An English actor arguably best known for playing a gruff American in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Bob Hoskins has died at age 71 from pneumonia. Hoskins had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease since 2011 and had retired in 2012.
Hoskins was, like many great English screen actors, a stage rat whose first break into the mainstream was on television. It wasn’t until 1978, at the age of 36, that he got a meaty role via “Pennies from Heaven,” Dennis Potter’s acclaimed miniseries that juxtaposed the miserable life of Hoskins’ 1930s sheet music salesman with his fantasies of himself performing in lavish musical numbers. The series was remade, with impressive bleakness, in America in 1982, with Steve Martin taking over.
Luckily, around that time Hoskins had been finally enjoying his own screen success. His ferocious turn as a Cockney mob boss whose organization is coming undone in 1980’s “The Long Good Friday” was the first of many hoods and spark plugs he would play throughout his career. Among these was “Mona Lisa,” Neil Jordan’s 1986 intimate crime drama, where he oozed warmth as a sympathetic ex-con who falls for a prostitute (Cathy Tyson) he’s been hired to chauffeur.
Performances like these coaxed director Robert Zemeckis to take a chance on making Hoskins the human center of his innovative live action-animated mash-up “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988. Ditching his signature accent, Hoskins played Eddie Valiant, a cranky lug whose hatred of toons is inevitably whittled away when he has to protect one from certain doom (by way of the psychotic Judge Doom, played by Christopher Lloyd).
Hoskins’ technical chops aside — it’s not easy acting with figures who aren’t even there, much less as well as he did — his is a real hard-boiled performance, filled with depth and precision. It’s a real performance, not a stunt, and he’s one reason that some commentators have argued for the film as the true, albeit spiritual, sequel to “Chinatown,” as both deal with capitalist advances in old Los Angeles. (“Chinatown” deals with water works, “Roger Rabbit” with highways and the dismantling of most of the city’s public transportation.)
Alas, Hoskins’ stocky build and age didn’t lead to many more starring roles, either in Hollywood or back home. (Although he did play a racist who can see a ghostly Denzel Washington in “Heart Condition” and Mario in the 1993 “Super Mario Bros.” movie.)
He was at heart a character actor, not to mention an always welcome presence, whose volatility or good humor — depending on what the role called for — enlightened any film he was in. Among the films, some of lesser quality, he periodically improved were “Pink Floyd The Wall,” “Brazil,” “Mermaids,” “Hook,” “Shattered,” “Nixon,” “Michael,” “Spiceworld,” “Cousin Bette,” “Last Orders,” “Unleashed,” “Hollywoodland” and “Doomsday.”
On a note no one should take seriously, his lone nomination from the loathsomely lazy Razzies was for a small role in “Son of the Mask,” one of many live action-animated numbers that owe their existence to “Roger Rabbit.”
Of the few other times he was pushed to the front of a picture, there was Shane Meadow’s English drama “Twenty Four Seven.” And he was bone-chilling — both congenial and menacing, often at the same time — as a paternal serial killer in Atom Egoyan’s art-drama “Felicia’s Journey.” Both films were reminders of the talent that was typically pushed to the sidelines.
Hoskins’ last film was a supporting role in “Snow White and the Huntsman.” On a bright note, Netflix Instant currently offers “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” — if nothing else from his CV.
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