The world awoke today to find we had lost another of the greats. John Hurt – who has been active as an actor for over 50 years, first appearing in Z Cars in 1962 – passed away after a battle with cancer.
Hurt has been such a fixture of the entertainment industry for over half a century that it’s hard to imagine a world without him in it. Whether he was the hero or the villain, you could always rely on one thing – John Hurt would steal the show. It doesn’t matter what you were watching, his performance would be the one you were talking about with friends weeks, months or years later. For example, it is perhaps indicative of Hurt’s prowess as an actor that when one thinks of George Orwell’s dystopian text 1984, one of the most widely read prose ever written, that it is Hurt’s face that first springs to mind. The same could be said for V for Vendetta.
Coming up with a list of his most iconic performances is no easy task. John Hurt has been the highlight of so many films, theater performances and television shows that it’s almost impossible to cover everything, nor can you please everyone. With that in mind, please remember this list is not exhaustive nor is it in any particular order. It is simply a list of some of his most iconic moments. For all the performances listed below we must not forget his work in films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1984, the animated Lord of the Rings, King Ralph, Hellboy or The Naked Civil Servant. So please feel free to share your own favourites in the comments section below.
7. Giles De’ath (Love and Death on Long Island, 1997)
In Richard Kwietniowski’s Love and Death on Long Island, John Hurt plays recently widowed writer Giles De’ath, who becomes obsessed with – to the point of stalking – Jason Priestley’s Hollywood heart breaker, Ronnie Bostock.
Whether or not this fixation extends to a homosexual attraction is never revealed. All we can be sure of is De’ath is obsessed. Bostock is his reason for getting out of bed, for embracing the modern era he has so often shunned, and even his reason for living.
Despite the many connotations of the themes within this flick, Hurt brings a dignity to De’Ath that transcends any amusement that comes from this straight laced, middle-aged widower’s infatuation with a teen idol.
6. Max (Midnight Express, 1978)
Alan Parker’s account of life inside Istanbul’s Sağmalcılar prison is widely regarded as an all time classic, and rightfully so. For those reading this who have not seen it, the film is the biographical account of an American tourist named Billy Hayes, who is found with 2 KG of hashish strapped to his chest while trying to leave the country, and quickly imprisoned.
But it isn’t Brad Davis’ intense portrayal of Billy that really stands out here. It’s his heroin addicted cellmate Max, played by Hurt, that truly sizzles on screen. His performance is both understated and bold, and earned the actor both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe.
Not bad for someone who described acting as being nothing more than a game of “Cowboys and Indians”.
5. Himself (Spaceballs, 1987)
Parodying his character in the original Alien, Hurt plays himself in Mel Brooks 1987 sci-fi spoof, reenacting the infamous chest bursting scene with a difference.
This has long been regarded as the greatest cameo appearance of all time, which is why it finds its way on to our list.
“Water my ass, bring this guy some Pepto-Bismol!”
4. The War Doctor (Doctor Who, 2013)
John Hurt’s inclusion in the Doctor Who legacy came quite out of nowhere. The show, which is still loved by millions, has arguably been quite kid friendly since returning back in 2005. So to have Hurt appear as a hitherto unknown incarnation of the Time Lord, in some of the grittiest television in years, was an inspired piece of casting.
There was no joking around here, Hurt’s Doctor was a Doctor of war, and you could see this written on every line of his weary face. Hurt’s Doctor was prepared to carry out the most unforgivable act of total Genocide, just to save the rest of the Universe from a far worse fate. This was not the same man who talked about “Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff”.
3. The Storyteller (The Storyteller, 1987)
Hurt was as prolific in the medium of television as he was in film, lending his distinctive voice to such TV shows as Watership Down and The Gruffalo. But it was his role as the eponymous Storyteller that was perhaps his most iconic.
Created by the brilliant Jim Henson, The Storyteller was a short lived anthology series in which Hurt’s titular narrator recanted a mixture of European folk tales, through a clever use of puppets and real people. Even Hurt himself was supposed to resemble a puppet, sitting by the fire with his dog, spinning yarns about Hedgehog children and man’s power over death.
2. Kane (Alien, 1979)
OK, so the role itself might not have been that much of a stretch for Hurt, but can you honestly think of a more iconic moment in the entire Alien franchise? Or in horror for that matter?
After poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, Nostromo crew member Kane finds himself with an uninvited guest attached to his face. Days later the creature drops off and seemingly dies. But little do Kane and his cohorts know, the creature has implanted something inside him, and it’s just bursting to get out.
1. John Merrick (The Elephant Man, 1980)
Hurt is virtually unrecognizable in the role of John (actually Joseph) Merrick, a former sideshow freak who briefly finds himself the toast of Victorian society, before realising that he is in fact still a carnival attraction, more animal than man.
Despite the heavy makeup and prosthesis, Hurt manages to project the true heart of the character, bringing out the gentleman, the scholar and the tortured, lonely soul of Merrick. When the character utters the now famous line “I am a human being”, our hearts break for him, because no matter how great Hurt may be with his delivery of the lines, it is his eyes that speak to us, far more than any dialogue ever could. What a testament to his ability as an actor that he can divert our attention away from such a hideous facade as that of the Elephant Man.