Pete Postlethwaite: A face, and an actor, you couldn't forget

pete-postlethwaite-name-fatherImage Credit: Everett CollectionPete Postlethwaite, in his long, sturdy, and vibrant career as an actor, first in theater and television and then, beginning in the late ’80s, in the movies, was the face of a great many things: rage, fatherly tenderness, criminal brilliance. Whatever he was playing, though, Postlethwaite, who died yesterday at 64, was always a face: a face so lumpen and craggy you could never forget it, with its ruddy broken nose and thin-lipped scowl of protest, its flesh that hung down over cheekbones that were prominent enough to look like a pair of jutting apples, and those eyes that burned with some fierce dark private anguish that seemed to reach back into the centuries. It was a face that was all angles and emotion — one that could have been drawn by Picasso. It was a face that haunted you with how haunted it appeared to be.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Terrence Davies’ powerful autobiographical drama about growing up in working-class Liverpool in the ’40s and ’50s. This was the role that brought Postlethwaite to prominence, but he was already 40 years old. He had been a repertory actor (including one stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company), and also a sheel-metal worker and welder, and what appeared to be a lifetime of hard living was already etched — welded — into those features. He played the hero’s brutal alcoholic father, a man who flew into slashing fits of anger, and Postlethwaite made those explosions so feral and terrifying, such a stark bulletin from the bottom of the whiskey bottle, that you felt, almost physically, how they could have battered his son’s heart into something delicate and fragile and cringing. Yet Postlethwaite also showed you the human side of this domestic monster. He was scary enough to make Robert Duvall in The Great Santini look like an amateur dysfunctional abuser, but he also had an authentic, almost childlike interior soft woundedness. He had layers, and as Postlethwaite now planted himself on the world movie stage, he brought that same stubborn complexity of feeling to role after role.

As an actor, Postlethwaite possessed such an edgy, hungry intelligence, expressed in the brusque snap and cut of his rhythms (it was a voice that didn’t have the time, or patience, for anyone else’s baloney), that he could always be counted on to show up and charge a scene with his burnished, saturnine intensity. He did that in lots of mainstream films, like The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Clash of the Titans and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Inception. Probably his most noteworthy appearance in a pop movie was as Kobayashi, the mysterious wily lawyer for mysterioso über-bad guy Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects — a performance that was all ferocity on the surface but really, just beneath that, all play.

For that was the thing about Pete Postlethwaite: He portrayed tense and grave and dyspeptic men, but he gave them such a crackling feeling of life that you ended up charmed and hypnotized by his actor’s joy. He raised the stakes in Ben Affleck’s The Town, infecting the role of a Boston Irish mob boss with so much understated menace that it took you a scene or two to grasp just how bloody ruthless the character really was. His cover business was running a flower shop, and you could taste Postlethwaite’s delight as he issued veiled threats while trimming a rose bush, the perfect activity for a character who specialized in hiding his own thorns.

What role will Postlethwaite be best remembered for? It depends on who you ask. Given the realities of movie distribution — of what’s “mainstream” and what’s not — a lot of people would probably say Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. But for a lot of us, the apex of his artistry was his performance as Daniel Day-Lewis’s dour, sickly, judgmental, and finally inspirational father in In the Name of the Father (pictured above), that powerful 1993 Irish drama of IRA sympathy and resistance. The two actors were old friends (Postlethwaite had directed the young Day-Lewis in a play in the early ’80s), and they acted together like veteran chamber musicians. As part of a British clampdown, the two characters in In the Name of the Father, who have never gotten along, are thrown into prison, and the movie doesn’t oversimplify their reconciliation. Postlethwaite quietly suggests that his bitterness toward his wastrel son is the dark underside of an affection he can’t express. Once again, he’s a distant voice of paternal wrath. Yet as the picture goes on, the voice softens, becomes warmer, more accepting. It’s one of the most moving transformations in modern movies, with Pete Postlethwaite accomplishing the uncanny, evoking a lifetime of anger and bitterness and disappointment and then melting it into a face of love.

So what’s your all-time favorite Pete Postlethwaite performance?

More on Pete Postlethwaite:
Pete Postlethwaite: Costars remember their colleague and friend

Comments (217 total) Add your comment
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  • mickey

    Kobayahsi is a classic underrated character. Had it not been for Keyser Soze overshadowing, Kobayashi would go down as a classic, classic villain.

    RIP Pete.

    • Candacetx

      the Usual Suspects – one of my all favorites – Thank you Mr Kobayashi.

    • Jules

      He was Brilliant in the movie “In the Name of the Father”… simply Brilliant!

      • Jenny

        Agreed! Loved his performance in this movie.

    • star m

      OMG, The Usual Suspects was definatley his best! Romeo and Juliet was a favorite of mine as well, but nothing tops Mr. Kobayashi.

      • Silk Spectre

        HE was the Friar? It all makes sense now! Thank You!

    • Shaunathan

      One theory is that “Kobayashi” was actually “Keyser Soze” pulling the strings on “Verbal Kint.” Another is that “Keyser Soze” was the fiction created by two master criminals working in tandem (hence the final scene in which “Kint” & “Kobayashi” drive away). Possibly…

  • Brandi

    I haven’t seen many of his movies, but I just watched “The Town” yesterday (which made the news of his death a little creepy to me). And that was a really good movie. But wherever he is now, I hope he’s in peace.

    • Emily

      I also watched “The Town” last night. I can’t decide which is creepier–watching it yesterday and then learning he had died, or his performance in that movie.

  • Emily

    I would also add his performance as the Priest in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. That was the first time I remember seeing him in a film, and I think he really elevated each scene he was in – giving the movie more emotional heft than it might have otherwise had.

    • Swerds

      Yes, and yes. I can’t think of a single thing he was in that he gave a less-than-stellar performance but this was the first time I noticed him.

    • Matt

      I totally agree! By aiming for the best and then- so heartbreakingly- realizing his actions led to the worst, he really lifted the movie from a teen-picture to a full-blown tragedy!

    • Chris Richards

      Totally, and he did the same thing in The Lost World (Jurassic Park 2). He elevated every scene he was in, making the rest seem painfully hollow in comparison.

    • MsSuniDaze

      Yes! Romeo and Juliet was the first movie I actually noticed him as well. He was amazing in the roll. He was an incredible actor who will be missed greatly.

      • Atsumi

        I thought he was great in Brassed Off and was a clasisc arch villan in Sharpe. That pretty much limits my knowledge of his acting but, that was enough for me to respect his ability. Not sure he deserved all the praise lavished on him in news, but then they were asking other luvvies .

    • Ang

      Just watched R&J over the weekend. Love that movie and loved him as Friar Laurence!! RIP

    • Rosa

      Agreed. That was the first movie that I remember seeing him in, and he is rather unforgettable. He was in one of the Jurassic Park movies too. Not sure wich one. You see his face everywhere, and even if you don’t remember the movie and the role, you always remember he was in it. Rest in Peace!

    • Alia

      My favorite performance of his by far. Damned good acting. Cinema is worse off without him.

  • Steve Berner

    No question: “Brassed Off”. If only because it was so bloody nice. Something you rarely saw him play.

    • Bev Mura

      Same here. He was wonderful as the music director in “Brassed Off!”

      • Feather

        Totally agree.

      • Lisa London

        ditto

    • Zoe

      Brassed Off is the first thing that came to mind! Wonderful movie. I can’t believe he was barely 50 playing that part! (And don’t forget that he was immortalized with the “it’s music that matters” dialogue lift in Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”. :-)

    • Lori R

      Brassed Off was SUCH a great movie! I forgot about that performance as I was thinking about Usual Suspects and In the Name of the Father. Pete was great – and will be missed!

    • Tehachapian

      Oh, thank goodness. I thought I was the only person who remembered his role in “Brassed Off.” That was the movie that made me a fan of his!

    • wg

      Brassed Off was the first time I saw him and was absolutely entranced by his… reality onscreen. Intense, beautiful talented man – he will be missed.

  • Tin Man

    PP was my favourite actor. I always had a smile of recognition when I saw him on screen – just briefly, before he got down to business and blew me away with his latest intense performance. For me, In the Name of the Father will be his great role, although I could watch his incredible few scenes in Amistad again and again. And Brassed Off. And The Usual Suspects. And Last of the Mohicans …

    • jules

      Same here, Tin Man…everything you said rings true. He will be deeply, deeply missed.

    • kyle

      uhh…i’m pretty sure he was not in “last of the mohicans”, i do believe he was in “braveheart” though, is that what you’re talking about?

      • kyle

        never mind i’m completely wrong just imdb’d it, man i love “last of the mohicans” why can’t i seem to place his face in it?

      • Rosie

        I believe Tin Man is thinking of Wes Studi who was in the Last of the Mohicans I can see why, Pete and Wes Studi have similar features.

      • Brendan

        he was in last of the mohicans.
        he arrests daniel day lewis.
        it was a tiny part, but he was definitely in it.
        i remember because i was so excited to see him, just like in inception, even in a tiny part.
        a master at his craft…

  • harry

    Firt Role I saw him play was one of the inmates in Aliens 3. his charater was very funny. I will miss you Pete!

    • Dani

      Same here, Harry! After Alien3, I hunted for more of his films, and was never disappointed. A terrific actor, he will be missed.

      • Daigoji

        Completely agree – his character in Alien 3 was the first time I took notice of him, and the criminal he played was one of my favorite of the double Y chromosome gang. He will be sorely missed.

  • Kelly

    I’m glad someone mentioned Brassed Off. One of my favorite underrated movies of the last 20 years. He was SO GOOD in it; please check it out if you haven’t seen it.

    • sunny e. boulton

      I agree that Brassed Off was indead underrated. One of the best!

    • Candacetx

      I will be working my Netflix overtime in his honor. What a brilliant and talented character actor he was. I listened to his Fresh Air interview today on NPR – and he seemed intelligent, humble and completely dedicated to his trade. Thank you for always choosing remarkable scripts and turning them into unforgettable performances. You will be missed.

  • jfms777

    Unique. I suppose there are American actors with similarities–but there is no one “just like him.”

  • Brooke

    What a great actor. I love hearing Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping knowing that it’s his quote from Brassed Off that opens it. A class act.

  • Brooke

    For me, it has to be In the Name of the Father. I was 13 when I saw it and had been raised on bubblegum 80s films. After seeing Postlethwaite and Day-Lewis, I started to appreciate film with substance. Rest in peace, sir!

    • Carrie

      “In The Name Of The Father” was the movie that put Pete Postlethwaite on the map for me. He and the movie were unforgettable. Outstanding movie and superb acting by he and Daniel Day Lewis. Rest in Peace Mr. Postlethwaite.

      • Tyler

        Lovely piece. I first noticed him, like so many othres, in The Usual Suspects, and he makes the most of his 10 minutes of screen time. Because Keyser Soze is in hiding, it’s really up to Postlethwaite to make the villain’s evil palpable. When he’s ambused by Byrne’s crew, his bodyguards killed, it’s astounding how he turns the tables on them using only words: I assure you, Mr. Soze is very real and very determined. He’s so good at conjuring a sense of dread.

    • Curly

      Absolutely “In the Name of the Father” was the film for me. I had never seen Mr. Postlewaite until this performance. I was seriously so affected by his performance as the father that I stood in the movie theater parking lot sobbing for 10 minutes unable to leave his portrayal behind. I freaked my boyfriend out that I could cry so easily over a film, but his performance stayed with me so deeply that I couldn’t shake it. I am saddened to hear he has passed at such an early age-64 just doesn’t seem all that old anymore.

      • Brian

        Towards the end when Guiseppi asks Jerry to hold his hand…amazing…he will be missed! Rest in peace Pete!

  • Heather

    He is one of those great actors that is in everything, but you never really know his name. He’ll always be the priest in Romeo + Juliet to me, but I’ve enjoyed him in so many things. RIP

  • stella

    The best thing about him was that he always, consistently elevated the material he was in. The gravity he gave his character in Clash of the Titans was no less than what he gave for The Name of the Father, and how rare is that? He never phoned it in. Classy as hell.

  • kmd

    It’s so sad that he won’t be turning up in any more movies. Kobayashi was truly a gem of villainousness intent. His incarnation of self-important greed and sniping treachery made the character of Hakeswill in the early Sharpe movies really shine again Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe but the other day as I was watching a movie with my niece, I discovered his character in James and the Giant Peach. He was hardly in the movie, but he played so against type that his few minutes on screen elevated the movie for me. That’s what makes me the most sad about his untimely passing, he won’t just pop up in a movie again to take it to another level. RIP Pete, thanks for the memories. You will be missed.

    • bp

      Sergeant Obediah Hakeswill. Shudder. He acted this evil character so well, I was surprised to see him so endearing in Name of the Father. I also enjoyed Lost for Words, and had my sister watch it so she wouldn’t cringe at the guy who played evil Obediah.

      • Dmajor

        Omigosh yes! That sergeant was the first role I saw him in. Mesmerizing, bottomless evil. And then to see him as Danny in Brassed Off — that amazing range as an actor, that’s what made me a fan of his work.

      • Sadieal

        Sharpes RIfles he was more than creepy but mesmerizing. He will be missed

    • Mom

      Hakeswill is the best villain ever! Bernard Cornwell was sad that he killed Hakeswill off after seeing how great Pete was in the part. I always looked forward to seeing him in any role.

  • Chad

    I loved him in James and the Giant Peach.

    • mermaid

      I loved him in James in the Giant Peach! It was the first time I’d ever seen him, and whatever character he ever played after that, I always loved him. This makes me so sad.

    • Lea

      Yup I concur here. I know I saw him in things before James and the GIant Peach but that was the first thing that came to mind for some reason.

  • sam rackham

    No doubt about it BRASSED OFF

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