Anybody who is in any doubt that Bob Hoskins was a brilliant screen actor should watch the final sequences of The Long Good Friday (1979).
Hoskins played a London gangland boss, Harold Shand. Harold hung his enemies from meat hooks and attacked them with broken bottles. He was a brutal man. And yet, in the final moments of the film, when he is sitting in the back of a car with a gun pointed at him and realises his end is imminent, his face registers an extreme mix of emotions: puzzlement, fear, anger, defiance and even wry, fatalistic humour.
Hoskins had the ability to project an intimidatory thuggishness one moment and a child-like yearning the next. It was this contrast which made him a natural fit in everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Oliver Stone’s Nixon, in which he played a very sinister J Edgar Hoover.
He was a character actor who had star quality. He played his share of “big” figures, popes and political leaders (Churchill and Khrushchev, Mussolini and Noriega among them) as well as downtrodden types, the Micawbers and Sancho Panzas of the world. He had presence and he had humility – an unusual combination in British screen actor.
Hollywood legend has it that actress Lana Turner was “discovered” when she skipped typing class at Hollywood High and was spotted buying a Coke by a strange man who asked her: “Would you like to be in the movies?” Hoskins’ beginnings were almost as unlikely. He was waiting for a friend to finish an audition, was told he was “next”, and got the part.
Survey his filmography and it is apparent that Hoskins was an everyman; his range of roles was vast.
There are the obvious ones that stick out. He was wonderful as the recently released prisoner George – a part originally earmarked for Sean Connery – trying to piece his life back together in Mona Lisa (1986). In a tough environment, his character’s decency and kindness were immediately apparent.
Pennies From Heaven (1978), the Dennis Potter TV drama in which he played a travelling sheet music salesman in 1930s, allowed him both to play the Willy Loman-like small-timer, and to show off his romanticism and hoofing skills. These skills were also put to strong use in he National Theatre version of Guys and Dolls.
Hoskins could play intensely nasty characters when required. He was excellent as the ruthless MGM executive in Allen Coulter’s underrated Hollywoodland (2006) but he also excelled at knockabout comedy. He portrayed dreamers, gangsters and comic sidekicks with equal élan.
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Producer Stephen Woolley, who worked with Hoskins on Mona Lisa, Twenty Four Seven and Made In Dagenham, pinpoints just why he is such a central figure in British film and TV culture.
“Growing up in north London, in the Sixties, there were heroes like Michael Caine, Harold Pinter and Johnny Speight – people who were genuinely working-class and came from that area. Then, in the Seventies, Bob came along… without Bob, you wouldn’t have had Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and Ray Winstone.
“Bob created a new mould of actors who didn’t have to be handsome and tall. He was a real person. That’s what everyone loved about Bob. He crashed into celebrity.”
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