Date of Birth: October 26 1942, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, UK
Birth Name: Robert William Hoskins
Nicknames: Bob Hoskins
Bob Hoskins, the actor, who has died aged 71, was hailed as the original tough guy of British film, but once described himself as “short, fat and bald, the only actor who had to diet and wear lifts to play Mussolini”.
His cuboid frame, villainous features and Cockney accent fitted him for a series of roles which he described as “animals, thugs and heavies”. These included the gangland boss Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday (1980) and the violent minder George in Mona Lisa (1986), a portrayal that earned him an Oscar nomination. Hoskins won critical success in both films, mainly for his ability to exude menace while suggesting the vulnerability beneath the violent surface of his characters.
Ultimately it was Hoskins’s versatility and eye for a good part that made him a star. He played Arthur Parker in Dennis Potter’s innovative and hugely successful Pennies from Heaven (1978); Nathan Detroit in the National Theatre’s first musical Guys and Dolls (1981); and cameo parts such as the police chief in The Honorary Consul (1983) and Robert de Niro’s plumbing partner in Brazil (1985).
Like his friend Michael Caine, Hoskins was one of the few British actors to become equally successful in Hollywood. Films such as The Cotton Club (1984), Sweet Liberty (1986) and the box office smash Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) consolidated his position as a British actor who could make the transition to the United States. A contributing factor in his American success may have been that Hoskins was one of a small minority of British actors able to produce a convincing American accent.
Robert William Hoskins was born on October 26 1942 in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, but grew up in Finsbury Park, north London. His father was a clerk for the Pickfords removal firm, his mother a school cook. At Stroud Green secondary modern school, his dyslexia meant that he was often written off as stupid.
During his adolescence, the beatings he endured in street fights toughened him up, and a knife wound across the bridge of his nose left him with a hollow between the eyes. A life in the gangs beckoned he was once taken to meet the Kray twins who ran London’s underworld in the 1950s but he dreamed of becoming an actor.
Hoskins had never been formally trained, and was always proud that he had never attended a single acting lesson. Instead, on leaving school in 1959, he took on a series of temporary jobs, including as a merchant seaman in the Norwegian navy, a banana-picker on a kibbutz, camel-herder in Syria and porter at Covent Garden market.
In 1969, after an abortive attempt at going into accounting with his father, Hoskins claimed that he “fell sideways into acting by mistake”. While waiting in a pub with a friend who wanted to audition for the Unity Theatre, Hoskins was mistaken for the next candidate. “I was too pissed to argue,” he recalled, “so I got on stage and acted my socks off.” He was offered the lead in The Feather Pluckers, and at the play’s first night was signed up by an agent.
Hoskins spent the next 12 months in repertory, building up a reputation as an actor who was content to do anything, including fire-eating and running headlong at brick walls. “In those days we just passed round the hat,” he recalled. “I had a wife and kid to support on that, and so I wasn’t going to say no to anything that was for the good of the show.”
In 1975 he was offered his first television role, as an illiterate truck driver, in the BBC’s adult literacy programme On the Move. The programme established him as a “screen natural”, and attracted a wide following and an almost cult status. After his television appearance, offers of work on stage and screen doubled. One critic described Hoskins as having “cornered the market in the cheeky Cockney chappie”.
In 1980 The Long Good Friday established Hoskins as a global star. The film was enormously successful in the US, but Hoskins was angered by the fact that his speeches were dubbed into “stage Cockney”.
“They thought the Yanks wouldn’t be able to understand me”, he complained. “In the film I end up sounding like Dick Van Dyke.”
In 1981 Hoskins starred in the National Theatre’s production of Guys and Dolls. It was the Theatre’s first attempt at a musical and was a major critical and box office success. As in Pennies from Heaven, Hoskins’s charismatic performance carried him over any deficiencies in his singing and dancing. “The choreographer convinced me I looked like Fred Astaire,” he remembered, “but I really looked like a little hippopotamus shaking its hooves.” Critics described Hoskins’s “animal appeal” and “considerable panache”. They began to compare him with Edward G Robinson and George Raft, and to call him “the Cockney Cagney”.
In 1983 Hoskins was miscast in The Honorary Consul, with Michael Caine, and gave an embarrassing performance as a South American police chief. Despite this setback, however, he received an early morning call from Francis Ford Coppola asking him if he would appear in Coppola’s next film. Hoskins thought it was a joke and shouted down the line: “It’s three o’clock in the morning and you’ve just woken up my kid, you bastard” before hanging up.
Coppola called back later and signed Hoskins as the nightclub owner in The Cotton Club (1984).
In Heart Condition (1990) Hoskins played a bigoted white policeman kept alive by a heart transplant from a black donor. He went on to make Mermaids (also 1990), a comedy in which he starred opposite Cher . In Hook (1991), a live-action version of Peter Pan with Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, Hoskins played the fusspot Mr Smee.
Although largely self-educated, Hoskins co-wrote and directed the feature film The Raggedy Rawney (1988), a gipsy story set in central Europe, which was reckoned an ambitious failure and had only a limited distribution. On television he won critical approval for his portrayal of the Italian dictator in Mussolini: the Decline and Fall of Il Duce (1985); while his appearance in The Street in 2009 earned him the accolade of Best Actor at the International Emmy Awards of 2010.
In 2012, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Bob Hoskins announced that he was retiring from acting.