The legendary British actor Bob Hoskins passed away in 2014 but left behind an impressive body of work. He was also known for his straight-talking, leading to some entertaining and honest anecdotes from behind the scenes.
One of these concerned a movie he ultimately never appeared in – The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma in 1987. The period picture was based on the memoir of famed detective Eliot Ness, co-written with Oscar Fraley. David Mamet had written the script.
A pre-superstardom Kevin Costner played Ness. But who was in the frame to play his real-life enemy and gangland boss Al Capone?
De Palma had cast Costner and others, including Sean Connery. Yet while the names he’d hired were more than capable, the director felt there wasn’t enough pizazz in the mix.
Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2006, he confided “No one had heard of Kevin Costner yet. And Sean Connery — he hadn’t had a hit since 007. Now the cast looks great, but at the time, it wasn’t quite as hot.”
So it made sense to try and catch a big fish to play Capone. De Palma thought Robert De Niro would be a perfect choice. There was just one slight hurdle — convincing him to do it.
“I told the head of the studio, ‘We have a cast for an episode of Masterpiece Theatre. We need a big star as Capone.’ So we went to De Niro. I spent weeks trying to convince him because he would have to put on weight and he had a couple of other pictures he was doing.”
De Niro was famous for his intense preparation. He actually drove a cab for Taxi Driver (1976), and to portray boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980) he consumed large quantities of pasta to bulk up for the role.
As for Al Capone, he thought his face was the wrong shape and wanted to change his diet to mold his physical appearance. Yet it wasn’t a done deal and anyway De Palma had reportedly thought of another actor first… Bob Hoskins. Not that it appeared that way to Hoskins himself.
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Talking on Absolute Radio in 2009, Hoskins said, “Brian De Palma sent me a script for The Untouchables and said ‘look at Al Capone.’ I went to meet him at his hotel and he said ‘really I want Robert De Niro to play him’ and I thought ‘well great what am I doing here?’. He then said ‘but if he doesn’t do it, would you sort of step in?’ and I said ‘yeah, of course, I will.’”
It would have been a great job for Hoskins but the actor knew De Niro would probably take the role. When he found out the Italian American star was signed up he carried on with his successful career. In his words, “I’d sort of forgotten all about it.”
However there was a surprise waiting for him on the doormat when the postman arrived months later. “Linda – my Mrs – was opening the post one morning and said ‘what’s that?’ and it was a check for £200,000.”
The payment was from De Palma, to say thanks for his interest. And Hoskins’ response was priceless.
“I phoned him up and I said ‘Brian, if you’ve ever got any films you don’t want me in son, you just give me a call!’”
With powerful performances as gangland bosses in the likes of 1979’s The Long Good Friday, a Hoskins take on Capone would have been worth the ticket price alone. He never got the chance to play Capone but did notably portray real life figures J. Edgar Hoover in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Nikita Khrushchev in 2001’s Enemy at the Gates.
It’s not like Hoskins’ ego was bruised by the affair. He never appeared to have any vanity about his work. Instead, he demonstrated his sense of humor and indeed class over the whole situation.