Sir John Hurt has died, less than a week after his 77th birthday. The prolific actor of stage and screen had suffered from pancreatic cancer, and was forced to cancel a recent appearance in Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Entertainer due to ill health. In a career spanning six decades and nearly 130 film roles, Hurt’s contributions to cinema lead to a knighthood, four BAFTA awards, two Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe, and “cinematic immortality”, as Mel Brooks put it.
Born on 22 January 1940 in Derbyshire, Hurt studied at the star-making drama school RADA, and quickly won early prominent roles in British film and television during the 1960s and ’70s, notably 10 Rillington Place; the landmark BBC miniseries I, Claudius; and The Naked Civil Servant, for which Hurt won his first BAFTA, aged 35.
He became internationally recognised in 1978 with Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, which earned Hurt a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination. But his first truly iconic role came in 1979 with Ridley Scott’s acclaimed sci-fi horror Alien – eternally memorable for the shocking scene where the baby xenomorph suddenly bursts out of Hurt’s chest during a relaxed meal. (He would later parody his own role in Mel Brooks’s spoof Spaceballs, with the line “oh no…not again.”)
Another iconic role followed in 1980 with David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, where Hurt played the deformed Victorian man John Merrick with sensitivity and rare insight. It earned Hurt his third BAFTA and another Academy Award nod.
For a generation of children (and many adults), he was best known as Mr Ollivander, the wand-maker in Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series. For others, he may be best known as the ‘War Doctor’ in Doctor Who, playing the famous time-traveller in three special episodes to mark the series’ 50th anniversary. Hurt’s range was so immense that he could have roles in challenging, experimental material like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as easily as voicing the Owl in The Gruffalo.
Despite his ill health, he continued to work prolifically, with four of his films still to be released posthumously in the UK, including Oscar-tipped political biopic Jackie; an adaptation of the play That Good Night; and a role as Neville Chamberlain opposite Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.
Hurt was once asked how he turned in such frequently memorable performances. “The only way I can describe it is that I put everything I can into the mulberry of my mind,” he said, “and hope that it is going to ferment and make a decent wine.”
First published on Empire Online, January 2017.