Short, pudgy, balding, with a thick Cockney accent and a booming, gravelly voice, Bob Hoskins was one of the unlikeliest stars in film history, a magnetic character actor who became famous for playing leading roles. After earning his stripes in countless theater and TV productions, Hoskins landed his first major film role at the age of 37, starring as gangster Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday (1980). The ‘80s saw Hoskins rise to the forefront of British film acting, before his role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) turned him into an international star. Hoskins continued working in a variety of roles—some big, some small—before a Parkinson’s diagnosis led him to retire in 2012. Hoskins died yesterday of pneumonia. He was 71.
Born into a working-class family in London, Hoskins dropped out of school at the age of 15 and worked a variety of odd jobs—including stints as a porter and sailor—before stumbling into acting, more or less by accident. The story goes that a 27-year-old Hoskins was sitting in a theater’s lobby bar, waiting for an actor friend, when he was mistaken for an auditioner, handed a page of script, and shoved on stage. He got the lead role. His friend was cast as his understudy.
Within a few years, Hoskins started getting TV parts. He landed his first starring role in 1974, in the ITV sitcom Thick As Thieves, and four years later played the lead in Dennis Potter’s cult BBC production Pennies From Heaven. Soon after, Hoskins—whose only film experience consisted of a handful of a bit roles and a supporting turn in John Byrum’s Inserts—was cast opposite Helen Mirren in a low-budget gangster movie called The Long Good Friday. Despite a troubled release—which included a financier who wanted to cut 40 minutes from the film, and an American distributor who wanted to re-dub Hoskins’ voice—the film became a critical success, introducing Hoskins to film audiences and earning him a BAFTA nomination.
Hoskins’ darting sideways glance could simultaneously communicate authentic, shark-like aggression and fidgety unease. Few films took better advantage of this than Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), which earned Hoskins an Oscar nomination for his role as an ex-con-turned-chauffeur who gets involved in the life of a high-priced call girl.
By this point, Hollywood had come calling. Hoskins had played a minor role as gangster Owney Madden in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), and had been a frontrunner to play Al Capone in The Untouchables. (After Robert De Niro was cast, Hoskins received a sizable payout from the studio, leading him to call Brian DePalma and ask whether there were any other movies he would like Hoskins not to star in.)
His Hollywood breakthrough came in 1988, in the form of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis’ effects-extravaganza blockbuster. Compared to the other actors who were considered for the role of private eye Eddie Valiant—including Bill Murray and Harrison Ford—Hoskins was an unknown. Again, his trademark glance came to his advantage; few actors had better control over the movement of their eyes. Out of all the actors Zemeckis screen-tested, Hoskins was reportedly the only one who could create the illusion he was interacting with characters who would be drawn in later, consistently making eye contact with someone who wasn’t there. The burden of sustaining the cartoon reality of the film rested squarely on his shoulders. The experience of acting against an imaginary ensemble cast was mentally grueling, and Hoskins suffered nightmares throughout production.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a massive hit, leading to Hoskins landing high-profile roles in Mermaids (1990), Hook (1991), and, most notoriously, Super Mario Bros. (1992). Though Hoskins’ foray into Hollywood made him wealthy and famous, he spent the last two decades of his career pursuing smaller, eclectic roles in everything from Atom Egoyan thrillers (1999’s Felicia’s Journey) to Luc Besson-produced action flicks (2005’s Unleashed). An entirely self-taught actor who played up his Cockney roots, Hoskins claimed to pick his projects while sitting on the toilet; if he was still intrigued by a script after its usefulness as bathroom reading was done, he’d take the part. Much of Hoskins’ best late-career work came in supporting roles, as when he popped up in a mostly improvised appearance as a strip club waiter in Abel Ferrara’s Go Go Tales (2007), or as a hotel concierge in Wayne Wang’s Jennifer Lopez vehicle Maid In Manhattan (2002).
In 2011, Hoskins was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After completing his final role in 2012’s Snow White And The Huntsman, he announced his retirement from acting, issuing a typically blunt statement in which he said he would prefer to spend his remaining good days with his family.