One the last hellraisers and undeniable talents of the British stage and screen, John Hurt has passed away after a long battle with cancer…
There are certain actors that are no less than British institutions. Their faces may be chiseled and weathered but each of those lines marks out a distinguished role or familiar project. John Hurt was clearly one of those men. Over the years he managed to accomplish a whole slew of roles that mark him out to several generations. To some he’ll be the face behind The Elephant Man and The Naked Civil Servant, to others the first – and very memorable – victim in Alien; to younger audiences his appearances in everything from Doctor Who (as the ‘War Doctor’ in the series fiftieth anniversary), Indiana Jones , Hellboy, Harry Potter, the voice of the CGI dragon in BBC’s Merlin and the still topical 2005 film V for Vendetta kept him clearly in the public eye. They are buts drops in the vast ocean of his resume.
After moving from Derbyshire to Grimsby with his family, he turned his creative flair to treading the boards and was able to land a place at RADA, making his stage debut in 1962. He might not have been traditional ‘leading man’ material, but he quickly showed an aptitude for the more interesting character parts. Such roles, he always maintained, are the ones which prove far more challenging, though he’d been happy to switch between artistic and more commercial projects when the various opportunities arise.
“I don’t plan at all. I am totally the reflection of other people’s ideas. That’s an exact a description as I can give you. I’ve never had that ambition. I’ve been ambitious… you have to be to get on a bit in this world… but not an ambition to do anything in particular. It’s what comes up, who you bump into,” he told me.
His career often saw him play challenged characters, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes not, but almost always multi-layered. He could be in a mainstream franchise like Harry Potter, cult-fare such as Hellboy and Snowpiercer, classic adaptations such as 1984 (opposite another legend Richard Burton), devastating films based on real events like Shooting Dogs and he would always steal the scene – sometimes from the very best the industry has to offer.
Hurt might have had an iconic face, but his voice was also instantly recognisable – perfect for playing opinionated people (or creatures) with a well-lived life of experience. Hurt considered his voice as much a part of his success as any physical performance he had ever given.
“I think it is. They are all tools, tools to entertain, whatever that entertainment may be, whatever level. Not enough attention is paid to the voice. A voice can not only woo you, it can change your mind and make you sympathise or put you off. It can do ALL sorts of things. It can make you understand language that you would not have understood had you just read it. It’s a mistake to overlook what is, after all, the major method of communication – at least for now,” he explained.
The actor was diagnosed in 2015 with pancreatic cancer, though remained optimistic. He continued to work until very recently and there are a raft of productions that are currently in post-production. His final feature-film role will be that of Neville Chamberlain in The Darkest Hour, opposite Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill which is currently lensing for a late 2017 release.
He is survived by his two sons and his fourth wife, Anwen Rees-Myers.