Pete Postlethwaite, brilliant character actor of 'Usual Suspects,' 'Name of the Father'

By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 9:07 PM

Pete Postlethwaite, a classically trained British actor who had a prolific career on-screen, including an Oscar-nominated supporting role in the 1993 film "In the Name of the Father," died Jan. 2 at a hospital in Shropshire, England.

Mr. Postlethwaite, who was reported to be 64, died of cancer.

A critically acclaimed character actor, he was noted for his range but often was tapped to play misdirected, working-class men who were prone to violence.

He had the distinctive look of a menacing felon. With a face scarred and swollen from boyhood rugby matches, Mr. Postlethwaite had reportedly broken his nose three times in pub brawls.

Writing in London's Guardian newspaper, one film critic described Mr. Postlethwaite's protuberant cheekbones as "bursting out of his head like swollen knuckles."

In the 1995 mystery "The Usual Suspects," Mr. Postlethwaite played Kobayashi, the lawyer and enforcer for enigmatic criminal mastermind Keyser Soze, and in 1997 he portrayed the rifle-toting philosopher-hunter Roland Tembo in Steven Spielberg's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

He was widely praised for his role as Giuseppe Conlon in "In the Name of the Father," a drama based on the true story of the Guildford Four, who were wrongly imprisoned for the Irish Republican Army bombings of English pubs.

Mr. Postlethwaite played a kindhearted man who was unjustly implicated in the bombings. His character was the father of Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

To prepare for the part, Mr. Postlethwaite read letters that Giuseppe Conlon had sent to his wife from prison. Giuseppe Conlon died while he was incarcerated.

Writing in The Washington Post, critic Desson Howe lauded Mr. Postlethwaite's performance: "As Day-Lewis's savior, and as a man too old, proud and uncompromising to accept the cell-bound horrors of undeserved shame, he gives credence to something larger than wrongful imprisonment: In his anguished face, you can see the whole 'troubles' of Ireland."

Mr. Postlethwaite's convincing portrayal of innocence earned him an Academy Award nomination and more freedom to choose his roles.

Last year, Mr. Postlethwaite's screen appearances included roles as an ailing energy tycoon in "Inception"; as a fisherman who adopts Perseus, a Greek warrior, in "Clash of the Titans"; and as a crime boss disguised as a local florist in "The Town."

"I find solace in being able to become somebody else," Mr. Postlethwaite once said. "As an actor, I've had the chance to express emotions that otherwise I wouldn't have been able to."

Peter Postlethwaite was born in February 1946 in Warrington, England. His father was a barrelmaker.

Mr. Postlethwaite had studied to become a priest and worked as a teacher before turning full time to acting.

At 24, he started his drama training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre and Liverpool's Everyman Theatre.

In the mid-1980s, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and performed for Queen Elizabeth II in Stratford-upon-Avon.

On-screen, he gained attention in 1988 when he played a hollow-eyed, abusive father in "Distant Voices, Still Lives," about postwar life in Liverpool.

Several years later, during the filming of "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992), Mr. Postlethwaite became reacquainted with a stage acting colleague, Day-Lewis, who recommended him for "In the Name of the Father."

In 1996, Mr. Postlethwaite secured one of his few leading roles, in "Brassed Off" as Danny, the conductor of a band from a small, withering mining town. One of the most emotional scenes in the movie, which also starred young actor Ewan McGregor, comes as Danny lies on his deathbed in a hospital. His tearful bandmates play a midnight rendition of "Danny Boy" beneath his window.

Off-screen, Mr. Postlethwaite was a climate-change activist who lived in a converted farmhouse in rural Shropshire that was powered by solar panels and a wind turbine.

Survivors include a wife, Jacqueline Morrish, and their two children.

He starred in the 2009 eco-flick "The Age of Stupid," in which he plays the last man alive in 2055 after Earth is ravaged by man-made disaster. He said he was compelled to take the role by "ignorance" about climate issues and a "lack of awareness in the situation."

His other recent credits include roles in "The Omen" (2006), "The Constant Gardener" (2005), "Aeon Flux" (2005) and "Dark Water" (2005).

Spielberg cast Mr. Postlethwaite to play a racist prosecutor in "Amistad" (1997), about the trial of a man accused of leading a mutiny aboard a slave ship.

Spielberg was widely reported to have said that Mr. Postlethwaite was "probably the best actor in the world."

Mr. Postlethwaite said he thought the blockbuster director's words had been misconstrued over time: "I'm sure what Spielberg actually said was, 'The thing about Pete is that he thinks he's the best actor in the world.' "

© 2011 The Washington Post Company