Bob Hoskins’ sad death this morning from pneumonia came two years removed from his final film performance—he retired after appearing in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman because of his struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. But he leaves behind a titanic legacy in British film and television and a multitude of memorable characters, both silly and serious, that long had me arguing that he was one of the more unappreciated talents of his generation, and highly deserving of an honorary Oscar he now won’t be able to receive. Here’s a look back at some of his best work.
Pennies From Heaven
Not the 1981 Steve Martin film, which was an adaptation of this 1978 six-episode BBC serial that launched Hoskins to respectability. From renowned television dramatist Dennis Potter (who also wrote the movie and the well-known serial The Singing Detective), it saw Hoskins as a downtrodden, married sheet music salesman who occasionally breaks into musical numbers, lip-syncing to the popular standards he’s trying to sell. Hoskins was already 36 at the same, having fallen into acting nine years prior almost by accident and proving a natural talent. He was reportedly upset with Potter that he was never considered for the film version of Pennies From Heaven, causing a rift in their relationship, and while the film is fascinating (it flopped on release), Hoskins’ version remains the definitive one.
The Long Good Friday
A total departure from his downtrodden work in Pennies From Heaven, this 1980 gangster flick saw Hoskins as Harold, the hard-bitten head of the London criminal underworld, who is making a bid for legitimacy while fighting off unknown enemies trying to assassinate him. Hoskins stood at only 5’6” but dominated the screen and earned every inch of Harold’s terrifying criminal profile in the David Mackenzie film, which has a famous ending and a final, long shot of Hoskins’ face that is hard to forget.
Hoskins’ only Oscar nomination came for Neil Jordan’s fantastic 1986 neo-noir, where he plays an ex-con tasked with driving around a prostitute who is a gangster’s moll. Where Hoskins was brutal and tough in The Long Good Friday, he was tender here, showing fascinating flickers of emotion buried beneath his stony surface. Hoskins won the Cannes Film Festival’s award for Best Actor, along with the BAFTA and every major critics’ award, but he lost the Oscar to Paul Newman, who was getting a career make-up award for The Color of Money.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Probably Hoskins’ most enduring work is in Robert Zemeckis’ zany 1988 mixed-media masterpiece. He plays Eddie Valiant, a private investigator who has nursed a grudge against nearby Toontown since a cartoon character killed his brother by dropping a piano on his head. What Hoskins (who was maybe the third choice for this role) does exactly right is playing Eddie with utter seriousness. He acts like he’s in the middle of a hard-boiled noir and never lets on that he’s in on the joke. Considering the difficulty of the performance (he was acting alongside a whole lot of nothing back when that was not a common thing to do in Hollywood), Hoskins’ work is all the funnier.
It’d be crazy to argue that Hoskins is the most memorable part of Mermaids because, uh, have you seen everyone else in Mermaids? But he holds his own against Cher’s wonderfully big performance as Rachel Flax and Winona Ryder’s very serious daughter Charlotte. He’s a charming and surprisingly plausible love interest for Cher, despite his “character actor” looks, and that’s entirely a testament to Hoskins’ skill at investing real soul into his characters.
Unlike many of the roles previously mentioned, Bob Hoskins was the obvious, and I’m sure only, choice to play Smee in Steven Spielberg’s Hook. For all this film’s flaws (it’s ridiculously treacly, it’s far too long, Julia Roberts is abhorrent in it), Hoskins has superb comic timing throughout and absolutely slays his scenes with Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, which are without a doubt the best part of the movie. Just watch this scene below.
Super Mario Bros.
Hoskins himself admitted this was “the worst thing I ever did” and a catastrophic experience both to film and watch. The first ever filmed adaptation of a video game, Super Mario Bros. is fascinating, if nightmarish, to watch, turning a colorful side-scrolling platform game into a goo-filled fever dream of a dystopian lizard world run by Dennis Hopper. Hoskins was cast as Mario again based on looks—he certainly makes very little effort to come across as Italian—and he holds the audience’s interest for much longer than he has any right to. Maybe. Apparently he and John Leguizamo got drunk a lot while making this movie.
This marks the official beginning of the final act of Hoskins’ career as a committed character actor. It’s amazing this wasn’t his entire career, but he had a surprising amount of lead roles considering he was a stocky British guy who was losing his hair in 1980 and spoke with a bit of a Cockney brogue no matter what the role. In Nixon, he plays J. Edgar Hoover about as ridiculously as one might expect J. Edgar Hoover to be portrayed in an Oliver Stone film. One would not accuse Hoskins of dialing things up in the early part of his career, but by now, he was clearly happy to go over the top. He’s leaning into every stereotype of Hoover as a fey, persnickety individual, but he’s also incredibly convincing in displaying Hoover’s immense authority.
Hoskins continued to do fine work for many years, especially on British television, to which he returned in a bigger way for the last few years of his career. One of his last truly memorable film roles was 1999’s Felicia’s Journey, from Canadian director Atom Egoyan, which tapped into both Hoskins’ grandfatherly visage and his ability to portray the truly sinister. To say much about the plot would spoil its twists, but Felicia’s Journey remains an underappreciated and creepy gem in both Egoyan and Hoskins’ filmographies.
British Telecom Advertising
Anyone who lived in Britain in the 1990s knows Hoskins from one other thing: an ever-present, years-long advertising campaign for British Telecom, centered around his everyman charm and the catchphrase, “It’s good to talk!” From then on, Hoskins was never truly rid of people shouting that at him on the street in Britain. But he was one of those British actors well known enough by everyone to be seen as one of the nation’s reliable grandpas.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.