LONDON — He could have stayed in teaching. That's what his parents wanted: it was the safe, secure route for a young man with working-class roots and a face few would describe as handsome.
But Pete Postlethwaite wanted more. He wanted to pursue his passion for acting and, at 24, he left teaching to train at the Bristol Old Vic theater. His parents remained skeptical, but when he was introduced to Queen Elizabeth II after a stellar 1980s performance with the Royal Shakespeare Company, even his mother was convinced he would make his mark.
It was an incredible ascent for Postlethwaite, a distinguished character actor with a remarkably craggy, timeworn face whose death at age 64 was confirmed Monday by Andrew Richardson, a longtime friend and journalist who documented the actor's fight against cancer. Richardson said the Oscar-nominated actor died Sunday.
Postlethwaite had little going for him when he started in an industry where good looks – think Robert Redford or George Clooney – are valued. He had few connections, a name that was hard to pronounce, and could distinguish himself only by his talent.
It was a subtle talent, hard to define, marked by an ability to completely inhabit a role, to convey a deep sense of burden with a glance or a shrug. There were no pyrotechnics, nothing was overstated. But he had a powerful presence and authenticity on screen and on stage.
It was this that prompted director Steven Spielberg – who used Postlethwaite twice – to call him "probably the best actor in the world."
Postlethwaite was part of a small coterie of British actors who came up together through the theater and found a measure of success in Hollywood. The group included Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson, longtime friends who starred with him in "In the Name of the Father," a 1993 classic that earned Postlethwaite a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role as Day-Lewis' father.
That part drew heavily on Postlethwaite's ability to give a victim's troubles wider meaning. His character is wrongly imprisoned after his son implicates him in a deadly IRA bombing he did not commit. Postlethwaite's quiet sense of hurt and injustice helps carry the film, regarded as one of the finest to deal with the long conflict in Northern Ireland.
He branched out into movies and television work in the 1980s, most often taking roles as an occasionally menacing working-class figure.
He was instantly recognizable for his piercing eyes and prominent cheekbones, which gave him a lean, rugged look. One critic said his cheekbones came "boiling out of his head like swollen knuckles." He appeared in a wide variety of film and TV roles, with many British fans remembering his work in period dramas as well as his later Hollywood films
He had recently been seen in the critically acclaimed film "Inception" and had worked with Spielberg on "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" and "Amistad" in performances that sparked Spielberg's extravagant compliment . He drew high praise for his starring role in "Brassed Off" in 1996. He also played a vicious crime boss in Ben Affleck's "The Town," released last year, and will be seen this year in "Killing Bono."
Over the years, some British actors who moved into the Oscar stratosphere were seduced by the glamour and moved to Hollywood. But Postlethwaite stayed away, living in recent years with his wife and two children in a farmhouse in rural England, where his comings and goings drew little more than a friendly smile from neighbors who took his presence for granted.
Postlethwaite did not become a household name in much of the world – he is said to have resisted an agent's efforts to come up with a stage name that would be easier to pronounce and remember – but he was honored by Queen Elizabeth II when he received an OBE award in 2004.
Friends and colleagues described him as down-to-earth in a profession filled with overblown egos.
"Anyone who worked with him felt great affection for him," actor David Schneider told BBC News. "He was very un-actory. Sort of like a national treasure. There is so much affection for him; he was a wonderful actor and a wonderful bloke." He said Postlethwaite's skill and range would be appreciated more in hindsight.
Two years before his death, the actor realized a lifelong goal by playing King Lear at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, where he had been part of the company during his formative years.
Postlethwaite was a political activist known for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his calls to fight global warming. He used a wind turbine at his home to generate electricity.
His extended battle against cancer was documented in the local newspapers where he lived in rural Shropshire, 170 miles northwest of London. He had recently thanked the staff at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital for their care.
"They have been wonderful and I am grateful to them," he told the Shropshire Star newspaper. "I cannot thank them enough for everything that they have done for me."
He is survived by his wife, Jacqui, his son Will and daughter, Lily.