Working-class hero becomes distant voice
The craggy-featured British actor who won Irish hearts with his role as Giuseppe Conlon in ‘ In the Name of the Father’ has left a strong legacy
FAMOUS FOLK must occasionally regret letting slip endlessly recyclable quotes. In the mid-1990s, Steven Spielberg, when asked about working with Pete Postlethwaite, mused that the weather-beaten performer was “probably the best actor in the world today”. Virtually every early report of Postlethwaite’s death, peacefully in hospital in Shropshire after a long illness, has included that phrase.
Many obituaries also found space to report the actor’s response: “I’m sure what Spielberg actually said was: ‘The thing about Pete is that he thinks he’s the best actor in the world’.”
Such glib statements are meaningless, but it is hard to think of many bettercontemporary actors than Postlethwaite.
With his long face and mournful, cracked voice, he developed gradually into one of the most sought-after character performers in Hollywood.
In the past year, even as his long tussle with cancer re-ignited, Postlethwaite managed to appear in three very successful Hollywood pictures: Inception, The Townand Clash of the Titans. More impressive still, in 2008, he fought his way through the title role in Rupert Goold’s production of King Learin Liverpool. He wasn’t just one of the very best actors, he was one of the hardest working.
Peter Postlethwaite was born 64 years ago in Warrington, Cheshire, to a working-class family. His father was a barrel-maker and a school caretaker. Some years back he commented: “I want to be known as the son of Bill and Mary Postlethwaite. And if that sounds naive and ridiculous, I don’t know . . . ”
Progress through the thespian ranks was slow, but reasonably steady.
Having taken drama classes at college, he spent a few years teaching, before heading off to study at the prestigious Bristol Old Vic.
Like so many great Merseyside actors, he enjoyed a fruitful apprenticeship at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre. A spell at the Royal Shakespeare Company followed and he began to pick up small roles on film and TV.
Postlethwaite has never denied that he enjoyed roistering and rollicking. During the Everyman years, he embarked on a lively relationship with Julie Walters, who was not yet a British national treasure. When talking to this paper a few years ago, she admitted that a great deal of drink was taken and a great many tables were danced upon at that time.
Postlethwaite first attracted serious critical acclaim for his performance as an abusive father in Terence Davies’s searing poetic masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives. Released in 1988, the picture has soared in reputation over the intervening decades.
Roles in Alien 3and The Last of the Mohicansfollowed, but it was Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father(1993) that finally pushed Postlethwaite into the centre current of the mainstream. Stoic, battered and bewildered as Giuseppe Conlon, one of the wrongly accused Maguire Seven, Postlethwaite came close to stealing the film from Daniel Day-Lewis (no mean feat), who played his son. Both secured much-deserved Oscar nominations, Postlethwaite’s for best supporting actor.
By this stage, nearly two decades ago, Postlethwaite had already endured his first encounter with cancer. He had a testicle removed in 1990, but, though relentlessly positive, he does not seem to have behaved like any oncologist’s notion of a model patient.
Just last year, when preparing for King Lear, he admitted that he was still on the cigarettes. Asked about his guiltiest pleasure, he replied: “Smoking. It’s a stupid habit.”
Rather poignantly, he added that what made him most depressed was the knowledge “that life will come to an end”.
It would be a surprise (and a disappointment) to discover that Postlethwaite, who so often played the worn, blue-collar attendant, was actually a chardonnay-drinking, Tory-voting poshie. Happily, it seems that he stayed true to his leftist working-class roots.
Though he accepted an OBE from Queen Elizabeth, he threatened recently to hand back the award if the government gave the go-ahead to the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent. He continued to support the Labour Party, but became increasingly disenchanted at its drift towards the right.
Long attached to Jacqueline Morrish, a TV floor manager whom he eventually married in 2003, Postlethwaite, father of two daughters, seems to have settled comfortably into the agreeable semi-stardom that characterised the second half of his career.
A special kind of security comes with being identified as a great character actor. Pretty boys come and go, but performers with craggy faces and flexible voices can find suitable roles well into their dotage if they are good enough.
Following that performance in In the Name of the Father, the world’s best directors, eager to reinforce their films with Merseyside grit, beat furious paths to the actor’s door.
Bryan Singer cast him as a villain in the durable The Usual Suspects. Baz Luhrmann saw him as Father Lawrence in his zippy version of Romeo + Juliet.Spielberg used him for both Amistadand The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
It is invidious to place any actor – not least one as eccentric as Postlethwaite – within a gang, but, in his film roles, he came to occupy a place alongside great British oddballs such as Stanley Holloway, Tom Wilkinson and Colin Blakely. The defining characteristic was sadness.
The drooped features, sand-blasted skin and high forehead all added to that sense of moroseness, but his obscure gift was to offer subtle hints at the shadowy roots of the character’s weighty despair through a sigh or a desperate head-waggle.
We will get one last chance to enjoy that talent when Killing Bono, Nick Hamm’s adaptation of Neil McCormick’s tale of U2 envy, opens in Ireland later this year.
Even in films of the lowest quality, his striking seriousness went some way towards elevating the tone. For an example, seek out Postlethwaite’s sombre priest in the recent, unnecessary remake of The Omen. Every time he appears, the urge to scrape out one’s own eyes diminishes significantly.
It is reassuring to note that Postlethwaite, a near archetypal graduate of the 1970s left-wing theatre scene, seems to have taken a sensible attitude to his mainstream success.
“When my dad died, we got his papers back from the hospital, and there was this one line – ‘One wristwatch, no baggage’,” he said, while pondering his riches a few years ago. “I thought that was about right. There’s an old Turkish proverb, ‘Never own more than you’re prepared to lose in a shipwreck’.”
DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988)
Terence Davies’s achingly sad study of Liverpool life in the years before the Beatles features a terrifying — but nuanced — turn from Postlethwaite as an abusive father. It’s all in the eyes.
Both actor and director regard the film as a nod towards their own youth.
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER (1993)
Another working-class father. In a breakthrough, Oscar-nominated performance, he turns up as the bewildered Giuseppe Conlon, wrongly imprisoned for the Guildford pub bombings. Postlethwaite goes toe-to-toe with Day- Lewis and remains upright.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)
A classic example of Postlethwaite stealthily upstaging actors with larger roles and more prominent profiles. His turn as Kobayashi, the corrupt lawyer, is an essential pivot for the famously twisty plot.
BRASSED OFF (1996)
It’s another conflicted dad. Mark Herman’s moving film about a colliery band offers Postlethwaite, playing the conductor, the opportunity to wring hearts with a desperately moving finale in the Albert Hall.
THE TOWN (2010)
Watch Postlethwaite steal the screen again. In Ben Affleck’s admired picture, the actor plays the owner of a florist in Northern Ireland who moonlights as a criminal mastermind. Not for the first time, he quietly colonises the core of a busy film.
Tributes to ‘a rare and remarkable man’
Gerry Conlon, the son of Giuseppe Conlon who Pete Postlethwaite portrayed in In The Name of the Father, is among those who have paid tribute to the actor.
Conlon, who was imprisoned wrongfully, says the actor was “so believable that there were times when he turned in these quirky mannerisms that it was like looking at my dad . . . I don’t think anyone else could have played my father”.
Postlethwaite earned an Oscar nomination for the performance. The director Jim Sheridan told RTÉ Radio One also had plenty of praise. “Everyone loved him,” he said at the time. “He was like the morale of the whole crew. Amazing character and a lovely man. . . People genuinely loved him.” He added that he was a “strong, virile guy” as well as “wild” and that he “looked indestructible”.
There were also tributes from Julie Walters who said he was “the most exciting, exhilarating actor of his generation . . . I saw him in Coriolanus and it was the most terrifying, wonderful performance I have ever seen. The audience were privileged to see it.”
Bill Nighy, who began his career in Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre alongside Walters and Postlethwaite, called him “a rare and remarkable man . . . I was honoured by his friendship. He is irreplaceable”.