Actor associated with tough guy roles, but capable of playing the poodle as well as the pitbull
Plenty of better-looking performers than Bob Hoskins, who has died aged 71 of pneumonia, have found themselves consigned to a life of bit parts. Short, bullet-headed, lacking any noticeable neck, but with a mutable face that could switch from snarling to sparkling in the time it took him to drop an aitch, Hoskins was far from conventional leading-man material. In his moments of on-screen rage, he resembled a pink grenade. But he was defined from the outset by a mix of the tough and the tender that served him well throughout his career.
As the beleaguered, optimistic sheet-music salesman in the BBC series Pennies from Heaven (1978), written by Dennis Potter, he was sweetly galumphing and sincere. Playing an ambitious East End gangster in The Long Good Friday (1980), he added an intimidating quality to the vulnerability already established. Hoskins could be poodle or pitbull; as a reluctant driver for a prostitute in Mona Lisa (1986) and a patiently calculating murderer in Felicia's Journey (1999), he was a cross-breed of the two. No other actor has a more legitimate claim on the title of the British Cagney.
When international success came in the mid-1980s, Hoskins made not the least modification to his persona or perspective, maintaining the down-to-earth view: "Actors are just entertainers, even the serious ones. That's all an actor is. He's like a serious Bruce Forsyth."
Born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, and raised in north London, he was the only child of Robert, a bookkeeper, and Elsie, a teacher and school cook. Bob left school at the age of 15 and took various jobs – bouncer, porter, window cleaner, fire-eater – after dropping out of an accountancy course. Accompanying a friend to an audition at the Unity theatre, London, in 1968, Hoskins landed a part. He acted in television and theatre in the early 1970s; Pennies from Heaven, filmed shortly after the acrimonious collapse of his marriage to Jane Livesey, secured his reputation and showed him to be an actor as deft as he was vanity-free (he likened himself in that musical drama to a "little hippopotamus").
In The Long Good Friday, he showed the charismatic swagger necessary to fill a cinema screen, though it was the picture's final shot – a protracted close-up of Hoskins's defiant face – that sticks most indelibly in the memory. In 1981, he played Iago opposite Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Miller's BBC adaptation of Othello and also met Linda Banwell. The following year she became his second wife, and the person he would credit with helping him survive periods of depression. He wrote a play, The Bystander, inspired by the nervous breakdown he suffered after his first marriage ended.
For more than a decade, he did little television; there were only a handful of exceptions, including some ubiquitous television commercials for British Telecom in which he delivered the catchphrase "It's good to talk". He concentrated predominantly on his film career. Highlights included his playful odd-couple double act with Fred Gwynne in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984), and his portrayal of a down-at-heel businessman wooing an alcoholic piano teacher (Maggie Smith) in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987). He was amusing in a cameo as a heating engineer in Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) and as a coarse screenwriter in the comedy Sweet Liberty (1986), one of four films he made with his friend Michael Caine.
Hoskins's pivotal roles in that period could not have been more different. Playing the belligerent but kind-hearted ex-con in Mona Lisa, Neil Jordan's London film noir, won him many awards (including a Golden Globe and the best actor prize at Cannes), as well as his only Oscar nomination. A year later, he took on his greatest technical challenge in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Robert Zemeckis's fusion of live action and animation, in which Hoskins was one of the film's few flesh-and-blood participants.
In the wake of the film's success, he worked widely in Hollywood: with Denzel Washington in the comic thriller Heart Condition, and Cher in Mermaids (both 1990) and playing Smee (a role he reprised on TV in the 2011 Neverland) in Spielberg's Hook (1991). The chief catalyst of his disillusionment with Hollywood was his work on the disastrous 1993 videogame spin-off Super Mario Bros. His parts in US films were intermittent thereafter, and included playing J Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995). "You don't go to Hollywood for art," he said in 1999, "and once you've got your fame and fortune – especially the fortune in the bank – you can do what you want to do. It's basically fuck-you money."
Hoskins directed two undistinguished features – a fable, The Raggedy Rawney (1988), and the family film Rainbow (1995) – but claimed: "I just got fandangled into it." If it is true that, in common with Caine, he made too many films purely for the money, it is also the case that he never lost touch entirely with his own talents. Although he dredged up his brutal side on occasion, such as in the action thriller Unleashed (2005), tenderness predominated in later years. He played a wistful boxing coach in Shane Meadows's Twenty Four Seven (1997), and appeared alongside his Long Good Friday co-star, Helen Mirren, in the bittersweet 2001 film of Graham Swift's novel Last Orders, about a group of friends scattering the ashes of their dead chum (played by Caine).
He co-starred with Judi Dench in Stephen Frears's Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) and played a loner coming late to love in Sparkle (2007), as well as a sympathetic union rep standing up for Ford's female employees in Made in Dagenham (2010).
In 2012, at 69, he announced his retirement after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. His last screen role came as one of the seven dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), in which his face was superimposed on another actor's body. But he was characteristically subtle as a publican standing up to thugs in Jimmy McGovern's BBC series The Street (2009), for which he won an International Emmy award.
Hoskins is survived by Linda; their children, Rosa and Jack; and Alex and Sarah, the children of his first marriage.
• Robert William Hoskins, actor, born 26 October 1942; died 29 April 2014