John Hurt, versatile star of The Elephant Man, Alien and Harry Potter, dies aged 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.

His agent, Charles McDonald, confirmed his death on Saturday.

John Hurt’s role in the made-for-TV film The Naked Civil Servant, first broadcast on ITV in 1975 – as well as its 2009 follow-up, An Englishman in New York – identified him with Crisp, whose transgressive public behaviour had made him a pioneer in altering public attitudes to homosexuality in the late 1960s and early 70s. John Hurt told the News Channels he had been “warned not to do it – they said you’ll never work again”, but in the event it proved a rousing success; John Hurt won several awards, and it transformed him from a mercurial supporting player – in films such as 10 Rillington Place, where he played Timothy Evans. the hapless neighbour of Richard Attenborough’s thoroughly creepy serial killer John Christie – to a genuine international star.

Born in 1940 to an Anglican clergyman father and an engineering draughtswoman mother, Hurt grew up in Woodville in Derbyshire before being sent to school in Kent, where he later revealed he had been sexually abused by the headmaster. He later moved to a school in Grimsby, before a spell at art college and then Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Having worked his way up through TV bit parts and theatre, his first significant role was in the 1966 film of A Man For All Seasons, as Richard Rich.

After The Naked Civil Servant, John Hurt went on to appear in Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (as a composer who is terrorised by a mysterious stranger, played by Alan Bates), voicing the role of Hazel in an animated adaptation of Watership Down, and playing Caligula in the BBC’s celebrated TV adaptation of I Claudius, Hurt took another step upwards with memorable supporting roles in major Hollywood productions – both by British directors. Alan Parker cast him as an English junkie in a Turkish jail in 1978’s Midnight Express (for which Hurt won a Bafta and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor, and was nominated for an Oscar). The following year saw him take the role with which he arguably made the most permanent impact on popular culture: Kane, the crew member of the Nostromo in the Ridley-Scott-directed Alien, out of whose chest an xenomorph gruesomely bursts.

As Crisp later wrote, Hurt seemed to “specialise in victims”; he next went on to play one of the most heart-rending of all in The Elephant Man, directed by David Lynch. Notoriously, the extensive make-up and prosthetics required to recreate John Merrick’s physical deformities meant Hurt had to endure seven hours of preparation each day; however, the difficulties paid off when Hurt was nominated again for an Oscar, this time for best actor. (He lost out to Robert de Niro for Raging Bull.)

Having been elevated to these heady heights, Hurt then embarked on a blizzard of wildly differing roles, moving rapidly between genres and continents as he went. He was cast in Hollywood films such as Heaven’s Gate and The Osterman Weekend; comedies such as History of the World Part 1 (for his Elephant Man producer Mel Brooks); and British independents such as the Stephen Frears directed The Hit, Champions, in which he played a Grand National winning jockey, and Nineteen Eighty Four, as Winston Smith opposite Richard Burton. His rich, rasping tones were perfect for animation and voiceover: he worked on The Plague Dogs and The Black Cauldron as well as the celebrated Don’t Die of Ignorance public health warning about Aids.

This prolific, eclectic career continued through the 90s and 2000s: he worked with fashionable arthouse directors like Gus Van Sant (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, The Limits of Control) and Lars von Trier (Dogville, Manderlay) while making regular outings in Hollywood, including Rob Roy, Contact, Hellboy, V for Vendetta and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Reportedly, though, his personal favourites were Love and Death on Long Island in which he played an ageing author obsessed with a young man, and The Field, Jim Sheridan’s fable of strife in a remote Irish village.

The advent of the British commercial-cinema revival in the same period saw Hurt called upon for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and the Harry Potter films (where Hurt appeared as the wand-maker Mr Ollivander in the first film, Philosopher’s Stone, and the final two, Deathly Hallows. He continued to alternate between gamey Hollywood fare – such as Immortals and Hercules – with more considered work: he played Control in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; a centuries-old vampire called Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive, again for Jarmusch; and the guru-like Gilliam in Snowpiercer.

Though he always prioritised film acting, Hurt also made regular appearances on stage, including the first West End production of David Halliwell’s cult play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs in 1967 (before going on to appear in the 1974 film version, funded by George Harrison). However, he was most identified with a series of performances of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, which he first played in 1999. Hurt also played numerous roles on TV, including Alan Clark in the 2004 adaptation of The Alan Clark Diaries and the Doctor in the 50th anniversary special episode of Doctor Who in 2013.

John Hurt had a turbulent personal life: he was married four times, and between his first and second marriages he had a 15-year-relationship with a partner, Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, who died in 1983 after a horse-riding accident. (He had two children, Alexander and Nicholas, with his third wife, Jo Dalton.) In 2008 he admitted to having recovered from a long-term problem with alcohol, that had sen him tentatively grouped with the likes of Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole as a “hellraiser”. However his distinguished work over six decades was recognised with a special Bafta for outstanding British contribution to cinema in 2012, and a knighthood in 2015.

  • Eric Johnson

    Thanks John Hurt for your fine work. You will be missed by a lot of different people that loved your work over the years. Godspeed John Hurt.