By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
Bob Hoskins, a British actor whose powerful screen presence earned him a reputation as “the Cockney Cagney” and who, at 5 feet 6 and with a face he likened to a squashed cabbage, gave the short, bald men of the world a reason to swagger, has died. He was 71.
Hoskins, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, died Tuesday of pneumonia in a hospital, his family said in a statement released by London publicist Clair Dobbs.
The actor was best known for playing tough guys, often with a vein of tenderness threading beneath their violent surface.
At the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, he was named best actor for his work in “Mona Lisa,” the story of an ex-con chauffeuring an elegant prostitute around London. He also received an Academy Award nomination for the part.
In Hollywood, he dipped into lighter fare, most famously playing hardboiled private eye Eddie Valiant in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” The 1988 film, which blended live action and animation, features Valiant (a softie at heart) investigating murders involving cartoon characters and a gang of weasels. He also played the pirate Smee in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” (1991) and a handyman who was Cher’s love interest in “Mermaids” (1990).
But his bread and butter were powerful men who made their own rules: Nikita Khrushchev, Benito Mussolini, Manuel Noriega. In “Nixon” (1995), he persuaded director Oliver Stone to let him play FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in a pink tutu.
Hoskins roamed into more ethereal roles as well. In 2005, he recalled recently playing a pope in a production on Italian TV.
“Being good was murder,” he said. “Everything, eventually, has to come from you. I had to find some little grain of goodness, which I strangled to death.”
In a statement Wednesday, actress Helen Mirren recalled her co-star in “The Long Good Friday” and other films for “that inimitable energy that seemed like a spectacular firework rocket just as it takes off.”
While he never had any formal training, Hoskins was part of “that admirable postwar lineage of charismatic British actors, from Richard Burton forward,” Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote in 1986.
Like his good friend Michael Caine, Hoskins could play Americans “with lethal linguistic accuracy,” Champlin wrote, “even though his native conversational tongue is Cockney at its most aitchlessly pure.”
Wherever his acting took him, Hoskins reveled in his working-class roots.
“There was a time when people said, ‘You’ve got to speak like you don’t, walk like you don’t, be like you aren’t,” he told The New York Times in 1982. “I said, ‘Ere, ‘ang on, who am I? I’d be lost if I did that. I’d be disappearing. I’d be ectoplasm!”
Born Oct. 26, 1942, in the English village of Bury St. Edmunds, Robert William Hoskins was the only child of a bookkeeper and a nursery school teacher. At 15, he dropped out of school and took odd jobs — including, he said, fire-eating at a circus. He also took accounting classes and when he got word of qualifying for a credential, his heart sank.
“I was halfway toward being what I hated,” he once told an interviewer.
After more wandering — he did brief stints as a plumber’s mate on a Norwegian ship and as a kibbutznik in Israel — he wound up back in London, accompanying a pal to a theater where he had a job painting scenery.
As Hoskins explained many times, he was drinking at the theater bar when someone called him upstairs for an audition and plunked a script in his hands. Without even intending to, he got a part in a 1968 amateur production called “Featherpluckers.”
Working in local and regional theater, Hoskins drew national attention with his role as an amoral and imaginative sheet-music salesman in the 1978 BBC miniseries “Pennies From Heaven.”
Two years later, his first major film — “The Long Good Friday” — became an instant gangster classic, telling the story of a London underworld figure who hung reluctant informants on the tips of meat hooks.