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Remembering John Hurt, a Chameleon for All Seasons

Across half a century and hundreds of roles, from ‘The Elephant Man’ to ‘Doctor Who,’ Hurt was emblematic of unceasing transformation

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In 1966, a 26-year-old television and stage performer from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, stood face-to-face with Paul Scofield’s Sir Thomas More in Fred Zinnemann’s A Man for All Seasons and challenged the notions of faith and duty in one of the decade’s most fervid and resonant allegories. He never flinched. As More, Scofield, with a face like a lion and a voice like a god, played an adviser to Henry VIII and a man loyal to the church. John Hurt was Richard Rich, the future chancellor of England and betrayer of More, occupying a slice of history with his hooded countenance and knowing smirk. Still a young man in his first major film role, Hurt was priming the pump for a half century’s worth of intelligent men tortured by their own intelligence in more than 100 onscreen roles. When he was a young actor, he was wily, like a catfish. He never changed.

John Hurt died Friday of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 77 years old, and one of the most unmistakable, unpredictable actors of his generation.

There are any number of things to focus on in Hurt’s career, from his haunted performance as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s suddenly relevant 1984 adaption to his late period of playing dissolute sages, like Christopher Marlowe in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Gilliam in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. His most recent role, simply credited as “The Priest” in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, finds Hurt interrogating and accosting Jacqueline Kennedy just days after her husband’s assassination, negging her into a confrontation with her own faith. Hurt began his screen life questioned by a holy figure and he ended it asking those same questions of someone else.

In between, Hurt made himself invaluable in every project he approached. He brought gravitas to Doctor Who, wizardly grace to the Harry Potter films, eloquence to Hellboy, and mortality to The Proposition. He was Control in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He lampooned himself in his pal Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs and adequately acquitted himself in 1991’s unfortunate King Ralph. He played crooks and savants, monsters and mice. And he died onscreen often and with aplomb. See for yourself.

We call actors like Hurt “chameleons” because they can be anything a movie wants them to be. But we’d be better off with something more valiant. An intoxicant, a transporter. He was the midafternoon coffee in every movie, a presence that made you perk up. Though he was rarely a leading man, and often beside the point, Hurt was more than what came to be known as a “That Guy.” When he was visible, he was the guy.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Around the Ringer offices, we like to talk about “Runs” — contained periods of aesthetic excellence. Michael Jordan in the mid-’90s, Jay Z at the turn of the century, and so on. Hurt has a Run. It began 10 years after his appearance in A Man for All Seasons, in 1976, with the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius (aired in America on PBS), in which he played the stark-raving Caligula, a bloodthirsty and paranoid Roman emperor ultimately betrayed and assassinated by his council of senior leadership. I remember watching the miniseries in a high school English class — the demon at the story’s center is unforgettable. Hurt’s Caligula is a bleached, mad-eyed autocrat — a harbinger in Etruscan garb. He is breathtaking. It made him known. Less than two years later, he was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Max, a drug-addicted prisoner in Midnight Express, before providing his voice in the animated adaptations of two essential British works of fiction: Watership Down, as Hazel, and The Lord of the Rings, as Aragorn. His voice, a secret weapon if he had one, communicated erudition, suspicion, and playfulness all at once. When he spoke, it sounded like tobacco burning. One year after his ’78 triumvirate, in Ridley Scott’s Alien, a wormlike demon burst from his chest and the image of Hurt’s anguish was transmitted into the gut of every person who’d ever had a worrying stomach ache. If this was Hurt’s self-flagellating period, what comes next is a coup de pain: a three-part adaptation of Crime and Punishment as the morally tortured Raskolnikov; and his career-defining role as the deformed but incontrovertibly human John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. (Lynch later called Hurt “the greatest actor in the world.”) No one was agonized the way Hurt was agonized, his blotchy, craggy face tensing up, revealing nicotine-stained teeth; his body a curl of bones and skin. Hurt hurt, and you could tell.

And he was tireless. There are at least four more films featuring John Hurt coming this year, a testament to his unceasing commitment to acting. In just this decade, he has contributed to 45 different projects. Hurt worked until he couldn’t. Before he expires in 2005’s The Proposition, his soliloquizing character Jellon Lamb mutters, “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things. Sun and moon and stars, all sweet things. And quiet, there’s a wind on the east. Life is very sweet, brother.”