William Hurt: His 10 Best Roles - Rolling Stone
Home TV & Movies TV & Movies Features

These 10 Roles Remind You Why William Hurt Was a Once-in-a-Lifetime Actor

From ‘Altered States’ to ‘A History of Violence’ — a look back at the high points of the late, great actor’s screen career

william hurtwilliam hurt

William Hurt in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman.'

Island Alive/courtesy Everett Collection

He could play it cool or white-hot, philosophically curious or passionate to a fault — a movie star with leading-man good lucks and a character actor’s way of digging into the idiosyncrasies of a role no matter what size it was. William Hurt, who died today at the age of 71, was one of those performers who could seem both brainy yet profoundly empathetic whether he was playing noble, saintly men or manipulative bastards; he famously had contempt for the film industry, but he never showed contempt for his audiences. And while Hurt’s heyday may have been in the 1980s, when he had a slew of parts that ranged from a scientist exploring the outer boundaries of consciousness (Altered States) to a grieving travel-guide writer (The Accidental Tourist), he never stopped working. Hurt spoke proudly of finding fulfillment in theater roles for $250 a week and recently turned a one-episode appearance on the Apple+ show Mythic Quest into a heartbreaking take on professional rivalries, petty jealousies and forgiveness.

It was in the movies that Hurt made his biggest mark, however, and the following 10 roles remind you exactly why the Oscar-winning actor was a master of his craft.

Altered States (1980)

The film that put William Hurt on the map — a feverish, dreamy descent into headtrippy surrealism — was something the young actor actively resisted. “I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to make movies,” he lamented years later. “I didn’t want to be famous. It’s not good for some people. It hasn’t been good for me. Fame is not a happy condition for me.” Despite Hurt’s misgivings, however, he’s electric in his big-screen debut, playing the quintessential cocky scientist who is going to find out what happens when you mess with the mysteries of the universe, dabbling in sensory deprivation to unlock the potential of the human mind. Hurt’s total commitment to his character’s self-destructive journey is utterly riveting, always approaching the film’s hallucinatory nightmare visions with a striking straightforwardness. When his scientist finally reverts to caveman form, it’s among the wildest, most compelling moments in this great actor’s career — especially because he’d rarely go so beautifully over-the-top again. —T.G.

Body Heat (1981)

As a person, William Hurt radiated intelligence, and many of his best performances took advantage of his innately cerebral qualities. But he was perhaps most brilliant when called upon to play men who were too dumb for their own good, starting off with his turn as Ned Racine, the patsy of Kathleen Turner’s femme fatale in Lawrence Kasdan’s modern noir. “You’re not too smart, are you?” she tells him early on, adding, “I like that in a man.” What makes the performance work is that Ned often seems very aware that this lady is bad news, but his good sense can’t overcome his unrelenting lust for her. Together, Hurt and Turner have some of the most scorching chemistry ever put on down on celluloid. —A.S.

The Big Chill (1983)

This seminal Baby Boomer saga was highlighted by a talented cast about ready to come into their own — including Hurt, who essayed the ensemble’s angriest character. Like many of his college chums, Nick used to be an idealist. But the man we meet here has returned from Vietnam disillusioned and impotent, losing a lucrative career as a talk-show therapist to become a drug-dealer/drug-abuser. Impossibly young, handsome and sexy, Nick is the embodiment of cynical self-hatred, as Hurt reunites with Body Heat filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan to deliver a portrait of a man who sees through the niceties that his friends are trying to cling to in the wake of a pal’s suicide. Hurt’s self-interview scene, in which Nick plays both subject and questioner, is one of The Big Chill’s highlights — a lacerating embodiment of a generation coming to terms with its limitations, but his later confrontation with the rest of his buddies demonstrates Hurt’s ability to turn soliloquies into small gems of pain and rage. —T.G.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

“Once upon a time…in a tropical island far away… there lived a strange woman.” Brazilian filmmaker’s Hector Babenco’s award-winning adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel cast Hurt as a gay window dresser named Luis who’s been imprisoned in a South American jail; his cellmate, Raul Julia, is a political revolutionary. Every day, he recounts the plots of old B movies starring Sonia Braga’s vampy femme fatale, and it’s through these fantastic tales that he manages to escape the barred windows and concrete walls that keep him from being free. The two cellmates eventually fall in love. Tragedy awaits right around the corner. Hurt’s performance is one half of a beautiful duet, and a balancing act between iron-clad campiness and open-hearted vulnerability. Though his work here can edge toward over-the-top — Luis can turn the mere act of eating an avocado into a torrid melodrama — he completely lets you see how this man’s turbans and kimonos double as a suit of armor. It never quite tips into caricature, and adds a whole other dimension to the movie’s emphasis on how we tell ourselves stories in order to live. It won Hurt the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival and his only Oscar. “I’m very proud to be an actor,” he said in his brief acceptance speech, and for someone who seemed reluctant to accept the mantle of stardom, you could sense the pride he felt in being honored by his peers for this. —D.F.

Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Hurt followed up his Oscar win with another high-profile turn, as a teacher at a school for the deaf who falls in love with a former star pupil (Marlee Matlin) who now works as a janitor. She’s considered to be someone who should be left alone by the rest of the staff; the new professor on the block, however, sees someone whose rage is really a cry for help. Hurt learned sign language for the role, and acts as both a scene partner for Matlin (who deservedly won an Academy Award) and a translator for the audience. His habit of repeating her signed lines aloud makes it seem as if he’s having a conversation with himself at times, yet you never get the sense that he’s trying to dictate her performance by giving her a voice. It’s a generous way of turning this into a genuine double act without stealing her thunder. Plus the chemistry between Hurt and Matlin is off the charts — they’d fall into a real-life relationship before filming wrapped (though she’d later accused him of physical abuse and a violent sexual assault) — and reminded you why Hurt made such a greay old-school leading man. —D.F.

Broadcast News (1987)

In James L. Brooks’ beloved romantic dramedy, Hurt played another beautiful dummy like in Body Heat, albeit in less life-and-death circumstances. This time around, he’s Tom Grunick, a TV newsman who is great on camera but lacks real news experience and only sometimes seems to fully understand the depth of the stories he’s reporting. Tom is one side of a love triangle involving ambitious producer Jane (Holly Hunter) and the serious but sweaty Aaron (Albert Brooks). (“I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil,” Aaron insists as he sees Jane begin to fall for his tall, blond competition.) Both the film and Hurt are clever enough to make Tom likable despite his vapidness. He is only giving people what they want, after all, and even his one big transgression — arranging for a feature to be recut so it looks like he spontaneously cried during an emotional interview — feels like a minor journalistic sin compared to what was to come within a few years. —A.S.

The Accidental Tourist (1988)

Hurt’s character had the potential to be a cringe-y cliché: a man who’s lived his life successfully avoiding others who discovers his emotional side after the death of his son and the end of his marriage. (Oh, and he’ll do it with the help of a wacky free spirit, played by an Oscar-winning Geena Davis.) And yet, the actor is a wonder as Macon, a closed-off individual who eventually sees in Davis’ dog-training Muriel someone who can push him out of his depression. For an actor who often portrayed intense, focused men, Hurt brilliantly navigates Macon’s path from despair to rebirth, honoring the character’s sorrow and never succumbing to cutesy contrivances. “I guess I bring what I have to offer,” Hurt said when asked about how he played Macon. “I think there’s a lot of pain in life. And I think there’s also a great deal of joy. … If you cut off grief, you’re cutting off joy.” —T.G.

Smoke (1995)

Hurt’s Hollywood leading man phase largely ended with 1991’s The Doctor, and he spent much of the Nineties either playing supporting roles in mainstream films like Trial By Jury or headlining indie movies. The best of the latter group was this gem, directed by Wayne Wang and written by the novelist Paul Auster, about the customers and neighbors of a Brooklyn cigar shop run by Harvey Keitel’s Auggie. As he did in The Accidental Tourist, Hurt is again playing a writer, Paul Benjamin, dealing with the loss of a loved one — in this case, he is recently widowed — but this time he’s not so much shut down as he is casting about for new meaning. For a while, he finds it in befriending a young Black man, Thomas (Harold Perrineau Jr.) who needs a place to crash. As the two of them get used to one another, you see poignant flashes of the man Paul used to be before fate left him alone. Wang and Auster made a quasi-sequel, Blue in the Face, that brought back Keitel and a few other Smoke actors, but not Hurt; the loss of the gravity he provided in the first film made the second one feel terribly slight.  —A.S.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Many people wonder what their divine creator looks like; in Steven Spielberg’s chilly sci-fi drama, the job went to William Hurt. He plays Professor Hobby, the scientist responsible for the Mecha-android David (Haley Joel Osment). With a healthy mixture of paternal warmth and clinical dispassion, Hurt’s Hobby is the father figure David doesn’t realize he’s seeking over the course of A.I. — the riddle that can hopefully make him feel whole — and the veteran actor portrays a thorny Geppetto who can’t give his Pinocchio what he needs. It’s a small role, but a crucial one, with Hurt imbuing Hobby with a muted melancholy that suggests how complicated playing god can be. (After all, David was created in the image of Hobby’s own dead son.) When Hurt and Osment finally share the screen near A.I.’s end, Hobby looks upon David like he’s little more than a successful science experiment — a heartbreaking snapshot of how humans process their grief by plunging themselves into their work. —T.G.

A History of Violence (2005)

Hurt is on screen for roughly eight minutes of David Cronenberg’s pulp thriller — and he makes ever menacing second count as Richie Cusack, the gangster brother of the film’s fugitive hero Tom (Viggo Mortensen). When the long-estranged siblings are reunited, Richie nostalgically recalls that their relationship has basically been the same since the start, laughing as he says, “When mom brought you home from the hospital, I tried to strangle you in your crib. I guess all kids try to do that!”  It wasn’t exactly a comeback from obscurity (A.I. was only four years earlier), but the performance landed him his fourth and final Oscar nomination and really kicked off the esteemed-character-actor phase that would define the rest of his life and career.  —A.S.

In This Article: obit, William Hurt


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.