By Ed Garea
"I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!"
Character actor John Hurt, best known for roles in The Elephant Man and who enjoyed cult status as the first victim in Alien, died on January 25 at the age of 77.
John Vincent Hurt was born on January 22, 1940, in Shirebrook, a coal mining town near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. His father, Arnold Herbert Hurt, was a mathematician who became of Church of England clergyman and served as vicar of St. Stephen’s Church in Woodville, south Derbyshire. His mother, Phyliss (Massey), was an amateur actress and engineer.
When he was eight, Hurt was sent to the Anglican St. Michael’s Preparatory School in Otford, Kent, where he developed a passion for acting. His first role was that of a girl in a school production of The Bluebird. His parents didn’t think much of his chosen profession and encouraged him to become an art teacher instead. At 17, Hurt enrolled in Grimsby Art School and in 1959 won a scholarship at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, where he pursued an Art Teacher’s Diploma (ATD). In 1960 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts, where he trained for two years.
Hurt started out with small roles in television dramas. He made his film debut in Young and Willing (1962), playing the roommate of rebellious student Ian McShane. That same year, he appeared onstage at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Fred Watson’s Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger, a shocking play that ended with the gratuitous killing of a child by feeding him alcohol.
Through the 1960s and early ’70s, Hurt’s appeared in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter; Tom Stoppard’s Travesties; and opposite Nicol Williamson in John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence, all on the London stage.
After working mainly on television and the stage, he landed a role that brought him some attention, that of Richard Rich, an ambitious young man in pre-Elizabethan England who betrays Sir Thomas More (Paul Schofield) in 1966’s A Man for All Seasons. He earned a BAFTA nomination for playing Timothy Evans, a man hanged for murders committed by his landlord John Christie (Richard Attenborough) in 10 Rillington Place (1971).
In 1975 he co-starred with Peter Cushing in The Ghoul. Later that year, in the TV play The Naked Civil Servant, his performance as flame-haired raconteur and social butterfly Quentin Crisp, whose outspoken gay flamboyance helped break down barriers to the acceptance of homosexuality in Britain, brought him to prominence and won him the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor. It also brought him to the attention of American audiences when the show became a hit in the States. In 2009 Hurt reprised the role in An Englishman in New York, a television movie that covers Crisp’s later years in New York.
The following year Hurt won widespread acclaim for his portrayal of Roman emperor Caligula in the BBC drama serial I, Claudius. In a 2002 documentary about the series, I Claudius: A Television Epic, Hurt revealed that he originally tuned the part down, but director Herbert Wise invited him to a special pre-production party in the hopes it would change his mind. He was so impressed when he met the rest of the cast and crew that he changed his mind and accepted the role.
In 1978 he played Max in Midnight Express, for which he won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award. He was also nominated for his first Oscar (Best Supporting Actor). Also in that year he lent his voice to Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings as Aragorn and also voiced the character of Hazel in the animated film adaptation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down. (In the 1999 Canadian television series of the book Hurt voiced the man villain, General Woundwort.)
In 1979 he appeared in a small role that later won him acclaim, that of Kane, who was the first victim of the title creature in the film Alien. (He would later reprise the role in Mel Brooks’s 1979 parody Spaceballs. As the little alien comes forth from his rib cage, he quietly wails, “Oh, no, not again.”)
He also appeared as Dostoevsky’s guilt tormented killer, Raskolnikov in the 1979 BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment, which was shown in the U.S. on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.
In 1980 Hurt appeared in his best-known role, that of the deformed John Merrick in director David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. As Merrick he was unrecognizable as the monstrous-looking but gentle and civilized sufferer of a rare malady that enlarged his head, twisted his muscles and limited his speech and mobility. The role required seven to eight hours of makeup before each day’s filming and two hours to remove, but like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein, Hurt’s superior acting ability enabled him not only to bring the character to life, but to endow him with sympathetic qualities. For this role he won a BAFTA and was nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Actor, but lost both awards to the shapeshifting Robert DeNiro for his role in Raging Bull.
Other major roles during this time included a starring role in Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend (1983), a wonderful turn as the Fool opposite Laurence Olivier’s king in Granada Television’s King Lear (1983), Winston Smith in the film adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 (1984), the on-screen narrator in Jim Henson’s television series, The Storyteller (1988), and supporting roles as “Bird” O’Donnell in Jim Sheridan’s The Field (1990), and Buchanan in Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (1990).
In the 1990s Hurt’s theater career saw a resurgence. He appeared in London with Helen Mirren in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Later, at the Gate Theater in Dublin, he took on the title (and only) role in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a portrait of a 69-year-old man revisiting his earlier life by means of listening to an old tape recording. It became a signature role for him as he performed it in London and appeared in a 2000 film version directed by Atom Egoyan. In 2011, at the age of 71 he reprised the role at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Returning to films, he starred as Stephen Ward, a English bon-vivant osteopath who is the friend and mentor of exotic dancer Christine Keeler in Scandal (1989), a film dramatization of the notorious Profumo affair that brought down the government of Harold Macmillan. In 1993 Hurt was the cross-dressing Countess in the adaptation of Tom Robbins’s novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993).
In 2001, he appeared in a film series that became de rigueur for English actors, the Harry Potter series. He played wand expert Mr. Ollivander in several of the films.
Hurt’s other noted film roles include the almost unrecognizable Trevor Bruttenholm, the paranormal expert who discovers the young title demon in the sci-fi flick Hellboy (2004). He also starred in the role of Adam Sutler, leader of the Norsefire fascist dictatorship ruling Britain in V for Vendetta (2006). He was Professor Oxley, an archaeologist pal of the title character (Harrison Ford) in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). In 2011 he played the head of British intelligence, known only as Control, in John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the War Doctor in Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor (2013). One of his last roles was that of a Roman Catholic priest in Jackie (2016).
Hurt also finished four films set for release in 2017: That Good Night (in which he plays a terminally ill writer), Damascus Cover, My Name is Lenny, and a turn as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour.
His personal life was marred by frequent bouts with alcohol, which affected his life and work. In 1962 he married actress Annette Robinson. The marriage was a short one and ended in 1964. His longest relationship began in 1967, with French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, sister of fashion photographer Jean-Claude Volpeliere-Pierrot. They planned to marry after 15 years together, but on January 26, 1983, they went horseback riding near their house in Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. Volpeliere-Pierrot was thrown from her horse. Taken to the hospital, she slipped into a coma and died later that day.
In September 1984, Hurt married American actress Donna Peacock at a local Register Office. The couple relocated to Kenya but divorced in January 1990.
On January 24, 1990, Hurt married American production assistant Joan Dalton, who he had met while filming Scandal. With her, he had two sons. The marriage ended in 1996 and was followed by a seven-year relationship with Dublin-born presenter and writer Sarah Owens. The couple moved to County Wicklow, settling close to friends John Boorman and Claddagh Records founder and Guinness heir Garech Browne. The relationship lasted until July 2002, when the couple separated.
In March 2005, Hurt married his fourth wife, advertising film producer Anwen Rees-Meyers. Finally realizing the deleterious effector alcohol on his relationships, he gave up drinking. He also quit smoking. The couple settled near Cromer, Norfolk.
Hurt had also been active in the world of charity. In 2003, Hurt became a patron of the Proteus Syndrome Foundation (the condition that John Merrick suffered from), both in the United Kingdom and in the U.S. Since 2006, Hurt had been a patron of Project Harar, a British-based charity working in Ethiopia for children with facial disfigurements. In March 2013 he was announced as patron of Norwich Cinema City. In September 2016, The John Hurt Centre was founded as an exhibition space at Cinema City.
Over the course of his career Hurt had accumulated a number of awards. Included among them are two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe Award, and four BAFTA Awards – the fourth being a Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of his contributions to British cinema.
In 2004, Hurt was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 2012 he was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear on a new version of his most famous artwork – the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The purpose was to celebrate the British cultural figures that Blake most admired in his life.
In 2014, Hurt, along with Stacey Keach and Dame Diana Rigg, received the Will Award, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In 2015 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition for his contributions to British drama.
On June 16, 2015, Hurt publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer. He said he would continue to work while undergoing treatment and said that both he and his medical team were "more than optimistic about a satisfactory outcome.” On October 12, 2015, following treatment, Hurt stated that his cancer was in remission.
Hurt died at his home in Cromer Norfolk, on January 25, 2017, three days after his 77th birthday. In addition to his wife he is survived by sons Alexander and Nicholas.
In an interview for the New York Times Magazine Hurt summed up his philosophy of acting: “In front of the camera you try to do subtle, telling things and hope the director, and the camera, notices. You can feel when you pass something through the camera. The old Alan Ladd story is the best one in that respect. He came back from a long day of shooting out in the dusty Arizona desert and someone said, ‘Did you have a good day, Alan?’ In his soft rasp, he said, ‘Yup, a couple of good looks.’”