John Hurt, Oscar-Nominated Star of 'The Elephant Man,' Dies at 77

The British actor of stage and screen also received an Academy Award nom for 'Midnight Express' and was memorable in 'Alien,' three Harry Potter films and 'Doctor Who.'
John Hurt, the esteemed British actor known for his burry voice and weathered visage — one that was kept hidden for his most acclaimed role, that of the deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man — died Friday in London. He was 77.

The two-time Oscar nominee's six-decade career also included turns on the BBC’s Doctor Who and in A Man for All Seasons (1966), Midnight Express (1978) and three Harry Potter films.

He announced in June 2015 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

On screens big and small, Hurt died what seemed a thousand deaths. “I think I’ve got the record,” he once said. “It got to a point where my children wouldn’t ask me if I died, but rather how do you die?”

On his YouTube page, a video titled “The Many Deaths of John Hurt” compiled his cinematic demises in 4 minutes and 30 seconds, from The Wild and the Willing (1962) to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), 40 in all.

One of his most memorable came when he played Kane, the first victim in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), in which he collapses over a table and a snakelike alien bursts out of his chest. (How'd they do that? There was an artificial chest screwed to the table, and Hurt was underneath.)

“Ridley didn’t tell the cast,” executive producer Ronald Shusett told Empire magazine in 2009. “He said, ‘They’re just going to see it.’ ”

“The reactions were going to be the most difficult thing,” Scott explained. “If an actor is just acting terrified, you can’t get the genuine look of raw, animal fear. What I wanted was a hardcore reaction.”

Hurt then lampooned the famous torso-busting scene for director Mel Brooks — whose production company produced 1980's The Elephant Man — for the 1987 comedy Spaceballs.

The Elephant Man received eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Hurt as best actor, but went home empty on Oscar night. (Hurt lost out to Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.)

In 1980, he recalled the extensive makeup needed to become the kind-hearted man with the monstrous skull.

“It never occurred to me it would take eight hours for them to apply the full thing — virtually a working day in itself. There were 16 different pieces to that mask,” he said. “With all that makeup on, I couldn’t be sure what I was doing. I had to rely totally on [Lynch].”

Hurt also garnered an Oscar best supporting actor nomination and a Golden Globe win in 1979 for Midnight Express, in which he portrayed a heroin addict in a Turkish prison. The Alan Parker drama was based on the true story of Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), an American college student caught smuggling drugs.

“I loved making Midnight Express,” he said in 2014. “We were making commercial films then that really did have cracking scenes in them, as well as plenty to say, you know?”

His more recent film appearances came in Snowpiercer (2013), The Journey (2016) and Jackie (2016). He is set to be seen in the upcoming features That Good Night and My Name Is Lenny and was to play Neville Chamberlain in the upcoming Joe Wright drama Darkest Hour.

John Vincent Hurt was born Jan. 22, 1940, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England. He studied art at his parents’ behest, earning an art teacher’s diploma. Disillusioned with the prospect of becoming a teacher, Hurt moved to London, where he won an acting scholarship at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He studied there for two years, securing bit parts in TV shows.

“I wanted to act very early. I didn’t know how to become an actor, as such, nor did I know that it was possible to be a professional actor, but I first decided that I wanted to act when I was 9,” he told The Guardian in 2000. “I was effused with a feeling of complete and total enjoyment, and I felt that’s where I should be.”

Hurt made his London stage debut in Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger in 1962. That year, he acted in his first film, The Wild and the Willing, and his role as the duplicitous baron Richard Rich in Oscar best picture winner A Man for All Seasons helped him become more widely known in the U.S.

Hurt often played wizened, sinister characters. In his younger years, his wiry frame, sallow skin and beady eyes curled together in performances that bespoke menace and hard-wrought wisdom. He was especially effective playing psychologically ravaged characters, like when he was a jockey plagued with cancer in Champions (1984) or the viciously decadent Caligula in the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius.

Hurt brought his peculiarly powerful persona to the role of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2010) and Part 2 (2011).

He also had a recurring role as Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and was the voice of the character in the 2007 TV movie Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron.

Other film credits include The Sailor From Gibraltar (1967), Sinful Davey (1969), 10 Rillington Place (1971), The Osterman Weekend (1983), White Mischief (1987), King Ralph (1991) and Rob Roy (1995). He played a fascist leader of Great Britain in V for Vendetta (2006) and was Professor Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

Hurt also was known for his rich, nicotine-toned timbre, which won him many voiceover assignments. He was the narrator in The Tigger Movie (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Charlie Countryman (2013) and lent his dulcet utterances to The Lord of the Rings (1978), Watership Down (1978), The Black Cauldron (1985), Thumbelina (1994) and the Oscar-nominated short film The Gruffalo (2009).

“I have always been aware of voice in film. I think that it’s almost 50 percent of your equipment [as an actor],” he once said. “It’s as important as what you look like, certainly on stage and possibly on film as well. If you think of any of the great American stars, you think of their voices and their looks, any of them — from Clark Gable to Rock Hudson.”

For the small screen, Hurt starred in the TV shows The Storyteller, The Alan Clark Diaries, The Confession and Merlin and in the miniseries Crime and Punishment and Labyrinth. He notably played the War Doctor in the 2013-14 season of Doctor Who.

On participating in the Whovian fandom, Hurt said in 2013: “I’ve done a couple of conferences where you sit and sign autographs for people and then you have photographs taken with them and a lot of them are all dressed up in alien suits or Doctor Who whatevers. I was terrified of doing it because I thought they’d all be loonies, but they are absolutely, totally charming as anything. I’m not saying it’s the healthiest thing — I don’t know whether it is or isn’t — but they are very charming.”

The accomplished stage actor performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In 1994, he starred opposite Helen Mirren in Bill Bryden’s West End production of A Month in the Country, and he scraped out an edgy and vigorously dour performance in Samuel Beckett’s autobiographical one-man drama Krapp’s Last Tape in 1999.

When asked about the difference between film and stage acting, Hurt explained: “It’s rather like two different sports. You use two completely different sets of muscles.”

In 2012, Hurt was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, then was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in July 2015.

Survivors include his fourth wife Anwen Rees-Myers, whom he married in 2005, and sons Alexander and Nicholas.

Samir Hussein/Gettyimages

Sir John Hurt, legendary British actor who starred in Alien, Harry Potter and Midnight Express, dies aged 77

​Sir John Hurt, the Oscar-nominated actor whose career spanned six decades and included films such as The Elephant Man and Harry Potter, has died at the age of 77.

The actor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2015 but had continued working, starring recently in the Oscar-nominated biopic of President John F. Kennedy’s widow, Jackie.

His agent, Charles McDonald, confirmed his death to the Press Association on Saturday.
He is survived by his wife of 12 years, Anwen Rees-Myers.

'We occupy our chair very briefly'

As he was battling cancer in 2015, Sir John said he did not wish for an afterlife.  “I hope I shall have the courage to say, ‘Vroom! Here we go! Let’s become different molecules!” he told the Radio Times in an interview.

“I can’t say I worry about mortality, but it’s impossible to get to my age and not have a little contemplation of it. We’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly.”

Sir John, who said in October 2015 that the cancer was in remission, had been due to appear in The Entertainer in July last year but had been forced to withdraw due to ill health.

'A truly magnificent talent'

As news of his death broke, tributes started pouring in from figures within the film industry.

Stephen Fry tweeted: "Oh no. What terrible news. We've lost John Hurt as great on the stage, small screen and big. A great man & great friend of Norfolk & #NCFC."

"Very sad to hear of John Hurt's passing. It was such an honour to have watched you work, sir," tweeted Elijah Wood, who starred alongside Hurt in the Oxford Murders.

Mel Brooks, the veteran actor/director, described Sir John as a "truly magnificent talent".

"No one could have played The Elephant Man more memorably. He carried that film into cinematic immortality. He will be sorely missed," he tweeted.

Sharon Stone tweeted: "God speed to John Hurt, a legendary actor and good human being."

'Call me Sir John'

The British actor has been nominated for two Oscars, for The Elephant Man and Midnight Express, and his credits include the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien.

According to IMDB, he was to play Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour, a Second World War film slated for release in 2017.

As well as two Oscar nominations, Sir John won four Bafta Awards, including a lifetime achievement recognition for his outstanding contribution to British cinema in 2012.

The star was awarded a knighthood for services to drama in 2015 and appreciated the new title.

"I like being Sir John. It works, doesn’t it? Or John,” the actor said. “The only thing that sticks in my craw is when people say ‘Mr Hurt’. I tell them it’s no longer correct."

Sir John said he was surprised to receive a knighthood because he had not campaigned for it – unlike some of his peers. “I did nothing to encourage it,” he said. “Some people do, you know.”

Film credits

After making a name for himself in A Man for All Seasons in 1966, Sir John went on to star as Caligula  in TV series I, Claudius in 1976 and the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.

Sir John enjoyed a big hit with sci-fi horror Alien and his character's final scene has been frequently named as one of the most memorable in cinematic history.

He became known to a new generation of film lovers with his recurring role as Mr Ollivander in the Harry Potter series and as the War Doctor in a 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who in 2013.

Sir John also racked up film hits in V for Vendetta, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Hercules.

Other celebrated roles included his performance as Stephen Ward - a key figure in the Profumo affair - in Scandal and a reprisal of his role as Quentin Crisp for An Englishman In New York in 2009, 34 years after his original portrayal of the flamboyant figure.

While many of his characters will live long in the history of cinema, they often didn't survive the film.

"I think I’ve got the record. It got to the point where my children wouldn't ask me if I died in a film, but rather 'how do you die," he once said.

On his YouTube page, a video titled The Many Deaths of John Hurt compiled his cinematic demises in four minutes and 30 seconds, from The Wild and the Willing (1962) to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), 40 in all.

Sir John's distinctive voice has been used several times as narrator, and accompanied a chilling Aids awareness advertising campaign in the 1980s.

A lonely childhood

Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Sir John grew up as the son of a vicar and spent what he described as a lonely childhood first at an Anglo-Catholic prep school and later at a boarding school in Lincoln.

In 2012, Sir John spoke out about the "inappropriate" conduct which took place at his preparatory school.

"You are taken away from your home at eight years old, and you were looked after by a master or two," he told director Alan Parker for a television programme about his life.

"They may have been a little bit inept. How can one say it… they were inappropriate. A bit of touching here and there and so on."

He left school to go to art college but dropped out, impoverished and living in a dismal basement flat.

He finally plucked up enough courage to apply for a scholarship and auditioned successfully for Rada, although he later recalled being so hungry he could hardly deliver his lines.

While he later became a much acclaimed star, for many years the actor with the hang-dog face, baggy eyes and parchment-coloured skin was almost as famous for his off-screen, hell-raising antics.

He famously blotted his copybook at a Bafta awards ceremony when he hurled himself in a drunken rage at a pack of paparazzi.

Off the screen...

The picture of a legendary drinker was often splashed across the newspapers but age mellowed him and he admitted to being happier sitting with his beloved painting easels.

In contrast to the steady success of his career, Hurt's private life was at times scarred by disaster.

His first marriage ended in the 1960s. In 1968 he started a relationship with the "love of his life" Marie Lise Volpeliere-Porrot. It ended 15 years later when she was killed in a riding accident.

The following year he married US actress Donna Peacock but the couple divorced four years later, although they remained good friends. He married his third wife Jo Dalton in 1990 and they had two sons. But again the marriage ended in divorce in 1995.

Ten years later he wed Anwen Rees-Myers, who has remained at his side for the last decade.

'Hardest film I ever made?'

In 2006, Sir John spoke about the emotional job of filming Shooting Dogs, a film set during the Rwandan genocide.

 ““In retrospect, of course it was the hardest film I have ever made.  .... There were outbreaks of hysteria on set on a daily basis. People we were working with would break down, it was often too much. Every Rwandan had suffered. However, they were incredibly resilient – they had to be. For the westerners there, we had to maintain a sense of humour to get up in the mornings. If you multiply that sense of pain by a thousand, then that was how difficult it was for the Rwandans to come and work every morning."

Actor John Hurt of 'Elephant Man,' 'Midnight Express' and 'Alien' dies at 77

Actor John Hurt, the gravelly voiced British actor who garnered Oscar nominations for his roles in "Midnight Express" and "The Elephant Man," has died at the age of 77, publicist Charles McDonald said Friday.

McDonald offered no other details of Hurt's passing.

Known for playing tormented characters, Hurt memorably died on screen in the 1979 space adventure "Alien" when a creature exploded from his chest during lunch in the spacecraft mess hall. CNN's "The Screening Room" in 2007 ranked it among its Top 10 favorite movie deaths.

Hurt always stayed busy, working more than six decades in television, movies and voice work in England and the United States. He recently played a priest who counsels Jacqueline Kennedy in last year's biopic "Jackie," according to IMDb.
"I'm very much of the opinion that to work is better than not to work," he said, according to his IMDb bio. "There are others who'd say, 'No, wait around for the right thing' - and they will finish up a purer animal than me. ... Of course, I don't do everything by any means: I do turn lots of stuff down, because it's absolute crap. But I usually find something interesting enough to do."

Accolades poured in on social media.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland tweeted: "My deepest sympathies to John Hurt's family, friends and fans. He was a dear friend."

Hurt was born in Shirebrook, a coal mining village in Derbyshire, England, the son of an an engineer and one-time actress and an Anglican clergyman and mathematician, IMDb said.

He trained to become a painter but, after being accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, worked on the stage in the early 1960s.

His first film role came in the "angry young man" drama "Young and Willing" in 1962 and his first major role in "A Man for All Seasons" in 1966, IMDb said.

His big break came when he portrayed the gay writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp in the mid-1970s television play "The Naked Civil Servant," which was adapted from Crisp's autobiography, IMDb said.

The good roles kept coming. He went on to play a Turkish prison inmate in "Midnight Express" in 1978 and the gentle, disfigured John Merrick in "The Elephant Man" in 1980. Those roles earned him Oscar nominations and he won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in "Midnight Express."

He usually played characters with problems, and IMDb said he died 47 times on screen. But Hurt also also had comic roles, such as Jesus in Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I" in 1981, which he took on because he'd just done two serious roles and wanted to have some fun, IMDb said.

Hurt appeared in the first two Harry Potter movies, playing wand maker Garrick Ollivander, and did voice work and narration in movies like "Watership Down," "The Plague Dogs," and "Thumbelina."

Some of his top television roles included Caligula in "I, Claudius" in 1976, General Woundwort in "Watership Down" and the War Doctor in "Doctor Who."

He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2004 Queen's Birthday Honours List for his services to Drama.

Hurt was married four times and was married to Anwen Rees-Myers when he died. Hurt was an alcoholic for years but said he quit drinking in 2005, according to IMDb.

A grand scheme never guided his life, he said.

"I've just been whipped along by the waves I'm sitting in," he said, according to IMDb. "I don't make plans at all. Plans are what make God laugh. You can make plans, you can make so many plans, but they never go right, do they?"

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