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Actor Peter Postlethwaite showed his Order of the British Empire, or OBE, shortly after the presentation at Buckingham Palace in London in June 2004. ((Associated Press))

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

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

His extended cancer battle was well-documented in newspapers where he lived, in rural Shropshire in western England, about 274 km 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. "I cannot thank them enough for everything that they have done for me."

A gritty and powerful actor, Postlethwaite was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the 1993 film In The Name Of The Father. More recently, he was seen in the critically acclaimed film Inception, and had worked with Spielberg on films such as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad.

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Postlethwaite initially planned to become a priest but was drawn to acting. He also worked as a drama teacher for a time.

He received many honours, including an Order of the British Empire in 2004, for his long career in movies, television and theatre, including stints with the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Postlethwaite, who recently returned to the Everyman Theatre for a triumphant turn in King Lear, was also a political activist known for his opposition to the recent war in Iraq and his call for policies to fight global warming.

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