages that Kobayashi is, in fact, Söze himself in devious disguise. Who is this man? Kobayashi appears to be South Asian, which doesn't obviously fit with an apparently Japanese surname. He appears, smiling enigmatically, with his employer in the film's penultimate scene. This small part used Postlethwaite's unique looks in a different way, a starkly unsentimental way, to bring out their absolute alienness, and otherness. There were plenty of rough-looking, ordinary-featured, or semi-handsome guys in the film, from Kevin Spacey to Stephen Baldwin. It features the brutal-looking Dan Hedaya in a small role — not an oil painting, by any means. But none of these guys had a face that could suggest an unearthly, uncanny difference from the norm — beyond mere ugliness — which Postlethwaite's could."

"Peter William Postlethwaite was born on Feb 7, 1946, into a working-class Roman Catholic family in Warrington, near Liverpool, where as a teenager he once booked the Beatles to appear at a village hall," writes Bruce Weber in the New York Times. "His father, William, was a cooper and later a school caretaker. He and his wife, Mary, expected their son to become a priest (Peter spent two years in a seminary, beginning at age 11) or a teacher. As a young man Mr Postlethwaite did teach for a while — drama and physical education — until he gave it up to pursue acting, a decision that, according to family lore, his mother chided him for until the 1980s, when he had his picture taken with Queen Elizabeth II after appearing in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Taming of the Shrew."

The BBC collects more tributes from fellow actors. Daniel Day-Lewis: "Pos was the one. As students it was him we went to see on stage time and time again. It was him we wanted to be like; wild and true; lion hearted; unselfconscious and deliciously irreverent. He was on our side. He watched out for us. We loved him and followed him like happy children, never a breath away from laughter." Kevin Spacey: "He was a great man of the theatre as well and carved a unique life for himself in film. He probably wasn't appreciated as much as he should have been, but I suspect that the country will come to regard him as a national treasure."

Edward Copeland on In the Name of the Father: "Not only did he give a superb performance, but his face, that wonderful face, really belonged to an earlier generation of movie character actors, whose visages stood out in a way that skin and bone alone were almost enough to distinguish them."

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