Bob Hoskins Retires: A Salute to His Seven Finest Hours

Bob Hoskins Retires: A Salute to His Seven Finest Hours
Common touch: Bob Hoskins on a "Pennies From Heaven" LP cover with Gemma Craven (left) and Cheryl Campbell

Bob Hoskins announced a few days ago that he has retired from acting at the age of 69 because he is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. It’s sad to think that no more movies will be jostled by his ebullience or that the flat expanse of his one-0f-a-kind hooter and the gleam in his eyes won’t be seen in stories co-starring much prettier people who could never match his impact.

Often he played larger than life characters, including a gallery of historical movers and shakers – Mussolini, Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover, Krushchev, Manuel Noriega, William Pitt the Elder  – and such stout literary staples as Micawber, Smee, Sancho Panza, and Badger in “The Wind in The Willows.” He was even more memorable as Owney Madden in “The Cotton Club” and Eddie Valiant, the private eye bamboozled by toons in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (for which I would sacrifice all the Shreks), his best-known American films. And, of course, he was capable of menace – his portrayals of Lavrentiy Beria, Marshal of the Soviet Union and serial rapist, in “The Inner Circle,” and Eddie Mannix, the MGM “fixer,” in “Hollywoodland,” are chilling.

British crime was an obvious milieu for his looks and threatening Cockney demeanor. He was magnetic as the strutting, ruthless old-school gang boss hung out to dry on his manor by more powerful political forces in “The Long Good Friday.” In the hyperbolic “Mona Lisa,” he was more emotional than usual as a gangland underling hired as a minder for a beautiful young black call girl (Cathy Tyson) and bewildered by the love he starts to feel for her; simultaneously, he grows in humanity and attempts to break an underage-prostitutes racket.

Asked to be quiet or stealthy, Hoskins exerted self-control as the altruistic organizer of a boxing club for delinquent or unemployed youths in “Twenty Four Seven” (perhaps his most heartbreaking performance), as the very creepy predator of young women in “Felicia’s Journey,” and as the gentle, sympathetic lover of an old mate’s neglected wife in “Last Orders”: the latter movingly reunited him with "Mona Lisa"'s Michael Caine and “The Long Good Friday”’s Helen Mirren. He was an actor unafraid to strip off, at age 62, amid so much female pulchritude in “Mrs. Henderson Presents.”

So Hoskins has been agile and original, despite a physique and a roughness that might have restricted less versatile actors. Naming his greatest performance is hard given his diversity, but his most definitive is the one in which he may have stretched less than in others: at least in terms of humor, cheek, imagination, and energy.  In Dennis Potter’s great six-part, 420-minute BBC miniseries “Pennies From Heaven” (1978), Hoskins played a 1930s traveling song-sheet salesman, Arthur Parker, whose romantic delusions and sexual frustration with his prim wife Joan (Gemma Craven) steer him from suburban conformity to the gallows (and beyond).

Arthur is "common"according to Joan, as well a liar and an adulterer, but he has a touching faith in the messages of the idealistic Depression-era numbers he hawks, which have titles like “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By,” “Down Sunnyside Lane,” and “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You.”  The series was the first of the three in which Potter had characters suddenly lipsynching to such “cheap songs,” which in the case of “Pennies” he likened to the Psalms for their promise of deliverance, as they interrupt the naturalistic flow of the drama to suggest unspoken yearnings, needs, drives, and regrets. Showing his technical prowess, Hoskins mugs and hoofs his way though many of the songs, sometimes throwing a fourth-wall-breaking look at the camera, then stops abruptly to reenter the story proper. He makes the flow of fantasy and present-tense consciousness seamless.

Hoskins brilliantly renders Arthur’s disappointment with his marriage, his absence of moral fiber, his occasional flashes of goodness, and his lust, and still elicits our empathy, most if not all of the time. Arthur finds in a virginal country schoolteacher, Eileen (Cheryl Campbell), the mythical “girl in the songs” he yearns for, and seduces and runs off with her. But she is more realistic than he is and less hidebound by morality, and her transformation into a tart and blackmailer – and worse – only emphasizes how weak and emotionally ignorant he is.

Potter and Hoskins show in Arthur the proximity of goodness and baseness that exists in most human hearts. In one of the most troubling scenes, Arthur sees a radiant blind girl of about 17 in a cornfield. After she has gone on her way, he utters the wish that he could give her sight, but then drops his voice and murmurs to himself another wish – that he could take her knickers down. The crudity doesn’t negate Arthur’s compassion, but muddies it, revealing his ambiguity. (When it comes to this girl, Kenneth Colley's epileptic tramp, a mad accordion player of hymns, proves to be Arthur's id run amok.)

Hoskins intuitively caught the Jekyll and the Hyde in the self-deluding Arthur Parker. He was 35 when he did “Pennies From Heaven,” which launched him as a star in Britain. If he never got to do anything quite so complex again, that doesn’t lessen the extent of his achievement.