John Hurt, Oscar-Nominated Star of 'The Elephant Man,' Dies at 77
The British actor of stage and screen also received an Academy Award nom for 'Midnight Express' and was memorable in 'Alien,' three Harry Potter films and 'Doctor Who.'
John Hurt, the esteemed British actor known for his burry voice and weathered visage — one that was kept hidden for his most acclaimed role, that of the deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — died Friday in London. He was 77.
The two-time Oscar nominee's six-decade career also included turns on the BBC’s Doctor Who and in A Man for All Seasons (1966), Midnight Express (1978) and three Harry Potter films.
Hurt announced in June 2015 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
On screens big and small, Hurt died what seemed a thousand deaths. “I think I’ve got the record,” he once said. “It got to a point where my children wouldn’t ask me if I died, but rather how do you die?”
On his YouTube page, a video titled “The Many Deaths of John Hurt” compiled his cinematic demises in 4 minutes and 30 seconds, from The Wild and the Willing (1962) to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), 40 in all.
One of his most memorable came when he played Kane, the first victim in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), in which he collapses over a table and a snakelike alien bursts out of his chest. (How'd they do that? There was an artificial chest screwed to the table, and Hurt was underneath.)
“Ridley didn’t tell the cast,” executive producer Ronald Shusett told Empire magazine in 2009. “He said, ‘They’re just going to see it.’”
Explained Scott: “The reactions were going to be the most difficult thing. If an actor is just acting terrified, you can’t get the genuine look of raw, animal fear. What I wanted was a hardcore reaction.”
Hurt then lampooned the famous torso-busting scene for director Mel Brooks — whose production company produced 1980's The Elephant Man — for the 1987 comedy Spaceballs.
The Elephant Man received eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Hurt as best actor, but went home empty on Oscar night. (Hurt lost out to Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.)
In 1980, he recalled the extensive makeup needed to become the kind-hearted man with the monstrous skull.
“It never occurred to me it would take eight hours for them to apply the full thing — virtually a working day in itself. There were 16 different pieces to that mask,” he said. “With all that makeup on, I couldn’t be sure what I was doing. I had to rely totally on [Lynch].”
Hurt also garnered an Oscar best supporting actor nomination and a Golden Globe win in 1979 for Midnight Express, in which he portrayed a heroin addict in a Turkish prison. The Alan Parker drama was based on the true story of Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), an American college student caught smuggling drugs.
“I loved making Midnight Express,” he said in 2014. “We were making commercial films then that really did have cracking scenes in them, as well as plenty to say, you know?”
His more recent film appearances came in Snowpiercer (2013), The Journey (2016) and Jackie (2016). He is set to be seen in the upcoming features That Good Night and My Name Is Lenny and was to play Neville Chamberlain in the upcoming Joe Wright drama Darkest Hour.
John Vincent Hurt was born Jan. 22, 1940, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England. He studied art at his parents’ behest, earning an art teacher’s diploma. Disillusioned with the prospect of becoming a teacher, Hurt moved to London, where he won an acting scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He studied there for two years, securing bit parts on TV shows.
“I wanted to act very early. I didn’t know how to become an actor, as such, nor did I know that it was possible to be a professional actor, but I first decided that I wanted to act when I was 9,” Hurt told The Guardian in 2000. “I was effused with a feeling of complete and total enjoyment, and I felt that’s where I should be.”
He made his London stage debut in Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger in 1962. That year, Hurt acted in his first film, The Wild and the Willing, and his role as the duplicitous baron Richard Rich in Oscar best picture winner A Man for All Seasons helped him become more widely known in the U.S.
He often played wizened, sinister characters. In his younger years, his wiry frame, sallow skin and beady eyes curled together in performances that bespoke menace and hard-wrought wisdom. Hurt was especially effective playing psychologically ravaged characters, like when he was a jockey plagued with cancer in Champions (1984) or the viciously decadent Caligula in the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius.
He brought his peculiarly powerful persona to the role of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) and Part 2 (2011).
Hurt also had a recurring role as Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and was the voice of the character in the 2007 TV movie Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron.
Other film credits include The Sailor From Gibraltar (1967), Sinful Davey (1969), 10 Rillington Place (1971), The Osterman Weekend (1983), White Mischief (1987), King Ralph (1991) and Rob Roy (1995). He played a fascist leader of Great Britain in V for Vendetta (2006) and was Professor Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).
Hurt also was known for his rich, nicotine-toned timbre, which won him many voiceover assignments. He was the narrator in The Tigger Movie (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Charlie Countryman (2013) and lent his dulcet utterances to The Lord of the Rings (1978), Watership Down (1978), The Black Cauldron (1985), Thumbelina (1994) and the Oscar-nominated short film The Gruffalo (2009).
“I have always been aware of voice in film. I think that it’s almost 50 percent of your equipment [as an actor],” he once said. “It’s as important as what you look like, certainly on stage and possibly on film as well. If you think of any of the great American stars, you think of their voices and their looks, any of them — from Clark Gable to Rock Hudson.”
For the small screen, Hurt starred on the TV shows The Storyteller, The Alan Clark Diaries, The Confession and Merlin and in the miniseries Crime and Punishment and Labyrinth. He notably played the War Doctor in the 2013-14 season of Doctor Who.
On participating in the Whovian fandom, Hurt said in 2013: “I’ve done a couple of conferences where you sit and sign autographs for people and then you have photographs taken with them and a lot of them are all dressed up in alien suits or Doctor Who whatevers. I was terrified of doing it because I thought they’d all be loonies, but they are absolutely, totally charming as anything. I’m not saying it’s the healthiest thing — I don’t know whether it is or isn’t — but they are very charming.”
The accomplished stage actor performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1994, he starred opposite Helen Mirren in Bill Bryden’s West End production of A Month in the Country, and he scraped out an edgy and vigorously dour performance in Samuel Beckett’s autobiographical one-man drama Krapp’s Last Tape in 1999.
When asked about the difference between film and stage acting, Hurt explained: “It’s rather like two different sports. You use two completely different sets of muscles.”
In 2012, Hurt was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, then was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in July 2015.
Survivors include his fourth wife Anwen Rees-Myers, whom he married in 2005, and sons Alexander and Nicholas.