DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
British actor Bob Hoskins, who played a human detective in a world of cartoon characters in the acclaimed movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," died this week after contracting pneumonia. He was 71 years old.
Hoskins, born in London and raised as part of the working class, specialized in playing tough guys with soft underbellies, almost always with his natural Cockney accent. On British TV, his breakthrough role was as the star of 1978's "Pennies from Heaven," Dennis Potter's brilliant musical miniseries. On film, Hoskins first broke out in 1980's "The Long Good Friday," playing in East End gangster. His later movies included "Mona Lisa," "The Cotton Club" and "Mermaids."
Terry Gross spoke to Bob Hoskins in 1988, the year he starred in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and asked him why he gravitated to such hard-boiled tough guy roles.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
You know, many of your roles have been underworld characters. In "Roger Rabbit," you're a hard-boiled detective. In "The Cotton Club" and "Mona Lisa" and "The Long Good Friday," you play people in the underworld. Do you gravitate to those kinds of roles?
BOB HOSKINS: No. I think they gravitate towards me.
GROSS: And why do you think they do?
HOSKINS: I don't know. Maybe people take me for an underground sort of a - I'm pouring some water out, by the way.
HOSKINS: I don't know. I think if you've got a face like mine you don't usually wind up with the parts that Errol Flynn played, you know?
GROSS: I want to talk to you briefly about "The Long Good Friday." And I want to play a scene here. Your character is trying to put together a deal with organized crime concerns from America.
GROSS: While an American is a city your character in London, some of his English business associates are murdered. And your character gets the idea that they're being murdered because somebody's trying to mess up the deal that you're putting together with the Americans. And here's a scene where you discover a bomb was left in your casino.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY" )
HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) I wonder how I got disconnected?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Well, I don't know why. I must've cut it loose when Lou opened it.
HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) (unintelligible) Last night were there any peculiarities?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) The usual crowd. Regular parties. Nothing, really.
HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) What, no strangers?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) A few Arabs. It's a good night. Nothing unusual.
HOSKINS: (as Harold Shand) Nothing unusual, he says. Eric's been blown to smithereens, Collin's been carved up and I've got a bomb in me casino, and you say nothing unusual?
GROSS: Did you try to hang out with any gangsters, mobsters before doing this role, to see what they're like?
GROSS: You did?
HOSKINS: Yeah. But I...
HOSKINS: I must've been crazy, really. I went down to these clubs, and I met a lot of gangsters, and said, teach me to be a gangster.
GROSS: What kind of clubs?
HOSKINS: Well, sort of gangster's clubs, where all the gangsters hang out.
GROSS: Well, what do you do? Go and say, hi, I'm an actor. I'll be playing a guy like kind of like you, so I have to see how you behave.
HOSKINS: I went in and said, I'm playing a gangster in a film. Can you teach me how to do it? And they thought it was very amusing.
GROSS: I guess it's kind of flattering to their ego, in a way.
HOSKINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, there were a lot of real villains, actually in the film. Like there's - what was it? There was one scene in it where, apart from the crew, and me and Derek Thompson, there wasn't one person in that room that hadn't, wasn't under suspicion of committing a murder. There was a very heavy mob. It was quite funny, actually because at one time, I was doing a scene, and I was shouting and screaming and doing a thing, and one of these guys came up and said, hey, you don't have to do that. I said, what do you mean? Said, you don't have to shout. They know who you are. And I, oh, all right. Fine. Fine. OK. So I was very quiet after that.
GROSS: That's great.
HOSKINS: And the scene worked.
GROSS: Did you get any cards or phone calls from any of the people who you apprenticed after they saw the movie?
HOSKINS: Well, one guy who was quite a famous villain in London escaped from prison just after I'd made the film. And someone - I was in a pub, and someone came in and said someone wants to see you. I said, oh, God, what's this? And they said no, it's OK. And this guy was on the run, and he was hunted by Interpol in all kinds of people. And I walked into the pub, and there he was, standing there. And he said listen, Bob, I seen the tape of the film, and I just want to say we're glad to see one of our own doing well.
HOSKINS: One of our - I've never hurt anybody in my life. What are you talking about? And certainly never killed anybody, you know.
GROSS: Could we talk a little bit about your background? I'm real curious about what kind of neighborhood you grew up in.
HOSKINS: Sort of a normal working-class area. There was, you know, a mixture of hard working people, layabouts, villains, gamblers. Like a normal area, you know, it was a mixture of everything.
GROSS: Which side were you gravitating to when you were a teenager?
HOSKINS: Survival, I think, like, you know, just doing a living. I was never a great one for - I was never very clever. By sort of what I mean I don't mean I'm stupid. What I mean is, like, street talk and the street kind of survival, where some people really thrive on the street. You know, some people become very rich on the street. I never did. I was sort of pretty ordinary, really. It was only when I was pretending to be on the street that I started to get rich, you know.
GROSS: But I guess having observed a lot of people who did well on the street helped you play characters like that?
HOSKINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It was a big help in the background. And so I suppose, actually, within an ordinary area, if you was brought up in Brooklyn or the Bronx or sort of, you know, these kind of areas. There are people there that are very respectable, very honest, ordinary people, but they're surrounded by sort of drug dealers or, you know...
HOSKINS: ...all the other stuff. So they can't be off not living with it. You know, so my experience of the crime world was an everyday occurrence.
GROSS: I don't know if this is a true story or not, but the story that goes around - which I suppose is true - is that you got your first rule by accident.
GROSS: Right? Would you tell the story?
HOSKINS: Well, yeah. I was - God, it sounds so - it sounds terrible now.
HOSKINS: I was in a bar in an amateur theater, and there was a lot of people there sort of reading these what, at the time, were scripts. I didn't know what a script was. And this guy came down and said, right, you're next. And I, oh, am I? And I had enough drink to sort of think oh, OK, I feel a bit adventurous. Went upstairs, and they said have you seen the script? I said no. What does it look like? And they gave me the script, said do you want to read it? And I read it. And they said, well, do you want to read it out loud, so we can hear it? So I read it out loud, and I got the part. I was playing the lead in this play. And the first night an agent came to see it, and said you should take this up professionally. I said, well, go get us a job, and I will. And she did. And I've been a professional actor ever since.
GROSS: So what did you learn from? Did you learn from a lot of the actors and directors that you worked with when you started performing on stage.
HOSKINS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mainly learned from women.
GROSS: Why is that?
HOSKINS: Well, I realized very early on that like drama is about very private moments. Like most of the time people walking around hide behind a sort of shield of style or whatever, but drama is about showing those very private moments, those painful moments, those ridiculous moments that make up the human life.
And because women have had to keep their mouths shut for sort of thousands of years they developed this technique of making those private moments felt very clearly. You know, guys, who've - plenty of us have been talking for these thousands of years and saying exactly what they feel don't express themselves very well. They hide behind this shield of masculinity.
And those private moments are very difficult to get at through men. You know? Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: I think I do know what you mean.
HOSKINS: It's got nothing to do with male and...
GROSS: Yeah. Um-hum.
HOSKINS: Male and female. It's particularly how you express yourself.
GROSS: Now, do you think the women who you learned this from were aware of that or did you just learn it from observing them?
HOSKINS: I learned it from observing women, all women in general mainly and actresses.
HOSKINS: You know, watching the way that an actress would put forward an idea or a feeling. Just watching that. You can walk in a room and if there's been a row between two women you know. You know what I mean? Or if a woman sort of wants you to know something without telling you, you know. And that's the job of an actor, to make an audience know.
GROSS: Was your Cockney accent ever a problem in roles you had to play?
HOSKINS: Not really. No.
GROSS: Did you have to learn different accents when you started acting? Did you already know how to do that?
HOSKINS: Yeah. Well, I suppose if a guy - I always told jokes, you know?
HOSKINS: And if you're going to tell jokes there's always racial jokes. And I used to tell all kinds of racial jokes. All kinds of different accents.
GROSS: So you have to do accents to tell the jokes?
HOSKINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
GROSS: You know, while we're talking about actors and actresses who you learned from, I know you performed I think pretty early in your career in a play with John Gielgud.
GROSS: Did you learn anything from him?
HOSKINS: Yes. I did. Well, he was extraordinary, Gielgud. So I had only been in the business, what, two, three years. And suddenly, I was on stage in a 40 minute scene with John Gielgud and I had all the lines.
HOSKINS: I couldn't believe it. And he was wonderful. He was really wonderful to work with. I'll never forget, I had a line in the scene. What was it? I can't remember what the line was now but it was a funny line. It was a gag line.
HOSKINS: But it wasn't getting as much as I thought it should get, you know?
GROSS: As much laughter?
HOSKINS: And I said to him, you know, I'm not getting enough out of this. He said, (impersonating John Gielgud) well, ooh, what you should do...
HOSKINS: He said when you come to the line step back two paces, count two, and then say it. Like what? You've got to be kidding. No, no, no, no. It'll be fine, fine, fine. I promise you. And so it came to me. I'd forgotten about this and he was sitting up on this big box all the way through the scene. And I came to the line and he shouted down to me: Step back two paces and count two.
HOSKINS: I said, oh, you've killed it. Thanks a lot. So I did. I stepped back two paces, counted two, and the audience went crazy. I got a round. And I looked up at him and he's not very good at winking and there he is trying to wink at me. You know, I told you so. Well, after that I did it again the night afterwards and I got another round. I thought he must be doing something up there.
What's he doing? It can't be me. So the night after I did it again and quick, as soon as I said it, I whipped around and looked at him again. And he was sitting there trying to wink at me. You know, he wasn't doing a thing. And after that, every night after that, I stepped back two paces, counted two, and got a round. And I could never figure this out.
And ever since every single show I've ever done there's always a point where I'll step back two paces, count two, and I've never got a thing. Not a titter.
HOSKINS: It's never worked since.
GROSS: So that's not something that has changed your career forever from this little lesson.
HOSKINS: No, no, no. It's driving me nuts.
GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us. I've really enjoyed hearing from you immensely.
HOSKINS: Thank you.
GROSS: Thank you very much.
BIANCULLI: Actor Bob Hoskins speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. He died earlier this week at age 71. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new film called "Ida." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.