Actor who played both tough and tender

Robert William Hoskins: October 26th, 1942 – April 29th, 2014

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:03

Plenty of better-looking performers than Bob Hoskins, who has died aged 71 of pneumonia, have found themselves consigned to a life of bit parts.

Short, bullet-headed, lacking any noticeable neck, but with a mutable face that could switch from snarling to sparkling in the time it took him to drop an aitch, Hoskins was far from conventional leading-man material. In his moments of on-screen rage, he resembled a pink grenade. But he was defined from the outset by a mix of the tough and the tender that served him well throughout his career.

From poodle to pitbull
As the beleaguered, optimistic sheet-music salesman in the BBC series Pennies from Heaven (1978), written by Dennis Potter, he was sweetly galumphing and sincere. Playing an ambitious East End gangster in The Long Good Friday (1980), he added an intimidating quality to the vulnerability. Hoskins could be poodle or pitbull; as a reluctant driver for a prostitute in Mona Lisa (1986) and a patiently calculating murderer in Felicia’s Journey (1999), he was a cross-breed of the two. No other actor has a greater claim on the title of the British Cagney.

When international success came in the mid-1980s, Hoskins made not the least modification to his persona or perspective, maintaining the down-to-earth view: “Actors are just entertainers, even the serious ones. That’s all an actor is. He’s like a serious Bruce Forsyth.”

Born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and raised in north London, he was the only child of Robert, a bookkeeper, and Elsie, a teacher and school cook. Bob left school at the age of 15 and took various jobs – bouncer, porter, window cleaner, fire-eater – after dropping out of an accountancy course.

Accompanying a friend to an audition at the Unity Theatre, London, in 1968, Hoskins landed a part. He acted in television and theatre in the early 1970s. Pennies from Heaven, filmed shortly after the acrimonious collapse of his marriage to Jane Livesey, secured his reputation and showed him to be an actor as deft as he was vanity-free.

In The Long Good Friday, he showed the charismatic swagger necessary to fill a cinema screen, though it was the picture’s final shot – a protracted close-up of Hoskins’s defiant face – that sticks most indelibly in the memory. In 1981, he played Iago opposite Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Miller’s BBC adaptation of Othello and also met Linda Banwell. The following year she became his second wife, and the person he would credit with helping him survive periods of depression. He wrote a play, The Bystander, inspired by the nervous breakdown he suffered after his first marriage ended.

For more than a decade he concentrated on his film career. Highlights included his playful double act with Fred Gwynne in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), and his portrayal of a down-at-heel businessman wooing an alcoholic piano teacher (Maggie Smith) in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987).

Oscar nomination
Hoskins’s pivotal roles in that period could not have been more different. Playing the belligerent but kind-hearted ex-con in Mona Lisa, Neil Jordan’s London film noir, won him many awards (including a Golden Globe and the best actor prize at Cannes), as well as his only Oscar nomination. A year later, he took on his greatest technical challenge in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Robert Zemeckis’s fusion of live action and animation, in which Hoskins was one of the film’s few flesh-and-blood participants.