John Hurt Remembered

A tribute to Sir John Hurt, who David Lynch called “simply the greatest actor in the world.”

Like any supremely gifted artist, the best actors defy simple descriptions. It isn’t that words like versatile and magnificent are inaccurate. The labels just seem inadequate for such mammoth talents. Sir John Hurt, who passed away on January 27th shortly after his 77th birthday, was such a figure.

Even the reason for his 2015 knighthood – services to drama – isn’t really up to the task, though, that may just be the British knack for understatement at work. Revisiting some of his best and most-heralded roles (not necessarily the same thing), the one certainty is that he was utterly committed to the parts he played. Hurt was known to say that an actor had to “earn the right” to be on the screen, and this mindset showed in his work. Whether it was a larger than life performance like Caligula in ‘I, Claudius’ or the decidedly low-key Winston Smith in ‘1984’, he simply made you believe in him.

Two particular traits distinguished him from so many of his peers. The first was an understanding that expressiveness is a matter not just of energy but also restraint. The other was an ability to know which of those was required in a given moment. This is most evident in the famous train station scene of David Lynch’s film ‘The Elephant Man’ where John Merrick is cornered by a mob. The balancing act between dignity and desperation declaration as he proclaims “I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man” is doubtless a key reason why Lynch called Hurt “simply the greatest actor in the world.”

Hurt’s upbringing makes his path seem simultaneously unusual and unsurprising. His parents – an actress turned engineer and a mathematician who joined the clergy – frowned on him seeing films. While his father thought cinema was “too common”, theatre was apparently allowed, and the younger Hurt developed an interest in acting at a very young age. After an abandoned effort to become certified as an art teacher (a respectable profession in his parents’ eyes), he eventually received a scholarship to RADA, began working regularly on stage and got his first film role in 1962’s ‘The Wild and the the Willing’. By all accounts, it wasn’t a particularly distinguished production, but better things followed including the BAFTA and Oscar winning adaptation of ‘A Man for All Seasons’ in 1966.

From there, any attempted list of highlights risks a significant oversights. After receiving his first BAFTA for ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ and his turn in ‘I, Claudius’, most of his screen roles were for the cinema, frequently in high-profile films. While some actors’ range narrows as their international reputation grows, his seemed to broaden.

Filmmaker Tony Britten, who directed Hurt in the recent comedy ‘ChickLit’, described him as “a consummate actor who inhabited every role he played and never gave the same performance.” From the imprisoned heroin addict in ‘Midnight Express’ and the Countess in ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’ to the High Chancellor in ‘V for Vendetta’ and Ollivander in the ‘Harry Potter’ films, the sheer variety of parts he embraced is truly stunning.

Perhaps the closest thing to a common denominator is the frequency with which he died on-screen. Out of 200 or so roles, dozens featured the death of his character. Some, such as ‘The Hit’, were decidedly violent ends, and others were steeped in mystery like ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’. The most famous, of course, was that oh so memorable scene in ‘Alien’, which he would later parody for Mel Brooks in ‘Spaceballs’. Brooks, who as the Executive Producer of ‘The Elephant Man’ (another onscreen death) had done much to foster Hurt’s reputation, had previously cast him as Jesus for an irreverent take on the Last Supper in ‘History of the World, Part I’.

Despite memorable dialogue-free performances in music videos by Paul McCartney (Take It Away) and Suede (Attitude), the foremost among Hurt’s many gifts as an actor was clearly his voice. Described by many as a mix of honey and gravel, it brought gravity to virtually any scene in which it was heard, even when divorced from his wonderfully expressive face. This was demonstrated most famously by his voiceover work in a pair of 1978 films – Hazel in ‘Watership Down’ and Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. He likewise distinguished himself in the field of audio drama. In addition to various productions for BBC Radio, Hurt endeared himself to a legion of fans by reprising his 2013 role as “the War Doctor” in a recent series of ‘Doctor Who’ plays, whose final episodes will be released later this year.

One heartening thought amid the sadness of this loss is that his story as an actor is yet to be finished. In addition to playing Neville Chamberlain in the upcoming ‘Darkest Hour’, several other appearances are in various stages of completion. Considering not just those future projects but also the many roles ripe for (re)discovery, there is one adjective that seems truly fitting for John Hurt – immortal.

❉ Following the death of Sir John Hurt, Big Finish Productions have postponed their scheduled release of The Invisible Man

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