I’m sure we were all saddened by the death of Bob Hoskins today at age 71. Hoskins would be a familiar face to most film fans, as he had many memorable roles and a distinct style and personality. For me, I’ll always remember him for role in my favorite film of all time, Hook, and also for his brilliant starring role in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But there was a lot more to him than that, in his 40 years in film and television, including his award-winning and Oscar-nominated role in 1986’s Mona Lisa.
Hoskins almost seemed like an actor from a different time, like he should have risen to fame in the noir pictures of the 30s and 40s. I could easily have seen him beside Cagney and Bogart, either as a gangster, detective or police chief. Perhaps that’s why he was cast in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a gritty detective story set in 1947 about a man whose brother (and also his partner) was murdered in an unsolved case. It seemed right up Hoskins’ alley, except that the film was full of cartoon characters, in one of the most inventive and creative films ever made. Hoskins’ performance grounded the otherwise outlandish film, giving a gruff heart and soul that told the audience that this was a real detective movie, no matter whether the characters were animated or real. But Hoskins brought more than just realism to the role, as he showed a real sense of humor and showmanship, especially in the film’s finale.
All through the film he played a drunk, bitter man, utterly destroyed by the loss of his brother. We hear throughout the film that he used to be a bundle of laughs, and loved working in Toontown because it was fun. But when his brother was murdered by a toon, he swore off everything to do with the place and its inhabitants because of the constant painful reminder of the loss of his brother. But after having been forced to work with a toon in order to solve the mystery, he finds himself in an impossible situation and suddenly bursts into a singing comedy act, in order to make the villainous animated weasels laugh themselves to death. It’s such a surprising turn, and the juxtaposition of this gruff, angry man doing a routine that would fit better in a cartoon is a piece of brilliant writing, but it was Hoskins performance that really makes it hit home. For the character, it’s a moment of catharsis, a release of all the bitterness he’d held onto for so many years, and I can’t possibly imagine another actor pulling it off. (You can watch a clip of it in this article.)
As for Hook, Hoskins’ Smee will always be the defining version of the character. He’s wickedly funny, but also heartfelt and sincere. Playing alongside big names and bigger characters played by the likes of Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, Hoskins’ Smee stands out as something unique. The scene where he talks Hoffman’s Captain Hook down from suicide is a genius performance, and he manages to ham it up throughout the film without ever being too silly. It’s a fun, lively performance that’s absolutely key to the film.
Hoskins made an impact in all of his other roles (he even played Smee again in a TV miniseries, Neverland), and even managed to make the otherwise pathetic Super Mario Bros. movie watchable and kind of fun. He was equally at home in Shakespeare or animated films, and seemed to have a great sense of humor. His roles ranged from a cameo in Spice World to playing Nikita Khrushchev in Enemy at the Gates. From all I’ve heard he was also just a good old nice guy, like the story of him taking 200 people from the cast and crew of Hook out for a drink after a particularly rough day of shooting. I even wrote a fan letter to him when I was younger, and received the autographed picture above in return. Hoskins retired from acting in 2012 after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but he forever left a mark on film. From starring roles to minor supporting bits, he always brought something interesting and enjoyable to each film he was in, and he’ll be sorely missed.