The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - JOHN HURT, 77 BY ADAM BERN­STEIN adam.bern­stein@wash­

Ac­tor John Hurt gave life to “The Ele­phant Man,” the Ro­man em­peror Caligula and other out­casts.

John Hurt, a Bri­tish ac­tor who gave com­pelling depth to des­per­ate, flawed and some­times mon­strously de­formed char­ac­ters in per­for­mances that cap­ti­vated au­di­ences and crit­ics for more than five decades, died Jan. 25 at his home in Nor­folk, Eng­land. He was 77.

The ac­tor an­nounced in 2015 that he had pan­cre­atic cancer. His agent, Charles McDon­ald, con­firmed the death to The Wash­ing­ton Post. Mr. Hurt had re­cently ap­peared as a Catholic priest in the biopic “Jackie” op­po­site Natalie Port­man.

The son of an Angli­can vicar, Mr. Hurt dis­cov­ered as a youth that he “didn’t go for God.” But like his fa­ther, he once ob­served, he spent his life re­veal­ing to oth­ers cer­tain truths about hu­man na­ture.

His tools in­cluded an al­most sin­gu­larly ex­pres­sive face, one that with age came to be de­fined by a rut­ted fore­head and baggy, hooded eyes. His voice was a grav­elly rasp, col­ored by ex­ces­sive drink and smoke.

Mr. Hurt was widely ad­mired for his range, in­ten­sity and em­pa­thy in por­tray­ing the most com­pli­cated and out­cast lives. David Lynch, who di­rected the ac­tor in his ti­tle role in “The Ele­phant Man” (1980), once called Mr. Hurt “sim­ply the great­est ac­tor in the world.”

Af­ter a promis­ing start on­stage, he found his first no­table screen role in the Os­car-win­ning “A Man for All Sea­sons” (1966), which starred Paul Scofield as the mar­tyred English­man Thomas More.

The di­rec­tor Fred Zin­ne­mann said he took a gam­ble cast­ing the largely un­known Mr. Hurt as Richard Rich, a young lawyer and More dis­ci­ple who be­trays his men­tor. “I knew he was our man when I saw what ex­plo­sive ner­vous en­ergy he was ca­pa­ble of,” Zin­ne­mann wrote in a mem­oir.

That skit­tish ten­sion re­mained Mr. Hurt’s call­ing card in his roughly 200 films and TV ap­pear­ances that fol­lowed. He em­braced main­stream hits, in­clud­ing the “Harry Pot­ter” se­ries — he played the wand maker Ol­li­van­der — as well as more dis­qui­et­ing fare, such as Sa­muel Beck­ett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in which he gave, on­stage and on tele­vi­sion, a tour de force de­pic­tion of a re­gret­ful writer.

Ca­reer high­lights in­clude the taut film “10 Rilling­ton Place” (1971), as a man of low men­tal fac­ul­ties wrongly ex­e­cuted for mur­ders com­mit­ted by Bri­tish se­rial killer John Christie, and “The Naked Civil Ser­vant” (1975), a Bri­tish TV movie about the gay author and racon­teur Quentin Crisp.

“It was a very risky piece for an ac­tor — a tele­vi­sion play about an ef­fem­i­nate ho­mo­sex­ual who is also an ex­hi­bi­tion­ist,” he told the Sun­day Times of Lon­don in 2000. “Many peo­ple told me it would be the end of my ca­reer.”

In an­other cel­e­brated Bri­tish minis­eries, “I, Claudius” (1976), Mr. Hurt gave a ter­ri­fy­ing por­trayal of the Ro­man em­peror Caligula, a mad de­gen­er­ate who fan­cies him­self a god. Two years later, Mr. Hurt re­ceived his first Os­car nom­i­na­tion, for his sup­port­ing role in “Mid­night Ex­press” as an Eng­lish junkie abused by guards in a Turk­ish jail.

In the New Yorker, film critic Pauline Kael ex­tolled Mr. Hurt’s power and con­trol in roles that could have gone off the rails in dra­matic ex­cess. In “Mid­night Ex­press,” she wrote, he demon­strated “such in­ner force that he can play the most pas­sive of roles, as he does here (he barely moves a mus­cle), and still trans­fix the au­di­ence . . . He’s an al­most burned-out light­bulb with just a few dim flashes of the fil­a­ment left. Yet he’s the most mov­ing char­ac­ter in the film.”

Although he lost the sup­port­ing Os­car bid to Christo­pher Walken in “The Deer Hunter,” Mr. Hurt had ap­peared on Hol­ly­wood’s radar and was cast in Ri­d­ley Scott’s sci-fi thriller “Alien” (1979), a box-of­fice grand slam.

The movie pro­vided Mr. Hurt with a graph­i­cally mem­o­rable role, as a space voy­ager whose stom­ach ex­plodes af­ter an ex­trater­res­trial bur­rows into him. (He would lam­poon that scene in Mel Brooks’s 1987 film “Space­balls,” with his char­ac­ter la­ment­ing, “Oh, no, not again!”)

One of his most touch­ing per­for­mances came in “The Ele­phant Man,” which Lynch di­rected and Brooks helped pro­duce. Mr. Hurt played a Vic­to­rian-era English­man whose grotesque dis­fig­ure­ment led to years of ex­ploita­tion as a car­ni­val freak.

Mr. Hurt un­der­went six hours of makeup ap­pli­ca­tion each day to play Joseph Mer­rick — called John in the film — a man of dig­nity, ten­der­ness and re­fine­ment un­der­neath his de­for­mity.

In one of the film’s most no­table se­quences, Mer­rick is cor­nered by a mob in a train sta­tion uri­nal and col­lapses while shout­ing, “I am not an ele­phant! I am not an an­i­mal! I am a hu­man be­ing! I am a man!”

Mr. Hurt’s per­for­mance gar­nered an Os­car nom­i­na­tion for a lead­ing role, but he lost to Robert De Niro as boxer Jake LaMotta in “Rag­ing Bull.”

Mr. Hurt also played such haunted char­ac­ters from lit­er­a­ture as Raskol­nikov in Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevski’s “Crime and Pun­ish­ment” (1979), and he was su­perb as Win­ston Smith, a re­bel­lious em­ployee of the Min­istry of Truth, in“Nine­teen Eighty-Four” (1984), based on the Ge­orge Or­well book about a to­tal­i­tar­ian fu­ture.

He was Je­sus at the Last Sup­per, con­fused by an in­tru­sive waiter, in Brooks’s “His­tory of the World: Part I” (1981); the li­bidi­nous so­ci­ety os­teopath Stephen Ward in “Scan­dal” (1989), about the Pro­fumo-Keeler sex scan­dal that shook 1960s Eng­land; an eru­dite Eng­lish writer smit­ten with a teenage heart­throb (Ja­son Pri­est­ley) in“Love and Death on Long Is­land” (1997); and an om­ni­scient, enig­matic bil­lion­aire who funds an as­tronomer (Jodie Fos­ter) in “Con­tact” (1997).

Be­cause of his skill im­bu­ing the most ec­cen­tric parts with hu­man­ity, Mr. Hurt was one of the few ac­tors to emerge crit­i­cally un­scathed from Gus Van Sant’s 1993 film, “Even Cow­girls Get the Blues,” in which he played the Count­ess, de­scribed by one Bri­tish re­porter as “a misog­y­nist ho­mo­sex­ual fem­i­nine-de­odor­ant mag­nate.”

John Vin­cent Hurt was born in Ch­ester­field, Eng­land, on Jan. 22, 1940, and grew up in Cleethor­pes.

He de­scribed his par­ents as dis­tant and se­vere, pro­hibit­ing him from mix­ing with neigh­bor­hood chil­dren they deemed “com­mon.” He felt fur­ther iso­lated at prepara­tory schools, one where he later said he was sex­u­ally abused by an ad­min­is­tra­tor. An older brother re­belled against his par­ents by con­vert­ing to Catholi­cism and later be­came a Bene­dic­tine monk.

From a young age, Mr. Hurt found refuge in the theater. At prep school, he was fre­quently cast in fe­male roles. “I had a very high voice and was quite small — and was rather pretty in those days,” he later told the Scots­man news­pa­per. “I just knew, then, that I wanted to act.”

He at­tended art school to honor his par­ents’ re­quest that he train for a fall­back ca­reer be­fore win­ning a schol­ar­ship to at­tend the Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art in Lon­don.

Early on, de­spite his wispy phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance, he was sin­gled out by theater crit­ics for his mag­netism. His por­trayal of a re­bel­lious art stu­dent in David Hal­li­well’s dark com­edy “Lit­tle Mal­colm and His Strug­gle Against the Eunuchs” — which he reprised on-screen in 1974 — brought him to Zin­ne­mann’s at­ten­tion.

Mr. Hurt re­turned pe­ri­od­i­cally to the stage, with the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany and else­where, but he fo­cused chiefly on a screen ca­reer that en­com­passed adap­ta­tions of “King Lear,” hor­ror films, fan­tasies and westerns.

In such a pro­lific ca­reer, he was not with­out his mis­fires, in­clud­ing a ver­sion of “Romeo and Juliet” fea­tur­ing an other­wise allfe­line cast. He also played the Bri­tish spy chief known as “Con­trol” in “Tin­ker Tailor Sol­dier Spy” (2011), a crit­i­cally lauded ver­sion of the John le Carré novel about Cold War de­ceit.

His per­sonal life was tur­bu­lent. He said he suf­fered from “con­sid­er­able mood swings” and took plea­sure in drink­ing with leg­en­dar­ily rowdy and bibu­lous ac­tors such as Peter O’Toole, Richard Har­ris and Oliver Reed.

An early marriage, to actress An­nette Robert­son, ended in di­vorce. His com­pan­ion of 16 years, French fash­ion model Marie-Lise Volpe­liere-Pier­rot, was killed in a horse-rid­ing ac­ci­dent in 1983.

His sub­se­quent mar­riages to Donna Pea­cock and Jo Dalton, the mother of his two sons, ended in di­vorce. In 2005, he wed An­wen Rees-My­ers. A com­plete list of survivors could not im­me­di­ately be con­firmed.

Mr. Hurt was knighted by Queen El­iz­a­beth II in 2014 for his con­tri­bu­tions to drama.

“There isn’t such a thing as a regular guy,” Mr. Hurt once told the New York Times. The roles that in­trigued him, he said, “de­mand vul­ner­a­bil­ity . . . the abil­ity to ex­pose things that would not nor­mally be seen.”


TOP: Ac­tor John Hurt, nom­i­nated for an Academy Award for best ac­tor for his role in “The Ele­phant Man,” sits with actress Cather­ine Hicks at a cocktail party in Los An­ge­les on March 17, 1981. ABOVE: Hurt ar­rives for a premiere of “The Queen,” di­rected by Stephen Frears, at the Curzon The­atre in Lon­don on Sept. 13, 2006. Hurt made roughly 200 film and tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances in a ca­reer that spanned more than five decades.


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