The voice was a loveable snarl and the figure squat and pugnacious but actor Bob Hoskins, who died yesterday aged 71, had charisma in inverse ratio to his physique and stature.
Though short – once described as a “testicle on legs” by critic Pauline Kael – he made up for it in with a feral dynamism and a cockney charm he could turn on like a door-to-door salesman. He did turn it on that way in the role that made him famous: as a sheet music vendor in Dennis Potter’s 1978 television series, Pennies from Heaven.
In the card pack of late 20th century British screen stars born within the (notional) sound of Bow bells, Hoskins was the joker – the wild card – to contemporaries such as Michael Caine and Ray Winstone.
Whenever Hoskins seemed to have fixed on a screen persona, he changed it.
He achieved movie stardom as the gruff and terrorising gangster in The Long Good Friday (1980) and delivered an Oscar-nominated, Bafta and Golden Globe-winning variant on that in Mona Lisa (1987).
Only a year later he broke through to Hollywood fame as dapper straight man to a cartoon rabbit. Adulation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was in turn set aside to play a serial killer for Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan in the dark art house hit, Felicia’s Journey (1991).
In the 1990s Hoskins returned to Britain, basing himself there for most of his remaining career. Perhaps he jumped from Hollywood and internationalism – Los Angeles, he once said, was “a town completely based on vanity” – or perhaps he was pushed by dwindling demand. He almost played Al Capone in The Untouchables. But director Brian De Palma sent him a £20,000 compensation cheque when he cast Robert De Niro instead. Hoskins, replying, asked if De Palma had any other roles he did not want him to play.
Multiple personality syndrome is an actor’s job and this actor’s parents were perfect role models. He was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, on October 26 1942, to a mother who alternated as a cook and kindergarten teacher and a father who doubled as a book-keeper and lorry driver. Hoskins himself, leaving school at 15, worked as a porter, nightclub bouncer, window cleaner … until (as he told it) he landed a stage audition by mistake when accompanying an actor friend to the Unity Theatre.
A three-year accountancy course had come to nothing, for which every movie goer is now grateful. The history of career uncertainty probably points to Hoskins’ talent and appeal. His reluctance to put himself in a single acting box is a sign of the volatility of temperament that powered his best performances. He claimed to have had a nervous breakdown after an unhappy first marriage; he received a rough ride in print from some newspaper interviewers complaining of sulks and grumps.
At the same time – or in the same years – he had the self-reinventing energy to act in a brace of low-budget features that helped promote the film-making career of Shane (This Is England) Meadows, to play a startlingly good Mr Micawber (Nicholas Nickleby, 2002) and to write and direct two distinctive, if not quite distinguished, feature films (The Raggedy Rawney, 1988; Rainbow, 1996).
In 2012 he announced his retirement from acting after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. By then he had already had another triumph in the late afternoon of his career. He won a Best Actor Emmy for his work – typically gritty, committed and quietly volcanic – in Jimmy McGovern’s 2010 BBC1 drama series The Street.