John Hurt, a British actor who gave compelling depth to desperate, flawed and sometimes monstrously deformed characters in performances that captivated audiences and critics for more than five decades, died Jan. 25 at his home in Norfolk, England. He was 77.
The actor announced in 2015 that he had pancreatic cancer. His agent, Charles McDonald, confirmed the death to The Washington Post. Hurt had recently appeared as a Catholic priest in the film “Jackie” opposite Natalie Portman.
The son of an Anglican vicar, Hurt discovered as a youth that he “didn’t go for God.” But like his father, he once observed, he spent his life revealing to others certain truths about human nature.
His tools included an almost singularly expressive face, one that with age came to be defined by a rutted forehead and baggy, hooded eyes. His voice was a gravelly rasp, colored by excessive drink and smoke.
Hurt was widely admired for his range, intensity and empathy in portraying the most complicated and outcast lives. David Lynch, who directed the actor in his title role in “The Elephant Man” (1980), once called Hurt “simply the greatest actor in the world.”
After a promising start on stage, he found his first notable screen role in the Oscar-winning “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), which starred Paul Scofield as the martyred Englishman Thomas More.
The director, Fred Zinnemann, said he took a gamble casting the largely unknown Hurt as Richard Rich, a young lawyer and More disciple who betrays his mentor. “I knew he was our man when I saw what explosive nervous energy he was capable of,” Zinnemann wrote in a memoir.
That skittish tension remained Hurt’s calling card in his roughly 200 films and TV appearances that followed. He embraced mainstream hits, including the “Harry Potter” series – he played the wand maker Ollivander – as well as more disquieting fare, such as Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in which he gave, on stage and television, a tour de force depiction of a regretful writer.
Career highlights include the taut film “10 Rillington Place” (1971), as a man of low mental faculties wrongly executed for murders committed by British serial killer John Christie, and “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975), a British TV movie about the gay author and raconteur Quentin Crisp.
“It was a very risky piece for an actor – a television play about an effeminate homosexual who is also an exhibitionist,” he told the Sunday Times of London in 2000. “Many people told me it would be the end of my career.”
In another celebrated British miniseries, “I, Claudius” (1976), Hurt gave a terrifying portrayal of the Roman emperor Caligula, a mad degenerate who fancies himself a god. Two years later, Hurt received his first Oscar nomination, for his supporting role in “Midnight Express” as an English junkie abused by guards in a Turkish jail.
In the New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael extolled Hurt’s power and control in roles that could have gone off the rails in dramatic excess. In “Midnight Express,” she wrote, he demonstrated “such inner force that he can play the most passive of roles, as he does here (he barely moves a muscle), and still transfix the audience. . . . He’s an almost burned-out light bulb with just a few dim flashes of the filament left. Yet he’s the most moving character in the film.”
Although he lost the supporting Oscar bid to Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter,” Hurt had appeared on Hollywood’s radar and was cast in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller “Alien” (1979), a box-office grand slam.
The movie provided Hurt with a graphically memorable role, as a space voyager whose stomach explodes after an extraterrestrial burrows into him. (He would lampoon that scene in Mel Brooks’s 1987 film “Spaceballs,” with his character lamenting, “Oh, no, not again!”)
One of his most touching performances came in “The Elephant Man,” which Lynch directed and Brooks helped produce. Hurt played a Victorian-era Englishman whose grotesque disfigurement led to his years of exploitation as a carnival freak.
Hurt underwent six hours of makeup application each day to play Joseph Merrick – called John in the film – a man of dignity, tenderness and refinement underneath his deformity.
In one of the film’s most notable sequences, Merrick is cornered by a mob into a train station urinal and collapses while shouting, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!”
Hurt’s performance garnered an Oscar nomination for a leading role, but he lost to Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.”
Hurt also played such haunted characters from literature as Raskolnikov in Feodor Dostoevski’s “Crime and Punishment” (1979), and he was superb as Winston Smith, a rebellious employee of the Ministry of Truth, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984), based on the George Orwell book about a totalitarian future.
He was Jesus at the Last Supper, confused by an intrusive waiter, in Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I” (1981); the libidinous society osteopath Stephen Ward in “Scandal” (1989), about the Profumo-Keeler sex scandal that shook 1960s England; an erudite English writer smitten with a teenage heartthrob (Jason Priestley) in “Love and Death on Long Island” (1997); and an omniscient, enigmatic billionaire who funds an astronomer (Jodie Foster) in “Contact” (1997).
Because of his skill imbuing the most eccentric parts with humanity, Hurt was one of the few actors to emerge critically unscathed from Gus Van Sant’s 1993 film, “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” in which he played the Countess, described by one British reporter as “a misogynist homosexual feminine-deodorant magnate.”
John Vincent Hurt was born in Chesterfield, England, on Jan. 22, 1940, and grew up in Cleethorpes.
He described his parents as distant and severe, prohibiting him from mixing with neighborhood children they deemed “common.” He felt further isolated at preparatory schools, one where he later said he was sexually abused by an administrator. An older brother rebelled against his parents by converting to Catholicism and later became a Benedictine monk.
From a young age, Hurt found refuge in the theater. At prep school, he was frequently cast in female roles. “I had a very high voice and was quite small – and was rather pretty in those days,” he later told the Scotsman newspaper. “I just knew, then, that I wanted to act.”
He attended art school to honor his parents’ request that he train for a fallback career before winning a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
Early on, despite his wispy physical appearance, he was singled out by theater critics for his magnetism. His portrayal of a rebellious art student in David Halliwell’s dark comedy “Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs” – which he reprised on-screen in 1974 – brought him to Zinnemann’s attention.
Hurt returned periodically to the stage, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and elsewhere, but he focused chiefly on a screen career that encompassed adaptations of “King Lear,” horror films, fantasies and westerns.
In such a prolific career, he was not without his misfires, including a version of “Romeo and Juliet” featuring an otherwise all-feline cast. He also played the British spy chief known as “Control” in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), a critically lauded version of the John le Carré novel about Cold War deceit.
His personal life was turbulent. He said he suffered from “considerable mood swings” and took pleasure in drinking with legendarily rowdy and bibulous actors such as Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed.
An early marriage, to actress Annette Robertson, ended in divorce. His companion of 16 years, French fashion model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, was killed in a horse-riding accident in 1983.
His subsequent marriages to Donna Peacock and Jo Dalton, the mother of his two sons, ended in divorce. In 2005, he wed Anwen Rees-Myers. A complete list of survivors could not immediately be confirmed.
Hurt was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2014 for his contributions to drama.
“There isn’t such a thing as a regular guy,” Hurt once told the New York Times. The roles that intrigued him, he said, “demand vulnerability . . . the ability to expose things that would not normally be seen.”