Remembering Pete Postlethwaite

Written by Film

The Popdose staff gathers to pay tribute to one of Hollywood’s most prolific — and highly respected — character actors.

Actor Pete Postlethwaite, a respected veteran of stage, television, and more than 40 films, lost his battle with cancer on Sunday. Here are just a few of our favorite Postlethwaite performances.

In the Name of the Father (1994): For whatever reason, this film has faded into the background of movie history over the years, despite the fact that it was a multiple Oscar-nominee (seven, to be precise) starring two previous Oscar-winners, Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson. Perhaps it has made a more permanent mark across the pond in Ireland and the U.K.: it’s based on the true story of Gerry Conlon, a small-time Irish criminal falsely accused of blowing up a pub in Guildford, England as an act of IRA terror. Not only were three of Conlon’s friends also charged, but also members of his extended family back in Belfast, including his stern father, Giuseppe (yes, an Irishman named Giuseppe–there’s a story about where the name came from which is one of the film’s lighter moments).

Gerry’s dad (Postlethwaite) sends him to England to get him away from the IRA and give him a chance to get his life together (which he squanders), but when both men find themselves in prison, accused of murders they didn’t commit, they realize the family conflict they thought was their worst problem pales in comparison to the “tough on terror” political game in which they have become unwilling participants. (Hmmm…perhaps this movie is more relevant to the 21st century than audiences have given it credit for.) Before In the Name of the Father, Postlethwaite had distinguished himself on the British stage, with small roles in big films (Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, The Last of the Mohicans with Day-Lewis), and with central roles in small films (chief among them the British art-house masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives). As the father of the title, he anchors the film emotionally, showing how even the most ordinary citizens were swept up in the violence and hysteria of the Troubles. Others’ names may have been above the title, but Postlethwaite’s was the name on my lips when I came out of the theater. For his efforts, he received one of the seven Oscar nominations bestowed on the film. Robin Monica Alexander


The Town (2010): Actors tend to be a deceptively diminutive lot in general, and Postlethwaite was less physically imposing than most — but that didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of oozing menace when the occasion called for it. The Town is a case in point: with little more than a pair of pruning shears and a sneer, Postlethwaite made you believe that his character — a brutally nasty mob boss whose flower shop front earned him the nickname The Florist — wasn’t anyone you’d ever want to take an elevator ride with, let alone cross in a business deal. Postlethwaite wasn’t on screen for more than a few minutes, but his character’s shadow looms over the movie, and he made you feel its chill. –Jeff Giles

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Brassed Off (1996): When a critic describes a motion picture as being “a small film,” readers far too often translate the phrase into meaning “not worth your time” when what it’s really meant to imply is simply that the goings-on within the film aren’t exactly what you’d find in something helmed by, say, Jerry Bruckheimer or Roland Emmerich. Given those criteria, “Brassed Off” – which takes place in a village in northern England and derives its drama from concerns about how the closing of the local coal mine would also lead to the end of the miners’ brass band – is indeed small, but it’s got a heart as big as all outdoors, and it comes courtesy of Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Danny, the leader of the band.

Even if you don’t know the film, you may find that, once upon a time, Chumbawamba introduced you to one of Postlethwaite’s lines from the film in “Tubthumping”: “Truth is, I thought it mattered. I thought that music mattered. But does it? Bollocks! Not compared to how people matter.” Although you’d expect “Brassed Off” to be a romantic comedy, given the prominent placement of Ewan MacGregor and Tara Fitzgerald on most posters and home-video releases for the film, but despite remaining somewhat lighthearted, it also features some fiercely dramatic scenes between Postlethwaite and Stephen Tompkinson (who plays Danny’s son, Phil) and ultimately manages to make a political statement about the mining industry in England. Is it a bit heavy-handed at times? Oh, sure. But do you still want to stand up and cheer after Postlethwaite’s big speech at the end? Oh, hell, yes. – Will Harris


Inception (2010): If you’re going to rest a big part of your movie’s plot on the tortured relationship between a man and his dying father — and keep the father mostly offscreen until the final act — you’d better make sure you cast someone worth watching in the role. Enter Pete Postlethwaite, who used his few moments of screen time to lend an added layer of unexpected poignancy to Inception. Like a lot of character actors, his face was more recognizable than his name, but Postlethwaite’s work was so subtle, and so varied, that seeing him pop up in Inception‘s final act doesn’t take you out of the movie the way someone like Richard Jenkins might have; you just know you’re watching a master at work. –JG


What Pete Postlethwaite had, that so many successful character actors seem to possess, is an immediate yet altogether blank face. What I mean by this is that, upon seeing him, you know this actor, his craggy skin, his tenuous hairline, that he was not a stranger to the movie-going audience. Yet at the same time, such a familiar canvas was also an entirely blank one.

While his role was limited to just an introduction and a coda, Postlethwaite portrayed the Old Man (as IMDB insists is the character’s name), the emcee in a sense in Henry Selick’s mostly stop-motion animated James and the Giant Peach (1996). He was there to sell the audience on the idea of a magical world beyond the immediately seen “real” one, which in Roald Dahl’s imagination is particularly awful. This character is seemingly the only human adult that isn’t utterly disgusting from the start, and is in some sense, the gatekeeper to mystery.

Needless to say, the character had to be earthy enough to fit in with the dreadful types around him so as not to stick out like a sore thumb, but the audience had to trust him too or decide to leave the theater. He had to be the pleasant master of ceremonies among the unpleasantness, and because Postlethwaite could manage that precarious balancing act, you go along for the trip.

Contrast that with the character of Roland Tembo, from Steven Spielberg’s sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). While not evil per se, Tembo is arrogant and self-centered. While Jeff Goldblum, Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn concern themselves with escaping the dreaded ‘second site’ of the Jurassic Park d.n.a. experiment, and to try to do no immediate harm on the way, Postlethwaite’s Tembo is a driven, great white hunter. He is Ahab after Moby Dick, Hemingway after the next pulse of life and adventure when the last has blipped away, and in his world, there is the conqueror and there are the conquests. Let nothing stand between the two.

Tembo represents the take-no-prisoners-nor-their-crap action figure, but not a particularly likable one, yet the audience has to buy into the partnerships forged with him. They have to trust him on some indistinct level, that even though his game lacks merit, he still has some code of honor about him. And yes, you have to feel bad for Tembo when he reaches the destiny we already knew was awaiting him. Two characterizations, built on similar bones – figures that may not appear to be the best choices available, but one you trust without reservation, and the other you begrudgingly follow in spite of yourself. That both could come from the same guy, looking very much the same way in both roles, speaks to something about what it takes to be an actor. It’s more than a hairstyle or a costume. Anyone can go trick-or-treating, after all. Pete Postlethwaite managed to bring unique energy to these characters that could have easily been carbon copies of each other. – Dw. Dunphy


I realize Pete Postlethwaite had a career before The Usual Suspects (1995), but it still seems impossible that he existed before stepping onto the screen as Kobayashi, the darkly diabolical laywer for Keyser Soze in a Russian nesting doll of a movie. That massive screen presence, the softly cragged face, and most of all, that voice–like maple syrup running through a rusty faucet. As the film’s central question, “Who is Keyser Soze?” brought many of its lead actors to suspicion in turn, Kobayashi became the easiest and most visible presence of evil in the story. Yet Postlethwaite’s work gave the character dimension that went beyond the screenplay; he came off as less a mastermind and more an incredibly intelligent, competent attorney who just happened to work for the devil. I’ve not yet seen all the films in his filmography, but whenever I saw him on screen, Postlethwaite never failed to bring even the flimsiest, silliest characters to hard reality.–Matt Springer

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One of the pleasures of watching so-called “old” movies (a movie isn’t old if you’ve never seen it before) is encountering actors you know from more recent or more successful ones. Postlethwaite is a classic example. Yes, that’s him giving a general (Robert Stephens) a shave in Ridley Scottt’s The Duellists (1977). Him again as one of the gnomish prisoners in Alien 3 (1992). Graduating in rank he played a captain alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans that same year–but it was his next film with Day-Lewis, 1993’s In the Name of the Father, that took him from “that guy” to “that guy who’s good in everything” status. My memory’s a little shaky but I believe I first saw it on New Year’s Day 1994 with Popdoser Jon Cummings and his bride-to-be Gwen, following a New Year’s Eve at Schindler’s List–it’s safe to say we were overserved on “holiday” movie depression that season, but both films have withstood the test of time, and anyone who sees Father never forgets the incredible bond the two actors forge. Parent-child relationships can feel like a prison, and the true-life scenario behind the film literalizes this, making for any number of painful, agonizing, and humorous moments under Jim Sheridan’s direction. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the Oscar-nominated performances by Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite ring true indeed. Years later almost to the day I saw it the actor is gone, but the performance endures–and while I have the floor let me mention a second favorite credit, his principled dinosaur hunter in The Lost World: Jurassic Park II (1997). That guy was good in everything.–Bob Cashill

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