With the news earlier this week of the death of British actor Bob Hoskins at age 71, media outlets and film sites have been filling up with tributes to the working-class Londoner who dropped out of school at 15, fell into acting by chance after taking a friend to an audition, and once said of his profession, “I fit into this business like a sore foot into a soft shoe.” Nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his role in the 1986 crime drama Mona Lisa, Hoskins made a name for himself with steady TV work (Rock Follies, Pennies from Heaven) in the 1970s and impressed critics and audiences as a memorable heavy in such films as The Long Good Friday (1980), The Cotton Club (1984) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987). Along the way he played everyone from J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Nikita Khrushchev in Enemy at the Gates (2001) to Captain Hook’s first mate Mr. Smee in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) and Micawber in a 1999 adaptation of Dickens’ David Copperfield. It’s a safe bet, though, that Bob will probably best be remembered as hard-drinking, ‘toon-hating private eye Eddie Valiant in the 1988 live-action/animated hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
One of my most memorable experiences watching Hoskins on the big screen, however, came from another fantasy/adventure film that’s light years away from Roger Rabbit in both critical and box office success, yet has built up a dedicated cult fanbase in the two decades since its release. The actor himself referred to it as “the worst thing I ever did,” and said movie was also–to what some would call its discredit–the first in the ongoing trend of motion pictures based on video games. I’m speaking, of course, of 1993’s Super Mario Bros.
Produced by, among others, filmmaker Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields) and released by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures imprint, Super Mario Bros. starred Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi Mario, Brooklyn-based plumber siblings who set off beneath the city streets to rescue kidnapped NYU student Daisy (Samantha Mathis) and enter a parallel dimension populated by the reptilian/humanoid descendants of dinosaurs who escaped from Earth 65 million years earlier. Finding Daisy in the clutches of the evil King Koopa (a strangely controlled Dennis Hopper)–who needs a meteorite fragment she owns as part of his scheme to merge the two dimensions–and his dino-headed Goomba henchmen, Mario and Luigi must use their wits, their plumbing skills, and such game-inspired tools as Thwomp Stompers and Bob-ombs to combat Koopa and bring freedom to the citizens of “Dinohattan.”
Okay, I’m not saying this was a great movie. Husband-and-wife directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (co-creators of ’80s icon Max Headroom) wanted to do a more serious, Blade Runner-like sci-fi actioner as opposed to the light-hearted, kid-friendly fantasy fare that the producers were looking for, and the result was an uneven mix that never really found its footing (My favorite moment is when the brothers manage to get an elevator full of Goombas and Koopas to start dancing along to a treacly version of “Somewhere, My Love.”).
As much as audiences didn’t enjoy the Super Mario Bros. experience, it was worse for the cast. Hoskins said that he was unaware of the film’s origins until he told his Nintendo-playing son about the project, and Leguizamo wrote in his 2006 autobiography, the marvelously titled “Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life,” about how he and Bob would commiserate during the shoot by getting drunk on the set together. Being slightly intoxicated might have helped when–to add injury to insult–Hoskins broke a finger after a van door slammed on his hand during a chase sequence; look closely in some scenes and you can spot the flesh-colored cast on the actor’s hand.
With all of these problems plaguing him, though, consummate professional Hoskins found a way to transcend the picture’s shortcomings. He manages to blend drama, action and comedy à la Eddie Valiant in Roger Rabbit and makes you believe that a pair of Brooklyn plumbers can indeed, with the right tools, take down a planet of dinosaurs. That Bob Hoskins was able to shine in The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa and his other, better-remembered movies shouldn’t surprise anyone. That he could impress with a role which he hated and never missed an opportunity to put down (when England’s venerable The Guardian newspaper asked Bob “What is the worst job you’ve done?,” “What has been your biggest disappointment?,” and “If you could edit your past, what would you change?,” guess what his answer to all three questions was) is a testament to the abilities of an actor who will be missed.