Bob Hoskins, who died at 71 on Tuesday from pneumonia, wasn’t your typical film star. He was burly, and rough around the edges; the type of fella you’d hastily avoid on the cold, dark streets of London.
But on the big screen, this bullish Brit transformed into the quintessential Cockney accented tough guy with a big heart. He rose to prominence in the ’80s—an era when character actors, independent film, and complicated roles were prevalent in Hollywood and the UK. Dimuntive (5’6”) and balding, with menacing dark eyebrows and a boxer’s nose, it was a tribute to his talent that the former window washer became an internationally renowned cinematic heavyweight.
Who else could wander around a den full of prostitutes asking for a “cup-o-tea” and make it seem like a perfectly reasonable request, as he did in Neil Jordan's 1986 hit Mona Lisa? The riveting turn earned him an Oscar nomination and BAFTA and Golden Globe wins for his role as the protective ex-con to Cathy Tyson’s beleaguered prostitute.
But his star rose when he threw his entire being into the role of reluctant private eye Eddie Valiant, who’s tasked with investigating a murder involving the iconic animated toon, Roger Rabbit, in the 1988 Robert Zemeckis classic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Valiant was a man beaten down by life, but not enough to be hardened. And it was no simple task, being one of the sole human actors in the film surrounded by animated cartoon characters—before green screen technology invaded Hollywood—but Hoskins’ edgy brilliance shined through. The performance was, according to Hoskins, inspired by his young daughter, whom he used to observe acting out complicated scenarios with her toys.
Growing up on Finsbury Park, an economically and ethnically diverse neighborhood in North London, Hoskins was a wanderer for much of his early life. The son of a schoolteacher and a bookkeeper, Hoskins had gypsy blood in him from his Romani grandmother. He dropped out of school at 15 and worked as a porter, lorry driver, window cleaner, and accountant before settling on acting in 1967.
His big break came in 1980 with John Mackenzie’s crime thriller The Long Good Friday. It was a natural fit for Hoskins. In playing Harold Shand, a hustler who will do anything to save his plans for a multimillion-pound property deal, Hoskins created one of cinema’s most deliciously demented strivers. If America had Gordon Gekko, Britain had Harold Shand to convey the era of “greed is good.”
And then came the lovable shopkeeper, Lou, in the 1990 film Mermaids, who tried valiantly to domesticate Cher’s wild character, Rachel. It was a noble effort and one that audiences cheered on.
Hoskins also subscribed to Michael Caine’s “show me the money” school of film acting. Yes, he never saw a role he didn’t like—resulting in some memorable duds, like the video game adaptation Super Mario Bros.—but always gave it his all. He brought tenderness to the character of Captain Hook’s second-in-command, Smee, in Steven Spielberg’s wildly exuberant Peter Pan blockbuster, Hook, and chewed up the scenery as the shady J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. The dynamic character actor continued into the aughts with fine performances in Mrs. Henderson Presents, opposite Dame Judi Dench, and the historical drama Made in Dagenham, with Sally Hawkins.
He retired from acting in 2012 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. And now the world has lost a formidable actor who could convey both compassion and warmth with his smile or cast fear in your heart with a terrifying scowl.
“We are devastated by the loss of our beloved Bob,” his wife Linda and their children Alex, Sarah, Rosa and Jack said in a statement, after the actor passed away on Tuesday night. “Bob died peacefully at hospital last night surrounded by family, following a bout of pneumonia. We ask that you respect our privacy during this time and thank you for your messages of love and support.”