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Image: Peter Postlethwaite
Kirsty Wigglesworth file  /  AP
Actor Peter Postlethwaite displays his Order of the British Empire shortly after the presentation at Buckingham Palace in London in 2004.
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updated 1/3/2011 8:47:36 AM ET 2011-01-03T13:47:36

Oscar-nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite, a craggy-faced British character actor described by director Steven Spielberg as "the best actor in the world," has died at age 64 after a long battle with cancer.

Friend and journalist Andrew Richardson said Monday that Postlethwaite died in a hospital Sunday.

The actor was instantly recognizable for his unusually shaped face — with prominent cheekbones that gave him a lean, rugged look — and his intense eyes. He was not conventionally handsome like many film stars but had a powerful presence and authenticity on screen and on stage.

His extended battle against cancer was well 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 kind treatment and 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."

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Postlethwaite originally wanted to be a priest but was drawn to acting despite his father's objections about the insecurity of a career in show business. He worked first as a drama teacher before striking out on his own.

Like many English actors, he started his career on stage, performing at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and working with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

He branched out into movies and television work in the 1980s, most often taking roles as an occasionally menacing working-class figure.

He reached what some viewed as his professional peak when he received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role in "In the Name of the Father", a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson. Postlethwaite played Day-Lewis' father in the drama about the complex ramifications of Day-Lewis' forced confession to an IRA bombing he didn't commit.

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 the extravagant compliment from Spielberg, a longtime admirer.

Despite the plaudits, and the steady flow of quality roles, Postlethwaite never fully embraced the Hollywood star culture and kept a good distance between himself and the film colony.

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Friends and colleagues described him as honest and down-to-earth in a profession filled with big 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, a wonderful actor and a wonderful bloke."

Postlethwaite liked the rural life, spending his final years in rural England while remaining active in films and on stage. He recently made a triumphant return to the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool to star as King Lear.

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.

He was a political activist known for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his calls for policies to fight global warming. He used a wind turbine at his home to generate electricity and made other "green" alterations to the property.

He is survived by his wife, Jacqui, his son Will and daughter, Lily.

The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: British actor Pete Postlethwaite dies

  1. Transcript of: British actor Pete Postlethwaite dies

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: The man Steven Spielberg called probably the best actor in the world has died. If you're a fan of modern cinema, you no doubt found the Oscar nominated Pete Postlethwaite 's face impossible to forget, just as his name was tough to pronounce. Postlethwaite started acting at 24, Shakespeare mostly. He was discovered as an enormously talented film actor later in life, and turned in memorable indelible performances in " The Usual Suspects ," " In the Name of the Father ," and most recently as a dying man in "Inception," and as the sociopathic murderer in the Ben Affleck film " The Town ." Pete Postlethwaite died of cancer. He was

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  38. Jean Simmons

    Jean Simmons, the lovely, ethereal film star who played Ophelia to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, sang with Marlon Brando in "Guys and Dolls," and costarred with Gregory Peck, Paul Newman and Kirk Douglas, died Friday, Jan. 22, of lung cancer. She was 80.

    The London-born actress secured her breakthrough role of Estella, companion to the reclusive Miss Havisham in 1946's "Great Expectations." That was followed by the exotic "Black Narcissus," and then Olivier's Oscar-winning "Hamlet" in 1948, for which Simmons was nominated as best supporting actress. She would be nominated for another Oscar, for best actress for 1969's "The Happy Ending," before moving largely to television roles in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

    Simmons won an Emmy Award for her role in the 1980s miniseries "The Thorn Birds." (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Albertina Walker

    Grammy-winning singer Albertina Walker, who was known as the "Queen of Gospel," died Friday, Oct. 8, of respiratory failure. She was 81.

    Close friend and WVON radio host Pam Morris says Walker was "a living legend" who was responsible for launching more than a dozen careers of gospel artists.

    Walker formed her own gospel group, the Caravans, as a young woman and was a protege of gospel star Mahalia Jackson. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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