The British actor who made outsiders his specialty
John Hurt 1940–2017
With a gravelly voice and a craggy face that made him look older than his years, John Hurt had a natural talent for playing society’s outcasts. In 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, the British actor starred as the flamboyant gay author and raconteur Quentin Crisp, who helped advance the acceptance of homosexuality in the U.K. He earned his first Oscar nomination for his supporting role in 1978’s Midnight Express, playing a cynical heroin addict abused by Turkish prison guards. Two years later, Hurt was nominated for another Oscar for his portrayal of the cruelly deformed but dignified Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man. “I have done quite a lot of outsider figures,” he said in 2008, “but then drama is all about them. Hamlet isn’t exactly one of the crowd, is he?”
Born in Chesterfield in northern England, Hurt endured a tough childhood, said The Washington Post. His father, an Anglican priest, and his mother, an engineer, were “distant and severe,” and he was sexually abused at boarding school. Hurt found refuge in acting, winning a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and later performing in the West End with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Singled out by theater critics for his magnetism,” Hurt secured a breakout movie role as the treacherous Richard Rich in the Oscar-winning 1966 Thomas More biopic AMan for All Seasons. Like many a British actor of the era, “Hurt was known as a tippler,” said The New York Times. He partied with fellow hell-raisers Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, and his boozing ended at least one of his four marriages. While filming Midnight Express, Hurt claimed, he got into character by drinking three bottles of wine a day.
That film raised his profile in Hollywood, but his next movie, 1979’s Alien, would make him a cult figure, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). His character, Kane, endures “one of cinema’s most memorable— and grisly—death scenes” when a baby alien bursts from his chest, an iconic movie moment Hurt would parody in the 1987 Mel Brooks spoof Spaceballs. “Other roles were still more physically demanding.” To transform into The Elephant Man’s Merrick, who suffered from a condition that enlarged his head and twisted his musculature, Hurt had to sit in the makeup chair for eight hours a day. His “prolific, eclectic career continued through the ’90s and 2000s,” said The Guardian (U.K.). Hurt worked with art house directors like Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) and Lars von Trier (Dogville) while making outings in blockbusters like Contact and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He refused to take his profession too seriously. “Acting is just a rather more sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians,” he said. “If you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you.”