Pete Postlethwaite: Distinctive, prolific actor, acclaimed by Spielberg as 'the best in the world'

Peter Postlethwaite was a distinctive player who established himself as one of the country's finest character actors with his powerful portrayal of an abusive husband in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and subsequently made countless memorable appearances in feature films, on the stage and on television, including his malevolent gamekeeper in The Lost World (1997) for Steven Spielberg, who called him "probably the best actor in the world today".

Other indelible performances included his recent King Lear on stage at the Young Vic in 2008, the quarrelsome sergeant in television's Sharpe, and Danny, the dogged leader of the Grimley Brass Band in Brassed Off (1996). He won an Oscar nomination as supporting actor for his performance as the tragic Giuseppe Conlon, one of the wrongly convicted Guildford Four, in In the Name of the Father (1993).

His lean figure and prominent, raw-boned features, once likened to those of "a small burrowing animal which rarely sees daylight", made him particularly unforgettable as enigmatic villains, such as the menacing lawyer Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects (1995). In 2004 he was awarded the OBE for his distinguished services to drama.

The son of a barrel-maker, he was born in Warrington, Cheshire in 1945, and recalled his working-class childhood as a happy one. His parents were Roman Catholics, and he briefly considered training for the priesthood before he pursued an interest in acting that he developed at college. He trained as a teacher at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, and taught drama at Loreto College in Manchester prior to training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. "When I started, theatre was what we did," he said. "We didn't even think about television or films."

He started his professional career as an actor at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, where a colleague was Julie Walters, with whom he fell in love. For several years in the late Seventies the pair lived together in a bed-sit in Soho. Postlethwaite gained further years of experience with the Manchester Royal Exchange and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and played occasional small roles on television and in films (billed as Peter Postlethwaite).

He was a postman in Last of the Summer Wine (1978) and a detective in an episode of Coronation Street in 1981, and his films included The Duellists (1977) and A Private Function (1984) prior to his breakthrough success in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). 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.

His performance won wide acclaim, and subsequent films included Franco Zeffirelli's screen version of Hamlet (1990), as the Player King, Alien 3 and The Last of the Mohicans (both 1992). In The Name of the Father brought him an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for his painfully moving portrayal of the tragic real-life figure Giuseppe Conlon, wrongly condemned for terrorism.

Actively left wing, Postlethwaite stated, "I followed the miners' strike. I followed the Guildford Four. After reading Gerry Conlon's book I wanted to do the film so much that I went to the interview completely in character as Giuseppe and stayed in character all through the interview – Belfast accent, old suit from a thrift shop...".

On television, Postlethwaite then played one of his favourite roles, that of the antagonistic Sergeant Hakeswill in the Sharpe series, starring Sean Bean. "Sean and I played so well off each other because of our mutual love and respect for each other," he said. Bernard Cornwell, author and creator of the series, specifically wrote Hakeswill's character in later novels to reflect Postlethwaite's performance as the character on TV. After contributing a superb portrayal of Montague Tigg to the splendid mini-series based on Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewitt (1994), he was given the pivotal role of the charismatic lawyer Kobayashi in the sleeper hit The Usual Suspects (1995), then played Friar Lawrence in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996), in which he was the only member of the cast who spoke in iambic pentameters, the rhythm of speech in which Shakespeare's plays are written.

One of his best remembered films is Brassed Off, in which he played the dogged Yorkshire band-master who, while leading his miners' brass band to national success, rediscovers his political fervour.

"They sent me the script and said they'd call me back in a couple of hours. They called me back, and I said, 'When do we start?" At the start of the hit recording "Tubthumping" by the group Chumbawamba, Postlethwaite can be heard saying his lines from the film, "Truth is I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks! Not compared to how people matter."

It was his role as the hunter-philosopher Roland Tembo in Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) that prompted the director's comment that Postlethwaite was probably the greatest actor in the world, to which the actor responded by stating, "I'm sure that what he said was, 'The thing about Pete is that he thinks he is the greatest actor in the world'."

In 2000 he starred with Frank Finlay in a seven-part mini-series, The Sins, in which he was a convincing old lag recently released from prison and determined to go straight.

It was the start of an active and successful decade (he was able to state recently that during an acting career spanning over 40 years he was never on the dole). His films included The Shipping News (2001) and The Constant Gardener (2005), and in 2003 he toured Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK in a one-man play, Scaramouche Jones, directed by Rupert Goold, who was also the director when Postlethwaite returned to the Liverpool Everyman in 2008, the year Liverpool was European Capital of Culture, to star in an acclaimed production of King Lear which then played at the Young Vic in London.

In 2009 he starred in the film The Age of Stupid, which had a subject close to his heart – climate change. At the film's premiere, he promised Ed Miliband, then the UK Energy and Climate Change minister, that he would return his OBE medal if the government gave the go-ahead for new coal-fired units at Kingsnorth power station. He and his wife, the former Jacqueline Morrish, made their home in a "green" property in Shropshire, having converted two cottages into a house that has solar panels, windmills and a woodchip boiler.

Postlethwaite was active until recently, and was seen last year in the hit science-fiction movie, Inception.

Pete Postlethwaite, actor: born Warrington 16 February 1945; married 2003 Jacqueline Morrish (one son, one daughter); died Shrewsbury 2 January 2011.

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