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Pete Postlethwaite: Actor and Activist

by on January 10, 2011
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A wide variety of smaller film and TV roles for any other actor would have meant a less-than-notable career, but for Pete Postlethwaite, it sealed the deal for him to become one of the most remembered faces and voices in movie history.

His rugged visage and brilliant performances, despite many times being minor and supporting, were too memorable to be ignored. He put his all into every role.

The only performer in Baz Lurhmann’s “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” to speak his lines in iambic pentameter, this Brit actor came from a distinctly working class background, brought up in Warrington (situated in between Manchester and Liverpool). He fought his way out to embark on a career in theater and on the big and small screen.

Initially bound for the priesthood, Postlethwaite set out to tackle the world of acting after seeing his first plays, “Waiting for Godot” and “Look Back in Anger.” Being of working-class stock and having no theatrical background, this was difficult to achieve, but he started out by teaching drama and physical education before attending Bristol Old Vic Theatre School at age 24.

Acting then wasn’t about being on TV or in films; the stage was where any British actor started his career. Postlethwaite’s first real taste of acting came in the 1960s and ’70s when he took to the stage at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre alongside other acting greats like Julie Walters (Molly Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films) and Bill Nighy (“Love Actually”).

Postlethwaite’s movie biography is littered with more small parts than you would initially expect from such a well-known, highly talented actor. His distinctive features, complex surname and gravelly Northern tones meant he could be easily picked out and remembered.

Perhaps Postlethwaite’s most endearing aspect is his unending modesty when it comes to his fame, dismissing comments from Steven Spielberg (who directed him in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Amistad”) that he is the greatest actor in the world and saying he doesn’t consider himself an A-list star.

One of his most memorable roles was as Mr. Kobayashi in the 1995 thriller “The Usual Suspects,” achieving maximum impact in a pivotal, but still supporting, role in the film as the lawyer and enforcer of criminal mastermind Keyser Söze.

Patriarchal roles also awarded Postlethwaite much recognition. The first was in 1988’s “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” where his portrayal of the hero’s father was considered terrifying and monstrous — reminiscent of director Terence Davis’ memories of his own father.

One of Postlethwaite’s more major roles was as Daniel Day Lewis’ father in 1993’s “In the Name of the Father,” which earned him his only Oscar nomination.

Postlethwaite also had roles in other widely released films, including “Alien 3,” “The Constant Gardener” and “The Shipping News.” Never ignoring the stage’s call, though, he is also well known for playing the lead role in “Lear,” which toured Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain in 2008.

Despite Postlethwaite’s private struggle with cancer, he still gave two memorable performances in two of 2010’s most acclaimed films.

In Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” he played dying businessman and father Maurice Fischer, upon whom the film’s emotional aspect is hinged. He also starred alongside Ben Affleck in “The Town” as an Irish kingpin moonlighting as a florist.

Outside his acting career, Postlethwaite was a passionate political activist, campaigning against the war in Iraq and marching in the Make Poverty History rally in Edinburgh at the G8 summit. He also was a firm environmentalist, solidified by his central role in the post-apocalyptic film “The Age of Stupid,” set 500 miles north of Norway in 2055. Postlethwaite played an archivist looking back at news footage to understand why humankind failed to do more about climate change.

A list of film achievements and life details doesn’t compare to seeing Postlethwaite perform on screen. It is his voice and way of speaking that really sets up what kind of actor he was.

Here is his big speech from 1996’s “Brassed Off,” directed by Mark Herman, about a miners’ brass-band set. It is set during the time then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed more than 100 mines — leaving more than 1,000 miners without jobs and threatening the tight-knit communities in the North of England.