In the week that the sad news was announced that Bob Hoskins had died of pneumonia, Slarek and Camus individually pay tribute to one of their favourite actors, a man whose career they have – perhaps coincidentally – each been following since its earliest days.
I never met Bob Hoskins. Then again, the actors I've not met could fill a small continent, but this has not exactly given me sleepless nights. Just because I admire a person's work, I rarely feel the desire to walk up to them and tell them so, and am not afflicted by that fame-by-association that prompts people to be photographed standing next to a celebrity so they can prove to us that they briefly met someone that we didn't. But there are occasionally actors and filmmakers whose demeanour in interviews or when caught off guard makes me suspect that a couple of hours spent in their company would be an experience to remember.
Hoskins struck me as one of those people. In interviews he always came across as completely genuine, a talented and successful actor who never forgot his roots and who clearly enjoyed the life that his success had afforded him. But there was never any sense of misplaced ego with Hoskins – just take a look at the quote at the head of Camus' piece below. I still remember him being interviewed at Cannes the year that American actors were staying away in droves after US military action had made them fearful of reprisals. "Yeah," he said with an ironic laugh, "they drop us in the shit, then... oh, don't get me started on politics!" I was sitting there, delighted, urging the interviewer to prompt him for more.
As it happens, my first exposure to Hoskins was not one that seems to be turning up much in the tributes. Back when there were only three UK TV channels, you tended to watch just about anything that came on, and if it was inoffensive you'd probably watch it again. At that time there was a programme designed to help adults with literacy and numeracy difficulties titled On the Move, in which the then young Hoskins played Alf, a removal man who struggled with reading and writing, something his friend Bert (Donald Gee) was on hand to assist with. Widely praised at the time for helping to combat the stigma attached to adult illiteracy, it was engaging enough to tune in to even if you had no need of the lessons it so ably taught. I even remember the theme tune all these years later, which research has informed me was composed by Barry Took and sung by The Dooleys. "On the move, on the move, we're on the move again..."
I next spotted Hoskins in one of the more interesting but currently least seen American films of the period, John Byrum's 1974 Inserts, which I caught on a re-run while I was at film school. The story of a once-celebrated Hollywood director who is reduced to making porn movies, it's a sometimes fascinating work, not least for a cast of soon-to-be stars that included Richard Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Veronica Cartwright and, of course, Bob Hoskins, who here plays a gangster named Big Mac, the money man behind the director's latest project. Try to find it if you can, it's a really good film and unjustly neglected.
But it was Dennis Potter's groundbreaking drama Pennies From Heaven that really put Hoskins on the map. This was sublime casting, and so perfect was Hoskins in this game-changing role that it really is impossible to imagine the series working half as well with anyone else. Even today it looks like revolutionary television, in part because of the creative black hole into which UK TV drama seems to have sunk in the post-Potter era.
A couple of years after the series first screened I was working on a documentary film directed by one of our more notable character actors of the time (sorry, no name dropping here – there are good reasons for this that I cannot disclose), who was close friends with a female American actor (ditto), who accompanied us for much of the shoot. One evening we were sitting chatting and for some reason the subject of Pennies From Heaven came up, and I began waxing lyrical on my admiration for its leading man. "Oh I was working with Bob recently," the actress told me, and spoke enthusiastically about what a delightful colleague he had been. I was transfixed. But she had more. "He's really pleased with this film he's just finished," she told me. "It's a gangster story set in London..." The film in question, of course, was The Long Good Friday. Hoskins played Harold Shand, an old-school London gangster on the verge of becoming legit through a multi-million pound deal with American mafia kingpin Charlie (Eddie Constantine), one that starts to fall apart when Harold's organisation becomes targeted by what he mistakenly believes is a rival gang. Directed by the often undervalued John Mackenzie, it stands alongside Mike Hodges' Get Carter as the definitive modern British gangster movie, one that pisses from a great height on the slew of lairy mockney codswallop that has passed for UK crime flicks in recent years.
A few notable supporting roles followed (his hilarious turn as the bolshie Central Services workman in Terry Gilliam's marvellous Brazil is a personal favourite) before he landed the part that would made good on the promise of The Long Good Friday, that of small-time underworld driver George in Neil Jordan's blistering Mona Lisa. For his performance here, Hoskins won Best Actor awards at BAFTA, at Cannes, at the Golden Globes, and at a slew of other international film festivals. He was even nominated for an Academy Award.
Hollywood soon came knocking, and following his star turn as Eddie Valiant in Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Hoskins found himself in constant demand. His choices were always interesting if occasionally unfortunate, notably his 1993 co-starring role in the shockingly awful video game adaptation Super Mario Brothers, an experience Hoskins described later as "a fucking nightmare." I'd even go as far to suggest that the movies he made in America were, in general, less interesting than those with which he had first made his name, though he himself was always a pleasure to watch. But there were memorable highlights, my personal favourites being his suitably nasty J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone's Nixon and his portrayal of Nikita Khrushchev in Jean-Jacques Annaud's Enemy at the Gates. But it was his work on home turf that for me saw him at his best in the second half of his career: the lovely, written-for-him central performance in Shane Meadows' micro-budget breakthrough film Twenty Four Seven; his low-key turn as the serial abuser in Atom Egoyan's haunting Felicia's Journey; and his teaming with British cinema stalwarts Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Tom Courtney, Ray Winstone and David Hemmings in Fred Schepsi's ode to lifelong friendships, Last Orders. And right there is the Hoskins I quietly dreamed of meeting, the cheerful, friendly middle-aged raconteur with a pint in his hand and a hundred entertaining stories to tell.
I came into this business uneducated, dyslexic, 5ft 6in, cubic, with a
face like a squashed cabbage – and they welcomed me with open arms.
Actor, Bob Hoskins
And so they should have. Talent is talent and from an undistinguished physicality and not exactly movie-star looks came one aspect of this actor's varied repertoire that few could embody as convincingly; power. Harold Shand, the Brit-mafia boss in The Long Good Friday was a towering dynamo of a man despite his stature. He wore suppressed anger and aggression like some wear pajamas – very comfortably – and he always seemed to be tightly contained in a constrictive bottle ready to explode. We'll come back to Harold a little later. Apart from his strong resemblance to my own father, I had many reasons to appreciate what this distinctive man brought to the screen. Known as a tough guy because he made such a strong impression when playing such roles, he was also adept at carefully and teasingly presenting intense vulnerability. In Mona Lisa he always seemed inches away from an emotional breakdown. Even when Hollywood beckoned and the accent had to change he held his own admirably (it saddens me a little that the picture most news outlets are using is the one where he is handcuffed to a cartoon rabbit, not the defining example of the man's career though I concede it was probably the most successful).
I seem to remember unconsciously following Hoskins career because of his canny and remarkable choices, which produced more often than not, very memorable work. One glance at his IMDb page shows his choices remained consistent with his perceived personality. In short, he was the real deal. He had an authenticity about him that is not easy to fake, certainly can't easily be taught and most interviews I've seen and read reveal him to be a lovely man to be around. We can forgive the BT commercials and the Super Mario Brothers movie but it's impossible to forget what an extraordinary impact he made on TV as Arthur in Dennis Potter's acclaimed Pennies From Heaven. That was progressive stuff in the 70s and I'd be keen to see how well it holds up now. I have very distinct memories of it being the very first truly adult show I watched with my parents. It was a breakthrough TV series and for Hoskins, it flung him into stardom. But regardless of terrific work in a whole slew of superb movies and TV programmes, there is a two minute scene in the afore mentioned The Long Good Friday of such brilliance that I remember being stunned by it at the time. Yes, it's available on You Tube but to squander that experience without the heft of the movie behind it would be an injustice to the narrative. That said, I have to share it (spoilers ahead on a movie thirty-four years old).
Gangster crime lord Harold Shand has been throwing his weight around trying to figure out why he is losing men, property and loyalties the only way he knows how – with meat hooks and machetes. In his attempts to set up a deal with the American mafia, he fails to stem the destruction being reigned down on him from an unknown source. The Americans bail, Harold does his 'Brits are best' speech and then leaves the hotel and his car pulls up. As soon as he sits down, the car lurches forward and speeds off. He manages a startled "'Ere, hold up. Where's Victoria?" before he sees a silenced handgun pointed at him from the young man in the passenger seat. As far as I'm concerned, for the next two minutes (with a few intercuts to the man holding the gun) everything is played off a close up of Hoskins. What he does in these two minutes is some of the finest screen acting I'd ever seen. Big and small screen acting should be invisible but there are moments when the visible is just perfect for that time in that narrative. There are very few actors I have seen who have transported me perfectly to a moment's thought in their heads. Mickey Rourke did it in Body Heat and recently Tilda Swinton knocked me out as she withered before Clooney's Michael Clayton in the final scene of the same-named movie. Clooney was great (as the commentary on the disc confirmed) but Swinton's palpable destruction was heart wrenching even though she was the villain. We watched her die inside and I caught all of it from her perfect physical projection.
So back to the car. Here's a man who's initially surprised (I mean, where is his wife?), then shocked as he sees her held in obvious distress in another car driving in the opposite direction. He turns to the front and sees the gun trained on him. Harold is a man whose pennies (from heaven?) are now slowly dropping, revelations occurring to him as they come to mind and they are all there in Hoskin's wonderfully expressive face. This is acting out of instinct not out of RADA. There's rage and anger but impotent, both. They slowly subside as he figures out who these people are and then realises that they must have been behind the chaos and that he, Harold, had done nothing to stop them. It hadn't occurred to him during the movie that these people would hold him responsible for the failures of his own men. It's tough being the boss. Then, startlingly, there's a smile, a delicious piece of irony. Once he 'gets it' he knows he's going to get it. The smile reveals to me that he knows he's a dead man. The smile disappears, teeth are gritted and with the merest hint of a deflation, Harold Shand in front of our eyes, breaks. He knows his life is measured in minutes. It's all the stages of death from one of our finest actors; anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Absolutely stunning. And all the while the young man smirks at him, gun pointed, while the driver's eyes in the rear view mirror project a cold menace. Just to make Harold a little happier in his final moments, it is James Bond (Pierce Brosnan's first role) who's going to kill him... Bob Hoskins, you will be greatly missed.