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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all