When British actor Pete Postlethwaite was studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the 1970s, the head of the school predicted he would fare well as an actor but couldn’t resist telling him that he had a face like a “stone archway.”
“It’s all in the cheekbones, this career of mine,” Postlethwaite told the Independent of London in 1998. “They are quite whopping, aren’t they? Who was it that said, ‘He looks like he’s got a clavicle stuck in his mouth?’ ”
Postlethwaite, who was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as Daniel Day-Lewis’ father in the 1993 drama “In the Name of the Father,” died of cancer Sunday in a hospital in Shropshire, England, according to British press reports. He was 64.
Mention of his craggy features, including a ruddy complexion and a bulbous nose that was broken when he played rugby as a boy and re-broken in barroom brawls as a man, was a common refrain throughout Postlethwaite’s long acting career in which he showed early promise.
“Pos was the one,” Day-Lewis said in a statement Monday. “As youngsters, it was him we went to see on stage time and time again. It was him we wanted to be like; wild and true, lionhearted, unselfconscious, irreverent....
“He shouldn’t have gone. I wish so much 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.”
In a career that included acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Postlethwaite did a lot of British television before appearing in films such as “The Usual Suspects,” “Brassed Off,” “The Shipping News,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and " Amistad.”
As an actor, Postlethwaite told the Liverpool Daily Post in 2002: “I refuse to be type-cast, and I’ll have a go at anything so long as it’s different, challenging, hard work and demands great versatility.
Day-Lewis recommended him for the role that brought him international attention in director Jim Sheridan’s fact-based “In the Name of the Father,” which focused on the relationship between a young man from Belfast who is wrongfully imprisoned for a deadly IRA bombing of an English pub and his father, who tries to save his son and winds up imprisoned himself.
“He was such a great, great actor,” Sheridan told The Times from Ireland on Monday. “He basically played the epitome of the nonviolent father; he’s a kind of working-class Gandhi type.
“I think he had a huge impact beyond the movie in the soul of Ireland and England and people understanding that the nonviolent father was actually the most important character in the movie. In a way, his performance changed the political landscape by making people understand how a really innocent person could get involved in the middle of all this.”
Sheridan described Postlethwaite as “a wild man” who “lived life to the full.”
“He was the most gorgeous human being you ever met, the most sweet,” Sheridan said. “He drank, but he could hold his drink. At the same time, he was the most professional. So he was a weird combination.”
After hearing of his death, actress Julie Walters, who had a long romantic relationship with Postlethwaite during their years at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, told a British news agency: “He was quite simply the most exciting, exhilarating actor of his generation. He invented ‘edgy.’ He was an exhilarating person and actor.”
Steven Spielberg, who directed Postlethwaite in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Amistad,” reportedly once called him “probably the best actor in the world” — high praise to which Postlethwaite wryly responded: “I’m sure what Spielberg actually said was, ‘The thing about Pete is that he thinks he’s the best actor in the world.’ ”
He was the youngest of four children, born into a working-class Catholic family in Warrington, Cheshire, England, on Feb. 7, 1946.
He trained as a teacher at St. Mary’s University College in London, where taking drama classes, he later said, opened up a whole new world for him.
After teaching drama for a couple of years, he began studying acting at the Bristol Old Vic. He later spent a number of years at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, where he returned in 2008 to play King Lear.
Early on, the actor with the lived-in face opted to stick with his tongue-twisting last name, which is pronounced POSS-ul-thwait.
“My first agent wanted me to change it,” he told the London Independent in 2000. “So I changed him instead.”
“When I made a breakthrough as an actor, people started to say, ‘Who’s that bloke with the funny name?’ ” he recalled in the 2000 interview with the Independent of London. “They advised me to change it, saying it would never be put up in lights outside theaters because they couldn’t afford the electricity.
“But I would never contemplate changing it. It’s who I am. It’s my mother and father, my whole family. It’s where everything I am comes from. I couldn’t imagine living my life with another name.”
A political activist who took to the streets to oppose the war in Iraq, he played the future archivist in the 2009 climate-change documentary “The Age of Stupid.”
His survivors include his wife, Jacqui; and their children, Will and Lily.