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Bob Hoskins continually transformed and transcended

"Five-foot-six-cubic" is how Bob Hoskins described his dense, brick-like physique, and in his career as one of Britain's most familiar and reliable screen actors Hoskins was compared to all sorts of non-human entities. A bulldog. A fireplug. A face like "a damaged potato," in the words of critic Pauline Kael.

Hoskins used to say this about himself: "the wrong name on the right list." Thanks to his friend and frequent colleague Michael Caine, who brought the roots, aura and defiance of a working-class striver to characters all across the socioeconomic spectrum, Hoskins found decades of work playing a similarly wide range of men.

The actor was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2012, the year of his final film, "Snow White and the Huntsman." Hoskins died at age 71 Tuesday, of pneumonia. Audiences took him for granted; for decades, he was always popping up in another film, always delivering, searching for the animating spark of a character.

I first noticed Hoskins in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Cotton Club," a 1984 folly with many, many points of interest. In a picture built on double acts — Richard Gere and Diane Lane; Maurice and Gregory Hines — the casting of Hoskins as gangster Owney Madden opposite Fred Gwynne's Big Frenchy DeMange proved the highlight. Here were two glorious scene thieves, constructed as differently as two people can be and still share the same frame.

"The Cotton Club" was and is a hard film to love, but a lot of people fell instantly for this pugnacious wonder. Six years earlier, the son of a bookkeeper and a teacher became famous in England for "Pennies From Heaven," Dennis Potter's heartbreaking BBC miniseries about a sheet music salesman in the 1930s whose fantasy life is filled with the songs he sells. In 1980, the gangster film "The Long Good Friday" cemented Hoskins' fame and his way with rough men of many shadings, many of them delicate. He played an East End gangster (Helen Mirren was the moll) whose farewell, the final scene of the film, gets at everything Hoskins himself brought to his craft. Fed up with with his lily-livered American counterparts, Hoskins' underworld denizen tells them off, and how. "We're used to a bit more vitality. Imagination. Touch of the Dunkirk spirit, know what I mean?"

Hoskins played everything from Shakespeare to a Super Mario Brother. To most American audiences he'll always be best known for anchoring the human component in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." But it's "Mona Lisa," director Neil Jordan's film noir, that earned Hoskins his sole Oscar nomination. It remains one of his finest hours. He plays a low-level London hood hired as a chauffeur to squire around the tony prostitute played by Cathy Tyson. It's a rich and rewarding portrait in improbable love and the anguish, conveyed brilliantly by Hoskins, of a man behind the eight ball in classic noir tradition.

Following Hoskins' death "Mona Lisa" producer Stephen Woolley told the Guardian newspaper: "With his talent, Bob gate-crashed the world of celebrity, and made all of us ordinary people feel a little better about ourselves." No actor should have to bear the burden of representing one type of person, or an entire social stratum. To the end, he was authentic, even when the projects weren't. He never dogged an assignment. Rather, joyously, he brought so much to the party, Bob Hoskins became his own after-party — the on-screen character whose story you wanted to follow, even when the screenplay had other ideas.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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