Pete Postlethwaite (1946-2011)

Posted by · 3:28 am · January 3rd, 2011

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.

And yet, in the latter half of his career, Postlethwaite, who sadly passed away yesterday after a lengthy battle with cancer, 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.

The turning point, of course, was a hard-earned and wholly unexpected 1993 Academy Award nomination for “In the Name of the Father” (speaking as we were, recently, of nods that came without any precursor warning), his granite-hard and quietly mournful performance as Maguire Seven convict Giuseppe Conlon joining a gallery of performances I cited last year as one of the finest Oscar fields in history.

He may not have won, but the payoff was immense — greater visibility than he’d likely ever dreamed of followed as Hollywood offered him roles in “The Usual Suspects,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (in which he was better than any other actor would have bothered to be, and, paired with his work in “Amistad” the same year, earned him a “best actor in the world” endorsement from Steven Spielberg) and Baz Luhrmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” where his dry wit and gigantic cross tattoo redefined Friar Lawrence for my generation of high-school students.

All the while, he kept busy in Britain too, where those unlikely top-billed roles finally came to him — he was a dignified ensemble leader in the chipper working-class comedy “Brassed Off,” and not only got to romance Rachel Griffiths in the Simon Beaufoy-written “Among Giants,” but enjoyed a naked rain dance with her, no less. His most enduring contribution to British cinema, however, remains one he made years before his Academy-aided fame: as the alternately taciturn and terrifying Catholic patriarch in Terence Davies’s essential “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” that hangdog face is positively haunted.

His presence wavered slightly in the last decade, presumably as mounting health problems exerted their pressure, but he made an unexpectedly conspicuous return to Hollywood last year: we’ll ride past his paycheck work in “Clash of the Titans” and straight to his surprise supine cameo in “Inception” and, best of all, his 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.


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31 responses so far

  • 1 1-03-2011 at 4:02 am

    Graysmith said...

    Such sad news. I watched The Town only just the other day and was so pleasantly surprised to find out he was in it. And as usual, and gave you a lot even in smaller parts. A memorable performance, however brief it was.

    Rest in peace.

  • 2 1-03-2011 at 4:03 am

    julian said...

    I’m really saddened by the news of PP’s demise…he was one of two reasons why I bothered to sit through The Town (Jeremy Renner being the other). His turn in In The Name Of The Father was nothing short of miraculous. RIP.

  • 3 1-03-2011 at 4:31 am

    Maris said...

    An awesome actor, and he will be sadly missed. I remember the first film I saw him in was “Treasure Island” (the one with Christian Bale), where he played the mutinous pirate George Merry. Then there were those small turns in “Alien 3” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” so by the time he showed up as Giuseppe Conlon in “In the Name of the Father,” I was already somewhat familiar with him. I suppose for me, his most indelible role will always be Mr. Kobayashi in “The Usual Suspects,” but I still get a kick out of his work in “DragonHeart.”

  • 4 1-03-2011 at 5:00 am

    mark said...

    What a shame loved him in distant voices still lives & his cameo in the town.

  • 5 1-03-2011 at 5:16 am

    Mark said...

    Postlethwaite is in Spielberg’s ‘War Horse’ so at least we have that to look forward to. I think Alien 3 was my first encounter with him, even amongst the gallery of balds in that film his distinctive features grabbed my attention. Have always enjoyed his performances, a sad loss…

  • 6 1-03-2011 at 5:30 am

    MovieFan said...

    Outstanding actor, not many actors can steal the show from Daniel Day-Lewis. RIP Pete

  • 7 1-03-2011 at 5:30 am

    Marv said...

    The man who fit the words “Characther Actor” to a tee. Loved him in “In The Name Of The Father” amongst other roles. Sad!

  • 8 1-03-2011 at 5:53 am

    Zack said...

    This is so awful. I was just thinking about what a productive year he had, too.

  • 9 1-03-2011 at 6:00 am

    Maxim said...

    That is really sad. He was a true great.

  • 10 1-03-2011 at 6:12 am

    geha714 said...

    Very sad news. He was a great actor.

    Even in his brief role in the documentary “The Age of Stupid”, he was incredibly moving.

    He will be missed. Rest in peace, Mr. Postlethwaite. Thanks for everything.

  • 11 1-03-2011 at 6:28 am

    Patryk said...

    Chilling line to Affleck about his long lost mother: “If there’s a heaven son, she’s not in it.”

    If there is a heaven, Pete Postlethwaite is in it. RIP.

  • 12 1-03-2011 at 6:29 am

    Sawyer said...

    Echo the sentiments. He will be missed.

  • 13 1-03-2011 at 6:49 am

    caro said...

    Guiseppe Con lon is dead! SAD

  • 14 1-03-2011 at 7:16 am

    Joe7827 said...

    A tragic day. While small roles, he certainly classed up the “Inception” and “Town” joints.

    “No, no, no… I was disappointed… that you tried.”

  • 15 1-03-2011 at 7:24 am

    discount patio umbrellas said...


    So sad to hear about Pete Postlethwaite, we’ve lost a legend

  • 16 1-03-2011 at 7:29 am

    daveylow said...

    He was an actor I looked forward to seeing in films ever since In the Name of the Father. Very sad to hear this news.

  • 17 1-03-2011 at 7:36 am

    geha714 said...

    Patryk: Amen, brother!

  • 18 1-03-2011 at 7:54 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I’ll remember him mainly for Alien 3 and The Usual Suspects. His face at the end of Suspects always frightens me.

  • 19 1-03-2011 at 8:04 am

    Mohsin Khan said...

    RIP; we’ve lost a terrific actor.

    Just want to mention how great he was in James and the Giant Peach and The Constant Gardener.

  • 20 1-03-2011 at 8:59 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    If ever I needed to explain what a character actor was – a face you’ve seen and enjoyed a million times but whose name always slips your mind – he would be a prime example. His sole Oscar nomination is a proud example of the Academy rewarding a true supporting performance (a great one, at that), and I have to say that with all of the talk of Jeremy Renner getting an Oscar nomination for The Town, Postlethwaite’s “Florist” has stuck with me longer from that film.

    This…has hit me harder than I thought his death would. I will miss him.

  • 21 1-03-2011 at 9:18 am

    eurocheese said...

    Love the write up Guy. A great character actor, one who I always happy to see in films (including “Inception” and “The Town” this year). I also really loved his work in “DragonHeart.” RIP.

  • 22 1-03-2011 at 9:39 am

    THE Diego Ortiz said...

    I heard about this on the radio this morning, but I did not know who he was. (which is usually the case: you know the face, not the name)

    He was bad-ass in Jurassic Park 2. He was my favorite character in that movie.

  • 23 1-03-2011 at 11:23 am

    Chris138 said...

    Very sad and unexpected. RIP.

  • 24 1-03-2011 at 11:35 am

    The Other Ryan said...

    I wasn’t even aware he was sick. Such a shame. His one scene in Inception with Cillian Murphy was heartbreaking. He’ll be missed.

  • 25 1-03-2011 at 12:03 pm

    RHS said...

    Deeply saddened to hear the news about such a great, great actor and admirable, gracious man. Even before learning the sad news, I had submitted him on my BAFTA ballot for “The Town” for what I thought was one of the most devastating performances of the year. He was an actor whose very presence in any role conferred distinction on whatever production in which he was involved. I’ll never forget that he actually wore a name tag/ribbon to the Oscars the year he was nominated as though no one would know who he was. Bless him and his family.

  • 26 1-03-2011 at 2:03 pm

    MovieFan said...

    Im really glad he was nominated for In the Name of the Father, its such a quitely powreful performance that the Academy tends to overlook in favor of more big, and showy performances. He was much better than Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive

  • 27 1-03-2011 at 8:17 pm

    Mike said...

    This is so sad. I ha no idea he was so sick. And I was just thinking that maybe the Acadmey would surprise with a nom for him for The Town to reward such a good year and great career. Hopefully, now that their attention is on him, this will happen to honor him and his family. So sad.

  • 28 1-03-2011 at 9:27 pm

    John said...

    CLASH OF THE TITANS, INCEPTION, and THE TOWN. Not a bad way to go out.

    My favorites:
    1. In the Name of the Father
    2. The Usual Suspects
    3. Jurassic Park 2 (him, not the movie!)
    4. Romeo + Juliet
    5. The Town

  • 29 1-04-2011 at 4:01 am

    Graysmith said...

    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, 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. He shouldn’t have gone. I wish so much that he hadn’t. There’s a tendency to make lists at this time of the year. When we get to the Best of British, if Pete isn’t at the top of that list, he shouldn’t be far from it.”