For a man whose first claim to screen immortality came when an extraterrestrial freak of nature ripped a hole in his chest and screeched bloody murder in Alien, John Hurt was a hell of an actor. “The alien won the Oscar,” a laughing Hurt told me nearly three decades later, referring to the Academy Award that Ridley Scott’s 1979 film took home for H.R. Giger’s visual effects. It might be the only time in his 55-year career that anyone, let alone a creature that looked like a penis with teeth, had upstaged him. No one got a bigger kick out of that than Hurt.
The pancreatic cancer that took his life on Jan. 25th, three days after his 77th birthday, ended a filmography filled with triumphs both quiet and flamboyant, and one that Hurt himself never made much of a fuss about. For an acclaimed British actor whom the Queen knighted in 2015, Sir John only took his work seriously, never the awards. “I don’t give a bugger about the Oscar,” Hurt said, though he’d been nominated twice. The first time was for playing a heroin junkie in a Turkish prison in Midnight Express, released a year before Alien. The second was for what might still be his best performance, as John Merrick – a grossly deformed Victorian with the heart of a gentleman – in David’s Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). The actor enjoyed relating an anecdote told him by the late, great Sir Laurence Olivier, who said, ‘When it comes to your obituary, they will only mention two or three performances … and they will be the ones that defined you early on.” Hurt guessed ruefully that Midnight Express, Alien and The Elephant Man would make the cut. He was right. But the fantasy and sci-fi-obsessed obits threw in his role as Ollivander the wandmaker in the first three Harry Potter films, his Professor Bloom in the Hellboy franchise, voicing the Dragon on TV’s Merlin, and his 2013 stint on Doctor Who.
What a shame. Hurt was so much more than his splashiest credits and he knew it, masking his justifiable pride in his acting with self-deprecating humor. In 1987’s Spaceballs, he teamed up with Mel Brooks to let another alien pop out of his chest cavity, this time for laughs. His two children liked to joke to their four-times married dad about the number of times he died in movies (40 by count in the YouTube video making the rounds; see below). Watching clips from Hurt’s films fly by in rapid succession, you’re reminded of how young he once was, a lad with the face of a rebel. Born to a strict Anglican vicar who kept his sons away from the libertine and lowbrow cinema, though a movie house was right next door, John quickly grew a steak of defiance. His brother resisted by turning Catholic and becoming a monk. John turned to acting and became a master practitioner.
Watch him in 1966’s A Man for All Seasons, as a soulless careerist willing to turn on the man and the church that mentored him. Hurt has always been drawn to outsiders. He could be gloriously over-the-top as Quentin Crisp in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant or a year later as the mad emperor Caligula in I, Claudius – both superb performances. But gentleness was another Hurt hallmark. He’s wrenchingly poignant in The Elephant Man when the deformed creature he plays gently asks strangers, “Want to see a picture of my mother?” He then profers a photo of the beautiful woman who spawned him, hoping there must be beauty somewhere inside him as well.
During our conversation, Hurt pointed with pride to a number of roles in films, the ones that he rightly predicted wouldn’t show up in his memorials. In the last years of his career, the star had the craggy look and sonorous voice of a supreme character actor, an affect brought on by life experience … plus copious amounts of smoking and drinking. Among his stellar later work, I’d point to his role as an architect of a British sex scam in Scandal (1989); a dystopian dictator in 2005’s V for Vendetta and a proponent of Al Gore’s election in Recount (both 2005); the head of British intelligence in the adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011); a revolutionary aboard a futuristic train in Snowpiercer (2013); and a slyly manipulative father confessor to JFK’s widow in last year’s Jackie.
Hurt also had his own favorites: He loved working with director Stephen Frears (“the best”) on The Hit (1984), playing a professional killer who dies with a wink. (“No one ever talks about that one,” he told me.) He had equal affection for The Field (1990), a similarly ignored drama from writer-director Jim Sheridan that took place in 1930’s Ireland, where Hurt and costar Richard Harris fight for a piece of land with symbolic weight for both characters.
The idea of fans streaming one of those forgotten gems in tribute would have pleased him greatly. Hurt needn’t have worried about roles defining him, however; he was too cagey, too brilliant for that. Four of his movies are still to be released: My Name Is Lenny, about the boxing game; Damascus Cover, about an undercover operation in Syria; That Good Night, about a terminally ill writer trying to mend a relationship with his son; and the still-filming Darkest Hour, in which he was cast as WWII Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Not one of these roles is like the other. “I like to keep people guessing,” Hurt said with a squint that resembled a wicked twinkle. That you did, Sir John. That you did.