Peter William Postlethwaite, OBE (7 February 1946 – 2 January 2011) was an English character actor, who appeared in In the Name of the Father (1993), Dragonheart (1996), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Brassed Off (1996), Sharpe (1994), Amistad (1997), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Animal Farm (1999), The Constant Gardener (2005), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Inception (2010). He was fluent in iambic pentameter.
After minor television appearances, including in The Professionals, his first major success arose through the British autobiographical film Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). He had a transatlantic breakthrough when he portrayed David in Alien 3 (1992), and his international reputation was further solidified when he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for In the Name of the Father (1993). Following this role, he portrayed the mysterious lawyer Mr Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects (1995) and went on to appear in a wide variety of films.
In television, Postlethwaite played Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill on Sharpe. He trained as a teacher and taught drama before training as an actor. Director Steven Spielberg called him "the best actor in the world" after working with him on The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 2004 New Year Honours list. Less than one month after his death, he was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in Ben Affleck's The Town (2010).
Postlethwaite was born in Warrington, at that time part of Lancashire, the fourth and youngest child of William Postlethwaite (1913–1988), a cooper, wood machinist, and school caretaker, and Mary Geraldine (née Lawless; 1913–2000), working-class Roman Catholics. He had two sisters, Anne and Patricia, and a brother, Michael (1944–2006). Despite portraying Irish characters on multiple occasions, Postlethwaite was not of Irish descent.
Postlethwaite attended St Benedict's RC Junior School and a seminary. He then joined the 4th form at West Park Grammar School, St Helens where he enjoyed sport including rugby league. He spent an extra year re-sitting some O-levels and then took four A-levels in English, history, geography and French. He trained as a teacher at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill where his chosen subjects were physical education and drama and then taught drama at Loreto College, Manchester, before training as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Early in his career, Postlethwaite was advised to adopt a new surname for his acting work by his first agent and by peers who quipped that his name "would never be put up in lights outside theatres because they couldn't afford the electricity". Postlethwaite rejected the advice.
He initially trained to be a Catholic priest but opted for a career in theatre and started his career at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, where his colleagues included Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Antony Sher, Matthew Kelly and Julie Walters. Postlethwaite and Walters had an intimate relationship during the latter half of the 1970s. He was a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company and other acting companies. On 13 January 1981, he took the leading role in a BBC TV black comedy by Alan Bleasdale, The Muscle Market, which was a spin-off from Boys from the Blackstuff; it was part of the Play for Today series.
After other early appearances in small parts for television programmes such as The Professionals, Postlethwaite's first film success came with the film Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988. He received an Academy Award nomination for his role in In the Name of the Father in 1993. He is well known for his role as mysterious lawyer Mr. Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. He made appearances in several other successful films, including Alien 3, Amistad, Brassed Off, The Shipping News, The Constant Gardener, Inception, James and the Giant Peach and as Friar Lawrence in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.
In 2003, he was both the physical and vocal actor for the villain Deeth in Zixx: Level One, a Canadian TV series created by IDT Entertainment. Later that same year, he toured Australia and New Zealand in a 90-minute one-man play, Scaramouche Jones, in which he played a clown trying to find out why he is who he is before he dies at midnight, receiving a nomination for the TMA Award for Best Actor and winning the Theatregoers' Choice Award for Best Solo Performance. This was directed by Rupert Goold, who would also direct his Lear in 2008, in which Postlethwaite played every character. As well as Australia, the play toured Canada, New Zealand and the UK to great acclaim.
Steven Spielberg called Postlethwaite "the best actor in the world" after working with him on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, to which Postlethwaite quipped: "I'm sure what Spielberg actually said was, 'The thing about Pete is that he thinks he's the best actor in the world.'"
One of his more notable roles was Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill in ITV's Sharpe series. The actor said this was one of his favourite roles and that he and fellow actor Sean Bean played well off each other because of their mutual love and respect. Bernard Cornwell, the author and creator of the Sharpe series, specifically wrote Hakeswill's character in later novels to reflect Postlethwaite's performance as the character in the TV series. Postlethwaite co-starred with Bean in When Saturday Comes.
Postlethwaite next starred in a Liverpool stage production of King Lear in 2008 at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, and at the Young Vic, London. He appeared in the climate change-themed film The Age of Stupid, which premiered in March 2009. Having recently installed a wind turbine in his garden, he said was impressed by the film and wrote in The Sun newspaper that, "The stakes [of climate change] are very, very high. They're through the roof. How could we willingly know that we're going into extinction ... and let it happen."
Terminally ill, Postlethwaite made a conspicuous return to Hollywood in three 2010 films, first as Spyros in Clash of the Titans. He next appeared in the blockbuster hit Inception as Maurice Fischer, an industrialist who is slowly dying. Lastly, his performance in The Town as florist/crime boss Fergus "Fergie" Colm was well received by critics, making several publications' lists of Oscar predictions for Best Supporting Actor. Postlethwaite's last appearance on screen was in Nick Hamm's film Killing Bono, based on the memoir of Neil McCormick. The role was written specially for Postlethwaite to accommodate his illness. The film was released on 1 April 2011. His final role was due to be in the BBC series Exile, written by Danny Brocklehurst and Paul Abbott, but he had to pull out because of ill health. Jim Broadbent replaced him in the role.
Postlethwaite was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the 2004 New Year Honours list and received an Honorary Fellowship in recognition of outstanding contribution to the dramatic arts by Liverpool John Moores University in 2005 and an honorary degree from the University of Liverpool in 2006. He received an Academy Award nomination for his role In the Name of the Father and was posthumously nominated for a BAFTA Award for his performance in The Town.
Postlethwaite lived in West Itchenor, West Sussex before moving near Bishop's Castle, Shropshire. He began a relationship with Jacqueline "Jacqui" Morrish, a former BBC producer, in 1987; the couple married in 2003 at St Nicholas' Church, Itchenor. They had two children, William John "Billy" (born 1989), and Lily Kathleen (born 1996). Billy is an actor who trained at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and has most notably appeared in the TV series Holby City, Game of Thrones and Chernobyl.
Postlethwaite was a lifelong supporter of Liverpool FC.
Postlethwaite was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1990, and had his right testicle removed. He was a smoker from the age of ten until his death. In a March 2009 interview with Scotland on Sunday, the actor referred to his smoking habit, stating: "We've got to hope the next generation will do things differently. I'm sure that in 20 years' time the kids will say: 'Can you believe that people actually used to smoke – put these funny little things in their mouths, lit them and sucked all that crap into their lungs?"
Postlethwaite appeared as a taxi driver in one of the Labour Party's political broadcasts during the 1997 general election. He marched in London against the Iraq War in 2003. He was an activist calling for action to prevent climate change. At the UK premiere of The Age of Stupid on 16 November 2009, he told then-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband that he would return his OBE and vote for any party other than Labour if the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station was given the go-ahead by the government. The proposal to build a new power station at Kingsnorth was shelved by the coalition government in October 2010.
Illness and death
Postlethwaite died of pancreatic cancer at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital on 2 January 2011, and was survived by his wife and children. The cancer had been diagnosed in March 2009. Postlethwaite continued acting almost to the end of 2010, showing clear signs of weight loss during his last performances. In his last two years, he worked on his memoir A Spectacle of Dust with Andy Richardson. It was published on 1 June 2011.
Selected theatre performances
- Antonio Bologna in The Duchess of Malfi. Directed by Adrian Noble at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. (1980)
- Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Richard Negri at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. (1980)
- Max in The Homecoming by Harold Pinter. Directed by Greg Hersov at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Postlethwaite won a (MEN Award) for Best Actor. (2002)
- Scaramouche Jones toured New Zealand (2003)
- Prospero in The Tempest. Directed by Greg Hersov at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. (2007)
- King Leah in King Leah. Directed by Rupert Goold at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool. (2008)