Famed, Oscar-nominated British actor Sir John Hurt passed away only last week (just a few days after his 77th birthday).
He was one of my favorite character actors over the last few decades, and he became a favorite of mine almost without me realizing it, by stealthily disappearing into each new role. I won’t go into his lengthy filmography and TV credits, as they are far too numerous to itemize. I’ll leave that to his IMDB page.
For this entry, I’d like to focus primarily on those appearances that were most memorable for me.
Hurt first ‘burst’ into my consciousness when I was about 12 or so, and saw pics of his infamous chest-burster scene in Ridley Scott’s scifi horror masterpiece ALIEN (1979). I didn’t actually see ALIEN in theaters at the time of its release because no one else in my family seemed to share my creepy interest for it. But I very vividly remember seeing the large paperback “photo-novel” of the movie at a local bookstore, and that image of Hurt’s death scene burned into my brain. Later on, I saw it on TV, home video (multiple times), and at a revival theatrical screening, and it still works on my nerves today just as it did then. ALIEN was, in fact, the very first movie I bought on DVD (along with “The Exorcist”) when my wife and I bought our first DVD player in 1999. And John Hurt’s performance as the ill-fated Kane is one of the BEST (certainly one of the most iconic) death scenes in science fiction cinema.
There’ve been a number of ALIEN sequels and chest-bursting scenes since (they’re almost cliche now), but that first one is still the best and most effective. The chest-burster is a grotesque mimicry of childbirth, and that is probably what makes the scene so powerful; it’s not just shockingly grisly… it’s primal. It’s as if it comes from some horrible human racial memory long forgotten. The suffocating ‘face-hugger’ that attaches to Kane’s face earlier in the film is a metaphor for the horrifying indignity of rape, and the chest-burster of Kane’s death scene is the ghastly offspring of that rape. The death scene is disturbing on multiple levels, and Hurt really surrenders to the moment with an unbridled delivery of sheer agony.
Before ALIEN, Hurt had already received an Oscar nomination as an imprisoned heroin addict in “Midnight Express” (1978). That Hurt would go from an Oscar nominated drama to a big budget ‘space monster’ movie is one of many examples of the remarkable diversity that would define his career.
Hurt would keep that diverse momentum going with another Oscar nominated turn as “The Elephant Man” (1980). In the original theatrical play of “The Elephant Man”, the titular character of John Merrick was usually played by an actor without makeup (to better illustrate his inner humanity). But in the film, directed by David Lynch, Hurt’s Merrick would be rendered in heavy prosthetics based on old photos from the real John Merrick (who suffered an extreme case of neurofibromatosis). Hurt was physically unrecognizable in the role, but his performance permeated the layers of makeup. From his scream of “I am NOT an animal! I am a human being” to his final ‘dream’ at the end, it is a haunting performance. One of Hurt’s best, and that is a bold statement.
Another iconic role of Hurt’s would be the 1984 movie adaptation of the George Orwell novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” (directed by Michael Radford). Hurt plays the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith; the sad, seemingly soulless man who’s flirtation with rebellion is later destroyed by the brutal, totalitarian system of “Oceania.” I didn’t catch this one in its initial theatrical release, though I’d read the book in school. Luckily I caught it years later on video and it was a brutally powerful film. One smaller scene stays in my memory even more vividly than the graphic torture and mind-damaging moments; it was the scene where Smith looks out a window to see a heavyset washwoman below. Smith’s would-be mate Julia mocks her size, but Smith is gently entranced as he mutters, “She’s beautiful… she’s the future.” That scene stays with me due mainly to the quiet dignity of Hurt’s delivery.
One would assume that Hurt would follow two Oscar nominations and a classic novel adaptation with other such lofty projects, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. John Hurt had a sense of humor and he would do comedies, such as Mel Brooks’ “History of the World Part 1” (1981), and the otherwise forgettable “Partners” (1982) with Ryan O’Neal (cashing in on the ’80s ‘buddy-cop’ craze). He’d even lampoon his ALIEN chest-bursting role with a cameo in Brooks’ later Star Wars parody “Spaceballs” (1987).
One of his more successful comedies (in my opinion) was a small, indie movie he did in 1997 called “Love and Death on Long Island”; a dark comedy about an awkward, shy, middle-aged scholarly recluse who wanders into a teen sex comedy movie by mistake one day, only to fall madly in love with the teen heartthrob star of the movie, played by Jason Priestly (of “Beverly Hills 90210”). It’s a wonderfully odd movie, given true substance by the empathy generated from Hurt’s performance. A lesser actor could’ve destroyed that fine line between comedy and pathos; Hurt straddled it seemingly without effort.
Another role of Hurt’s in 1997 was a supporting role in Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of the late Carl Sagan’s novel, “Contact.” This movie is special to me not only because it was an adaptation from a favorite author/inspiration of mine (the late Carl Sagan), but also because it was the movie my then-future wife and I saw on our first date together.
In the film, Hurt played the eccentric billionaire H.R. Hadden, who is the stealthy benefactor of Jodie Foster’s memorable, heroic astronomer “Ellie Arroway” (who was loosely based on real-life SETI researcher Jill Tarter). Hadden is a bald, slightly creepy recluse who lives on his private jet and “rarely lands for anyone.” Hadden drives the action of the story, even when he’s not onscreen. Looking back on the movie now, it’s also sadly prescient, since Hadden lives his final days on the Russian Mir space station in a desperate attempt to slow the advancing cancer throughout his body, using the station’s microgravity. Pancreatic cancer would take Hurt’s own life less than 20 years later.
In more recent years, Hurt would continuously gain new fans with the diversity which was a trademark of his career. He would play “Garrick Olivander” in the Harry Potter movies. He is (literally) the man who would give Harry Potter his magic wand. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge “Harry Potter” fan (I’m more of a sci-fi guy than fantasy fan), but my wife loves the Harry Potter movies (and books), so I committed once to watching all of them in a marathon DVD session with her about 4 years ago. We did all 8 Harry Potter movies over a single week (!). They were certainly fun at the time, but I’ll admit they weren’t entirely my cup o’ tea. No matter. Once again, Hurt would gain a new legion of fans through his trademark willingness to tackle new material.
Hurt would also appear as Prof. Broom, aka “Father” in the “Hellboy” franchise; which encompassed two live-action movies in 2004 (“Hellboy”) and 2008 (“Hellboy: The Golden Army”), and two animated features (“Blood and Iron” “Sword of Storms”). The “Hellboy” movies were based on the cult Mike Mignola graphic novels and are very well done. Hurt would appear in both films and lend his distinctive, gravelly voice to the animated features as well. Broom is the father figure to Ron Perlman’s titular Hellboy (a demon raised by a top-secret, world-saving organization) and they have a nice father/son dynamic together. No one did the rumpled, lovable, academic authority figure quite like Hurt.
And speaking of rumpled, lovable characters, Hurt would once again gain legions of new fans near the end of his career with a role in the 50th anniversary “Doctor Who” special, “Day of the Doctor” (2013). My wife and I were lucky enough to see “Day of the Doctor” in 3D at the cinema in November of 2013 on the 50th anniversary date of the very first Doctor Who broadcast. And Hurt would not be playing a mere supporting character; he would be playing a darker and deliberately forgotten version of The Doctor known as “The War Doctor.” Hurt’s War Doctor was able to make brutal choices in the great “Time War” between the Doctor’s people (the Time Lords) and their arch-nemeses, the “Daleks”; which led to the eradication of both species. The War Doctor’s actions so traumatized him that his future incarnations suppressed acknowledgment of his very existence.
And if anyone reading this blog doesn’t know what a Dalek or Time Lord are? You’re reading the wrong blog.
John Hurt was not above stepping into a 50 year old television franchise and adding his Oscar-nominated gravitas to the list of actors associated with the role, including his “Harry Potter” costar David Tennant, and Matt Smith. The War Doctor’s scenes with the two ‘future versions’ of himself are easily my favorite scenes of the special. His crotchety anger at the childishness of Smith and Tennant’s Doctors is somewhat reminiscent of the late William Hartnell, who originated the role of The Doctor back in 1963. When the two future Doctors whip out their ‘sonic screwdrivers’ to ward off advancing soldiers, Hurt’s War Doctor quips, “They’re screwdrivers! What are you going to do? Assemble a cabinet at them?”
And it was because of his Doctor Who role that I was finally able to meet Sir John Hurt at last year’s “Gallifrey One” Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles.
Hurt was the headlining guest at the convention that weekend (Valentine’s Day weekend, 2016), and I was able to get a brief photo op with him. I won’t lie; I geeked out a bit (see: my stupid, grinning, idiot face in the photo above… ^).
After all, this was “Kane” from ALIEN, John “The Elephant Man” Merrick, the War Doctor, 1984’s “Winston Smith” and so many other roles, and here he was casually posing with his arm slung around my big stupid shoulders. I mentioned to him that his “Contact” was the first film my wife and I saw when we were dating. Hurt mentioned how much he enjoyed “the science of that one.” It was a quick meet (the queue was enormous), but I was thrilled. I had my little moment with Sir John Hurt. I think I texted just about everyone in the western hemisphere of the planet afterward…
At the time, Hurt was battling the cancer that would take his life less than a year later, but the man I saw that weekend was signing hundreds of autographs and posing with hundreds more fans for photo ops. He was very much there for his fans. At the convention, he also did an hour-long stage appearance where he read various Doctor Who monologues, and even recreated some of those scenes with fans who volunteered to appear with him onstage. His enthusiasm with the fans was infectious.
My previous admiration for his work slowly morphed into genuine affection for the man as I watched him interact with his fans. From the initially shy little girl he coaxed into performing onstage with him to the middle-aged geek who grinned like an idiot upon meeting him (moi), he was as generous with his fans as time allowed. Some actors of his caliber wouldn’t ‘do’ conventions, but Hurt’s career was built upon diversity and taking risks. As he said in his Q&A onstage, he enjoyed trying new things. It was one of the reasons why he had legions of fans from so many different stages of his career.
Sir John Hurt could and would do just about anything asked of him, it seemed. And he’d do all of it so well.
He is very much missed.