Obituary: Bob Hoskins, actor

Bob Hoskins: Charismatic film star who left school at 15 and became an actor by accident. Picture: Getty
Bob Hoskins: Charismatic film star who left school at 15 and became an actor by accident. Picture: Getty
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Born: 26 October, 1942, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Died: 29 April, 2014, aged 71

Just five feet six inches tall, stocky, thick-set, balding, with an obstinate streak and a Cockney accent you could cut with a knife, Bob Hoskins was an unlikely candidate for international film stardom.

He left school at 15 and worked as a porter, window cleaner, steeplejack and circus fire-eater before becoming an actor by accident, in his mid-twenties, after accompanying a friend to an audition.

Despite the unlikely credentials and the late start, Hoskins was “a natural” and brought a certain authenticity to whatever he played, no matter what it was. He starred in the classic British thrillers The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa and he played Smee in Steven Spielberg’s Hook, with Robin Williams as Peter Pan, Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook and Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell.

Hoskins won Bafta and Golden Globe awards and pulled off one of cinema’s greatest achievements when he delivered a tour-de-force performance opposite a giant bunny rabbit (who wasn’t there) in the 1988 mix of live-action and animation Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

He played a surprisingly wide range of characters from Pope to Super Mario, equally adept seemingly at hard man and big softie, drama and comedy. There was even talk of him playing Queen Victoria opposite Billy Connolly in the Scottish period drama Mrs Brown, though the role went to Judi Dench.

Hoskins had played Victoria on stage, but he admitted his toughest role was in Roger Rabbit, as Eddie Valiant, a bitter, hard-drinking private detective in the Philip Marlowe mould, investigating dirty deeds in Toontown.

He had to act opposite thin air, and the old-style animated characters were painstakingly painted in later. He spent eight months doing it and it threatened his very sanity as he found himself talking to non-existent characters off-set too.

The son of a lorry driver, Robert William Hoskins was born in Bury St Edmunds, in Suffolk, but grew up in the Finsbury Park area of London. It was a tough neighbourhood and there are plenty of actors who like to make out they were really tough kids, but Hoskins took the opposite tack. “You don’t end up with a face like this if you’re hard,” he told one interviewer. “The nose has been broken so many times.”

He never thought of acting as a boy or youth. “Acting was another world – it was like brain surgery,” he told me when I interviewed him when he came to Glasgow to make a thriller called Unleashed a decade ago.

Hoskins played a gangster, who has raised Jet Li’s character as if he were an attack dog, and Morgan Freeman was a blind piano tuner who befriends Li. It was not a major hit.

One experienced interviewer branded Hoskins “the rudest, most disagreeable person” she had ever come across, and he was in a foul mood the day we met, having just discovered his plans for a long weekend were to be curtailed by a change in the schedule.

But actually he was fine after we started talking about John Mackenzie, the Scottish director who gave him a starring role in The Long Good Friday, and various other mutual acquaintances. Suddenly the sullen little man was full of passion and humour, and ended up declaring his undying love for Glasgow and Glaswegians.

There had been varying accounts of how he started acting, but he told me: “My mate wanted to audition at this amateur theatre called the Unity Theatre. And I went with him, so he could do his audition.

“And then we were going to go on to a party. And he seemed to be away for hours, and then the next thing was this boy came down and said, ‘You’re next,’ and I went up and read the script and they gave me the lead in the play.”

As far as he was concerned acting was just going out there and pretending to be someone else, maybe a little different from himself or people he had known, maybe a lot different. He summed up his approach thus: “I ain’t got the faintest idea what the f*** is goin’ on.” It was not Daniel Day-Lewis’s approach, but it seemed to work for Hoskins.

In the early days he worked largely in theatre and he started going after parts in television only because he thought it would help him get bigger stage roles.

In the early 1970s he appeared in a string of supporting parts on TV, but then he landed a starring role in the sitcom Thick as Thieves, playing a burglar who comes out of prison to find his best friend (played by John Thaw) has moved in with his wife.

He played a sheet-music salesman in Dennis Potter’s innovative 1978 BBC series Pennies from Heaven. It was the first in a series of Potter dramas in which characters would suddenly start miming to old songs on the soundtrack and it raised Hoskins’ profile and cachet significantly.

Hoskins was always very good at characters living on their wits, trying to keep one step ahead of the game and not always succeeding. He was excellent in The Long Good Friday, as Harold Shand, the charismatic, but vicious and ultimately tragic, Cockney gangster, finally realising he is fatally out of his depth when he crosses the IRA.

It is now widely regarded as one of the best British gangster films ever made and also serves as a metaphor for the vicious prevailing economic policies and the rampant greed of the time.

On the personal front, Hoskins’ first marriage had collapsed and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He met his second wife, Linda, just as his screen career was taking off; she helped him cope with depression and he began a second family.

He played a low-level gangster with a heart of gold in Mona Lisa, with Michael Caine. It brought him an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe and a Bafta, and it raised his profile in Hollywood, leading to a series of big-budget movies, including Roger Rabbit and the romantic comedy Mermaids, with Cher, Winona Ryder and a very young Christina Ricci.

And for a working-class boy from Finsbury Park, Hoskins played a surprising number of world leaders and statesmen, albeit some of them were a little dodgy. He was FBI boss J Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, with Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced president; he was the Panamanian dictator in the TV movie Noriega – God’s Favourite, John XXIII in the The Good Pope and Nikita Kruschev in Enemy at the Gates.

He was chilling as a serial killer in the acclaimed drama Felicia’s Journey. By way of contrast he played Micawber in the BBC’s 1999 adaptation of David Copperfield and Badger in its 2006 version of The Wind in the Willows. He also did a long-running series of adverts for BT with the catchphrase “It’s good to talk.” His last film was Snow White and the Huntsman.

In 2012 he announced he had Parkinson’s disease and was retiring. He died in hospital of pneumonia and is survived by his wife and four children, two from each of his marriages.