There was no mistaking Pete Postlethwaite for anyone else. Postlethwaite, who died Sunday at age 64, was the kind of character actor who immediately impressed audiences with his distinctive features. Because of his broken-nosed profile and the way his bony cheeks protruded at comic-book angles, he appeared, one British writer noted, "chiseled as if by a cubist sculptor."
But he held audiences because of his art, craft and primal powers of empathy. He was at the vital center of one of the most profound father-son tales in all of movies: Jim Sheridan's bristling 1993 drama, "In the Name of the Father," starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a man wrongly accused of IRA terrorism and Postlethwaite as the dad he bonds with after both wind up in a prison cell. No actor has better caught the way the emotional commitment and honesty of a conventional parent can disarm a would-be rebellious son. Postlethwaite won a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for it.
Postlethwaite could be the most harrowing and realistic of actors -- he hit the bull's-eye of callous urban villainy last year as the Irish mobster operating behind the front of a flower shop in Ben Affleck's "The Town." But he could also be otherworldly. In Henry Selick's 1996 "James and the Giant Peach," released on Blu-ray and DVD just a few months ago, he is instantly haunting as a mystery man with a clouded eye who shows up in a phantasmagoric '30s setting, hands a British orphan a bag of iridescent green squiggly things and tells him they're crocodile tongues.
In Bryan Singer's suspense masterpiece "The Usual Suspects" (1995), he created mystery with his detached presence, his formal speech, and the cryptic way he bore the name of his character, Kobayashi.
Postlethwaite was in some other good-to-great movies, including Steven Spielberg's 1997 "Amistad" (I prefer it to Spielberg's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," also from '97, which also featured Postlethwaite) and Michael Mann's 1992 "The Last of the Mohicans." (And, of course, the hottest blockbuster director of recent years, Christopher Nolan, gave him a brief but key part as the dying tycoon in "Inception" -- and Postlethwaite managed to make an impression even in a property antithetical to acting.)
Postlethwaite could bring the vivid immediacy of a Dickensian caricature to any kind of comedy or drama. In fact, in his memory, I hope to rent or buy a copy of the 1994 BBC miniseries of Dickens' "Martin Chuzzlewit," in which Postlethwaite plays Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague, one of the ultimate two-faced characters (he runs a pyramid scheme).