Bob Hoskins, British actor who starred in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ dies at 71


Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, in 1981, appear in John Webster's play “The Duchess of Malfi” at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England. (Central Press/Getty Images)
April 30

Bob Hoskins, the squat, bullet-shaped British actor who brought commanding depth to tough-guy roles in films such as “The Long Good Friday” and won over American audiences in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” as a detective whose leading lady is a voluptuous cartoon character, died April 29 at 71.

His family said the cause was pneumonia but released no other details. The actor had announced his retirement after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012.

Mr. Hoskins’s stardom was perhaps unexpected, given his lesser-than-life physique. People magazine dubbed him “a fireplug with eyebrows.” He described himself as “5 foot 6 inches and cubic” with a face resembling “a squashed cabbage.”

He had come late to acting, after a Cockney upbringing and a restless early life that included jobs as a chimney sweep, nightclub bouncer, circus fire-eater and fruit-picker on an Israeli kibbutz.

He said he entered show business in the late 1960s by accident. He was drinking in a London bar where auditions for an amateur theater production took place upstairs. “You’re next,” someone shouted at him, and he tried out, spurred by many pints of beer. He got the leading role.

“I fit into this business like a sore foot into a soft shoe,” he later told the London Daily Telegraph. “I was a completely untrained, ill-educated idiot. So I read Stanislavski, but I thought it was all so obvious. Same with Strasberg. He just seemed to be saying look busy. Impress the boss. I soon realized actors are just entertainers, even the serious ones.”

After a training period in repertory, he ascended to the London stage opposite stars including John Gielgud and John Mills. Mr. Hoskins developed a reputation as a scene-stealer in workingman roles, which led to his breakthrough as a Depression-era sheet-music salesman in the BBC-produced miniseries “Pennies From Heaven” (1978).

The serial, based on Dennis Potter’s teleplay, combined kitchen-sink realism with fantasy sequences of actors breaking into song, lip-syncing 1930s tunes. In a production that was a marvel of risky imagination, Mr. Hoskins earned terrific reviews as the seedy, daydreaming Arthur Parker.

“Pennies From Heaven” launched Mr. Hoskins into leading-­man parts in British films, often as Cockney gangland figures. In “The Long Good Friday” (1980), he played a ruthless London mob boss with a Caesar-like haircut and ambitions in real estate development.

Critic Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times that Mr. Hoskins’s character, Harold Shand, “emerges as an unexpectedly captivating man, even in a movie that concentrates on his savagery.”

“Not even a scene in which Harold suddenly attacks one of his underlings with a bottle costs him the audience’s sympathy,” Maslin added. “The outburst is vicious and frightening, but it’s as much of a shock to Harold as it is to the viewer.”

In writer-director Neil Jordan’s romantic thriller “Mona Lisa” (1986), Mr. Hoskins earned an Academy Award nomination for his leading performance as another Cockney underworld figure. He played an ex-con who chauffeurs around a black prostitute (Cathy Tyson) and, as a gesture of his love, tries to find her missing drug-addict girlfriend.

The film that propelled Mr. Hoskins to broad recognition in the United States was director Robert Zemeckis’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), which blended live action with animation and married the hard-boiled detective genre with Looney Tunes.

Mr. Hoskins was a boozing detective who falls for Jessica Rabbit, a cartoon human of pneumatic proportions who can’t help but bewitch men. “I’m not bad,” insists Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner). “I’m just drawn that way.”

The movie was a commercial hit. Admitting that he was inspired by the Hollywood-sized paychecks, Mr. Hoskins accepted such parts as the pirate Smee in Steven Spielberg’s Peter Pan takeoff “Hook” (1991) and one of the title siblings in “Super Mario Bros.” (1993), based on the video game.

He also played Cher’s romantic interest in “Mermaids” (1990), portrayed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in director Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” (1995) and appeared as himself in “Spice World” (1997), featuring the British singing group Spice Girls.

One of Mr. Hoskins’s favorite anecdotes involved director Brian De Palma when he was casting the role of gangster Al Capone for “The Untouchables” (1987). De Palma flew Mr. Hoskins to Los Angeles and asked him to be a backup — in case Robert De Niro refused the part.

When an agreement was reached with De Niro, De Palma sent Mr. Hoskins a consolation prize of 20,000 British pounds. “I phoned him right away,” Mr. Hoskins recalled, “and said, ‘Brian, you got any other movies you don’t want me to be in, I’m your boy.’ ”

Robert William Hoskins was born Oct. 26, 1942, in Bury St. Edmunds, England, and grew up in London, where his mother was a nursery school cook and his father was a bookkeeper.

“My childhood was happy, but I was a rebellious kid,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I was a teenager in the ’60s, when pop culture and American rock-and-roll were arriving in Britain in a big way, and I wanted to have a good time, so I quit school when I was 15.

“My idea of a good time was sex and travel, so I bummed around the Middle East and wound up on a kibbutz in Israel,” he added. “I lasted there until they told me I had to join the army.”

Mr. Hoskins, who endured periods of depression, was divorced from his first wife, Jane Livesey. Survivors include his wife, Linda Banwell; two children from his first marriage, Alex and Sarah; and two children from his second marriage, Jack and Rosa.

Mr. Hoskins portrayed Iago opposite Anthony Hopkins in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Othello” for a 1981 BBC-TV production. Onscreen, Mr. Hoskins also played a mobster in director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Cotton Club” (1984); a sinister plumber in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian fantasy “Brazil” (1985); a vulgar Hollywood screenwriter in “Sweet Liberty” (1986); and a man of questionable motive who romances an alcoholic spinster (Maggie Smith) in “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” (1987).

Mr. Hoskins returned to a more brutal role with “Unleashed” (2005), a film with action star Jet Li. But mostly he was known in his later career for a series of well-shaded character parts in movies such as “Twenty Four Seven” (1997), in which he played a boxing coach, and “Last Orders” (2001), based on Graham Swift’s Booker Prize-winning novel, in which he was one of the working-class mourners who plan to scatter their friend’s ashes.

“I don’t want to lose the street, because that’s what I act from,” Mr. Hoskins told People magazine. “A real performance is as much a shock to the system as a road accident. Every job that comes up, I love. It’s bleedin’ maavelous!”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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