John Hurt obituary: Remembering a screen icon. Hurt single-handedly cornered the market in misfits and outsiders throughout his six
It is perhaps unfortunate that for most filmgoers their abiding memory of John Hurt will be of a monster bursting out of his ribcage in Alien. It is a classic moment, of course, one of the most celebrated and talked-about scenes in movie history, and thrust Hurt into the international spotlight at the relatively late age of 39. It was a role that came to him purely by accident. Fellow British actor Jon Finch had originally been cast as astronaut Kane but developed a debilitating illness on his first day of filming and had to be hospitalised. That night in a mild panic director Ridley Scott drove to Hurt’s Hampstead home and pitched the movie to him over the course of several hours. By 7.30 the next morning Hurt was in costume and in front of the cameras at Shepperton Studios.
From the age of nine this son of a Church of England clergyman knew he wanted to be an actor. There was a cinema right across the road from the vicarage where he grew up in south Derbyshire, only his rigorously middle-class parents had declared it out of bounds. On Saturday mornings he enviously watched the lines of children going inside. Several of the local children were also off-limits, like the cinema they were deemed “too common” and he wasn’t allowed to play with them. Out of this emerged an unhappy and sometimes lonely child, despite the presence of an older brother and sister. That lonely, lost little boy was sometimes conjured up in his film performances, notably the Machiavellian Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966). As producer David Putnam once observed: “John’s got a tremendous sadness in his eyes. And that may be an actor’s greatest asset, because he can convey pain.”
The odd trip to the theatre was allowed and at school Hurt acted in plays. Performing on stage gave him he said, “an extraordinary feeling that I was in the place that I was meant to be”. Perhaps at last he had found a means to express himself, something he had been unable to do at home. Having grown up surrounded by religion, Hurt found himself at an early age in disagreement with the deeply conservative principles of his parents resulting in a distant relationship, particularly with his father. Being sent off to boarding school aged eight didn’t help either. His fellow pupils were all boys and Hurt’s slender frame and high voice usually meant he was cast as the girl in plays. He took on the demanding part of Lady Bracknell at the age of 16.
The drama department aside, Hurt despised his schooling, where he suffered at the hands of the senior master, who turned out to be a serial abuser. His “trick” was to remove his two front false teeth and insert his tongue into boys’ mouths. It was an experience that affected Hurt deeply and the only part of his childhood that he was able to conjure up in later years with absolute clarity.
Although Hurt’s mother was an amateur actress, both parents were against him applying to drama school. Instead they encouraged him to follow his flair for painting, in the hope he might become an arts master. In 1959 Hurt won a scholarship to study at St Martin’s College of Art and Design in London, where he once painted Quentin Crisp who modelled nude for the students.
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Renting his own studio, Hurt fell comparatively easily into the life of a bohemian art student and was a regular at the Colony Room, the famous Soho members-only drinking club where his friends and fellow imbibers included the likes of Francis Bacon. But his ambitions to act never left him and he dropped out of art college after a year, burning all his canvases, a decision he later regretted, and without his parents’ backing or support won another scholarship, this time to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where his classmates included Sarah Miles, Tom Courtenay and Ian McShane.
Leaving in 1962 Hurt quickly made his screen debut along with McShane in The Wild and the Willing (1962), an early Swinging Sixties drama about a group of students and their sexual exploits. For the next few years he concentrated mainly on theatre, winning a critics award in 1963 for most promising newcomer for his performance in Harold Pinter’s one-man play The Dwarfs. While appearing in the title role of David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, Hurt was spotted by Fred Zinnemann, the legendary director of High Noon and From Here To Eternity, who cast him in A Man for All Seasons (1966). That exposure led to more film roles: Sinful Davey (1969), John Huston’s flawed historical romp, Mr Forbush and the Penguins (1971) and the 1974 film version of Little Malcolm, financed by George Harrison.
It was Hurt’s extraordinary performance as the defiantly homosexual Quentin Crisp in Thames Television’s 1975 drama The Naked Civil Servant that really put him on the map. Ironic since everyone he knew told him not to do it, that it would wreck his career, typecast him, that it was too controversial. After it was shown the screenwriter Robert Bolt wrote to Hurt saying how, after the initial shock of the subject matter, it became a story about the tenderness of the individual versus the cruelty of the crowd rather than an essay on homosexuality, which Hurt never believed it was anyway. And yet, the role was to become so indelibly linked with him that Crisp always referred to Hurt as, “my representative here on earth”.
The role of John Merrick in ‘The Elephant Man’ brought Hurt an Oscar nomination in 1980
It was another memorable television performance, this time as a petulant Caligula in the BBC’s I, Claudius (1976), that undoubtedly led Hurt to almost singlehandedly corner the market in misfits and outsiders; “Everyone I’ve ever played has been flawed,” he once said. He especially seemed to be drawn, or producers liked to cast him as, victims. It was something he had already excelled in with his haunting portrayal of Timothy Evans, the man wrongly executed for the crimes of John Christie in the deeply unsettling 10 Rillington Place (1971). Other notable additions to Hurt’s roster of the fragile and the lost was the heroin-soaked Max in Alan Parker’s Turkish-set prison drama Midnight Express (1978), for which he was Oscar-nominated, Orwell’s reluctant hero Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Stephen Ward, the man in the middle of the Profumo affair in Scandal (1989).
Perhaps Hurt’s archetypal outsider/victim role was the hideously deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). It was less of a performance than an endurance test, requiring Hurt to submit to seven hours in makeup; he consumed raw eggs and orange juice through a straw to keep going. Somehow under all the prosthetics Hurt was able to express the humanity of Merrick, prompting his director to call him, “Simply the greatest actor in the world”. It was a performance that earned Hurt his second Oscar nomination.
Off-camera Hurt was not averse to courting headlines of a rather less noble kind. His private life was colourful to say the least. He was married four times and belonged to that group of hedonistic actors the press labelled hellraisers. He drank with O’Toole, Burton and Harris and was often seen insensible at his old haunt The Colony Room. He had his demons, no question about it, and his battle with alcohol would last into his sixties. As late as 2004 he was thrown out of the lap-dancing club Spearmint Rhino for boorish behaviour. It wasn’t long after that incident Hurt gave up the drink simply because had he carried on it would have killed him. His fourth marriage to a former actress and classical pianist 25 years his junior, also appeared to have calmed him down and made him easier to live with. “Wacky behaviour may seem like a lot of fun, but it usually isn’t,” he admitted. “It’s usually the sign of a very distressed person looking for something they can’t find.”
Hurt never allowed his drinking habit to affect his work and he went on to become one of the busiest film actors in the country, appearing in Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate (1980), playing The Fool to Olivier’s King Lear in a TV adaptation, a jockey in Champions (1984), the real-life story of Bob Champion, who battled from cancer to win the Grand National, and a soulless hit man in Stephen Frears’ 1984 thriller The Hit. As an actor Hurt always relied heavily on his imagination and gut instinct rather than methodical research to bring a character to life on screen; he left that kind of work to the screenwriter. When he played Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the BBC’s 1979 adaptation, Hurt never bothered to read the novel until after he’d played the part.
Never leading-man material in the traditional sense, Hurt saw himself as a character actor, much like one of his heroes Alec Guinness. His admiration for Guinness, who was well known for vanishing completely into a character, perhaps explains why in so many of his performances Hurt is almost unrecognisable, allowing the role to totally subsume him; unlike a star who is always recognisably them whatever the role they’re playing.
And then there was the voice, an extraordinarily rich and versatile tool, used most famously in the mid-to-late Eighties when Hurt provided the doom-laden narration for the earliest UK television campaign against Aids, accompanied by apocalyptic images of icebergs and falling monoliths.
As he got older, of course, the voice became more naturally croaky, a fact he blamed on “Guinness and on Gauloises”. His face too had grown weather-beaten, a depository for wrinkles along with melancholic eyes that gave him the distressed look of a commuter who always misses his train. Nevertheless, he remained heavily in demand, though far from choosy. Over the course of his career Hurt made well over 100 films. The problem with being so promiscuous an actor you end up making things like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001). Perhaps the problem was Hurt never seemed ambitious enough, coveting few roles and chasing even fewer scripts.
Curiously his latter career is marked out by the sheer number of genre pictures he made: Harry Potter, Hellboy (2004), V for Vendetta (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), even Doctor Who. There was more serious, studied work, however. He enjoyed his experience with Jim Jarmusch on Dead Man (1995), and believed Love and Death on Long Island (1997), in which he played a stodgy British novelist who falls in love with a teen film star played by Jason Priestley, to be among his best work. While he excelled in the lead role of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape both on stage and television.
John Hurt, actor: born Shirebrook, Derbyshire, 22 January 1940; married Annette Robertson (1962-1964), Donna Peacock (1984-1990), Jo Dalton (1990-1996: 2 children), Anwen Rees-Myers (2005-2017)
John Hurt obituary: Remembering a screen icon | The Independent