John Hurt, the Oscar-nominated British actor who starred in films like The Elephant Man, Midnight Express, Alien and the Harry Potter series over a career that spanned more than 50 years, died Friday at the age of 77. Hurt’s agent confirmed the actor’s death to the BBC.
No cause of death was immediately known, but Hurt revealed in 2015 that he was battling pancreatic cancer. “I can’t say I worry about mortality, but it’s impossible to get to my age and not have a little contemplation of it,” Hurt told the Radio Times after the diagnosis. “We’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly.”
Hurt first came to prominence after appearing in the Best Picture Oscar-winning A Man of All Seasons in 1966. Hurt, who decided against a career as an art teacher to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, would appear in countless TV and film roles, including roles in Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Stephen Frears’ The Hit, Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend and the 1984 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where Hurt played the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith.
“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 nine,” Hurt told The Guardian in 2000 (via The Hollywood Reporter). “I was effused with a feeling of complete and total enjoyment, and I felt that’s where I should be.”
Hurt’s portrayal of imprisoned heroin addict Max in 1978’s Midnight Express netted the actor his first Golden Globe and BAFTA win as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Two years later, Hurt appeared in what was his greatest role as the anguished John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Despite wearing prosthetics and makeup that rendered the actor unrecognizable, Hurt again was nominated for an Academy Award, this time for Best Actor.
“John Hurt is simply the greatest actor in the world,” Lynch told the New York Times in 1990.
Hurt was also perhaps cinema’s greatest sufferer: In a video that the actor himself posted on YouTube, Hurt highlighted the approximately 40 times he died onscreen. That tally included four fatal stabbings, four suicides, 11 times shot to death and, thanks to Alien and Spaceballs, two chest-burstings.
“It was terribly sad today to learn of John Hurt’s passing. He was a truly magnificent talent,” Spaceballs director Mel Brooks tweeted.
In recent years, Hurt appeared in three Harry Potter films –The Sorcerer’s Stone as well as The Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2 – V for Vendetta, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Snowpiercer and, most recently, Jackie.
“When I say that acting is just a rather more sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians, it’s my way of trying to quash all the pretentious crap that’s said about acting. What I mean is, if you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you. By the way, I was always an Indian,” Hurt told the Times. “It’s your imagination that creates something, not research. People say, ‘John, do you relate to a character?’ Relate? How the hell do you relate to Caligula? You damn well imagine a character, and if you can’t do that, go home.”
Hurt’s distinct voice also graced characters in animated films like Watership Down and 1978’s Lord of the Rings. Hurt’s 2013 appearance on Doctor Who also ranked high on Rolling Stone‘s list of 50 Best Doctor Who Moments.
“John Hurt. Simply an inspiration to all of us artists. Hopefully he will influence many actors in the future for a long long time,” Vincent D’Onofrio tweeted.