Chameleon of a performer

John Hurt achieved cult status in the 1979 movie Alien for his character’s gruesome death.
John Hurt achieved cult status in the 1979 movie Alien for his character’s gruesome death.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Actor John Hurt was frequently cast in fantasy films and slipped easily into roles that require a lot of make-up

NEW YORK • Tributes have been pouring in for actor John Hurt, who died last Wednesday at home in Norfolk, England. He was 77.

Lord Of The Rings star Elijah Wood wrote on Twitter: "Very sad to hear of John Hurt's passing. It was such an honour to have watched you work, sir."

Among many other tweets to flood in, American actor Chris Evans described Hurt as "remarkable". "John Hurt was one of the most powerful, giving and effortlessly real actors I've ever worked with. Remarkable human being. U will be missed," he wrote.

Hurt's wife, Anwen, who confirmed his death in a statement, said: "John was the most sublime of actors and the most gentlemanly of gentlemen with the greatest of hearts and the most generosity of spirit. He touched all our lives with joy and magic and it will be a strange world without him."

Hurt was an unprepossessing British character actor who vanished inside dozens of roles, from Shakespeare to science fiction, including John Merrick, the hideously deformed title character in the 1980 film The Elephant Man. He had recently appeared as a Catholic priest in the film Jackie (2016) opposite Natalie Portman.

In June 2015, he had disclosed that he had pancreatic cancer.

Hurt was a rising stage actor in England in the 1960s, but spent most of the remainder of his career compiling a long resume in movies and on television. A chameleon of a performer, physically unimposing but with a rich, melodic voice, he played a number of leading roles, though he could never be described as a leading man. Critics often seemed challenged to explain the appeal of his presence.

In The Naked Civil Servant (1975), seen first on television in England, he was Quentin Crisp, a flamehaired raconteur and social butterfly whose forthright flamboyance as a gay man helped push the acceptance of homosexuality in Britain.

In the 1979 BBC miniseries Crime And Punishment, he was Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, a brooding, conscience-stricken killer. And in Michael Radford's 1984 adaptation of George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984, he was Winston Smith, the protagonist. Hurt's pallor, fearful expression and prominent ears made him an especially feral and unromantic rebel.

Frequently cast in fantasy films as a real character, he could be kindly or cruel. He was the wand expert, Ollivander, in several Harry Potter films, and the Fuhrer-like dictator of a barely familiar England in the futuristic V For Vendetta (2005).

He slipped so easily into make-up that it often seemed a form of disguise. Professorially bearded with a Brillo pad of silver hair, he was almost unrecognisable as Trevor Bruttenholm, the British paranormal expert who discovers the young title demon in the sci-fi thriller Hellboy (2004).

In The Elephant Man, a film that also starred Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, Hurt's role as Merrick required hours of make-up application before each day's filming. He was unrecognisable as the monstrous-looking but gentle sufferer of a rare affliction that enlarged his head, twisted his musculature and hampered his speech and mobility.

For the calm dignity he brought to this performance - a powerful reproof to those who demonised and humiliated Merrick - he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best actor, critical plaudits and the admiration of the film's director, David Lynch, who said, 10 years later, in an interview in The New York Times Magazine: "John Hurt is simply the greatest actor in the world." (Robert De Niro won the best actor award in 1981.)

Though Hurt was more familiar to audiences in Britain, where he was knighted in 2015, his work there found its way to recognition across the Atlantic as well. He appeared as Richard Rich, a young man in pre-Elizabethan England who yields to his ambition and betrays Sir Thomas More, in the film A Man For All Seasons (1966). In 1983, he gave an acclaimed performance as the Fool in a television production of King Lear, with Laurence Olivier in the title role.

And in Scandal (1989), he played an affable go-between who paired pretty girls with powerful men in an episode known as the Profumo affair, which ended the career of Britain's secretary of state for war, John Profumo.

Some of his movie parts were in Hollywood trifles; in one, King Ralph (1991), he was the stodgily irate English opposition to the ascension to the English throne of a US yokel (John Goodman). But even before The Elephant Man, he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as a self-lacerating drug addict imprisoned in Turkey in Midnight Express (1978).

He achieved cult status in Ridley Scott's Alien in 1979 as Kane, the first victim of the title space creature, which emerges bloodily from his chest.

Testament to his appeal as a sacrificial lamb, it was one of many gruesome deaths Hurt suffered on film; he was stabbed, shot, hanged and burned to a crisp, all more than once. Indeed, in Spaceballs, Mel Brooks' 1987 spoof, he reprised Kane's death.

As the little monster explodes from his rib cage, he says, with some exasperation: "Oh, no, not again."

John Vincent Hurt was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, on Jan 22, 1940. His father was an Anglican clergyman; his mother an engineer. He appeared in school plays, often in female roles because, he said, he was small and his voice was high.

His parents approved of his acting but not as a profession - "They thought it represented something risque and populist; it was out of the question," he told The New York Times Magazine in 1990 - and they sent him to art school instead.

He later auditioned for and was accepted by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He made his film debut in 1962 in The Wild And The Willing, a drama about academic life in which he played the feckless roommate of a rebellious student played by Ian McShane.

The same year, he appeared on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Infanticide In The House Of Fred Ginger, a controversial work that ended with the gratuitous killing of a child.

Like many a British actor of the 1960s and 1970s, he was known as a tippler, and his personal life was touched by tragedy.

His partner of many years, the French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, was killed in a riding accident in 1983. He was divorced three times. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Alexander and Nicholas.

Hurt's other film roles include a cross-dresser called the Countess in an adaptation of Tom Robbins' novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993); Professor Oxley, an archaeologist pal of the title character in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008); and the head of British intelligence, known only as Control, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).

"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," Hurt said in 1990.

"What I mean is, if you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Chameleon of a performer'. Print Edition | Subscribe