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He gave us the gentle John Merrick in The Elephant Man. He brought us the endearing wand merchant, Mr. Ollivander, in Harry Potter. He introduced the terrifying Xenomorph to the world in Alien. And after an acclaimed career in film and theater that spanned more than six decades, bringing the world some of its most iconic fictional characters, Sir John Hurt has succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 77.
Born in January of 1940, Hurt was the son of an Anglican minister and an engineer, and had a deeply conservative upbringing—so conservative, in fact, that he was not allowed to go to the movies. His parents did, however, take him to see theatrical productions.
Hurt soon found that he loved performing, acting in school plays from an early age. But because his parents worried over the financially risky nature of acting as a profession, they pushed him to study art. Hurt attended Grimsby Art School, but his passion for acting continued to burn within him.
But his heart wasn’t in it, and he soon dropped out, his story reaching a low point as he fell into impoverishment, living in a dank basement apartment.
So after finding the courage to apply for a scholarship, Hurt successfully auditioned for Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, despite being so hungry that he could barely think on that fateful day.
He went on to graduate from the school in 1962.
“I was effused with a feeling of complete and total enjoyment, and I felt that that’s where I should be,” said Hurt, speaking about acting in a 2000 interview with The Guardian, “I don’t know what psychological terms I could use, but I felt absolutely in the right place.”
The year he graduated, Hurt made his acting debut in The Wild and the Willing, a British romantic drama, and appeared on the stage in the theatrical production of Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger.
But it was his portrayal of British gay icon Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant in 1975 that put the name of John Hurt on the list of truly great actors.
International fame came two years later upon his role in Midnight Express. His performance as a heroin addict in a Turkish prison earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
In 1979, he took on the role of Kane, the first victim of the Xenomorph in the 1979 movie, Alien, in which Hurt made movie history when the now-familiar Alien burst forth from his chest and into popular culture. Hurt would also go on to appear in Spaceballs, a Mel Brooks directed spoof of Alien, where his character suffered the same fate after eating some bad diner food.
1980 saw Hurt bring us the achingly deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man, which brought the actor another Academy Award nomination, but this time for best actor.
John Hurt continued on in what became a highly prolific acting career, appearing in 1984, Rob Roy, Contact, V for Vendetta, and many, many others, even occupying the role of Mr. Ollivander, the wand merchant, in several of the Harry Potter films.
“I’m very much of the opinion that to work is better than not to work,” Hurt says of his work ethic. “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.”
Hurt was known for his portrayal of tormented characters, for his penchant for the misunderstood that he seemed capable of instinctively becoming as he stepped into each of his most famous roles. This trait is a large part of what endeared Sir John Hurt to the world—many of us can see the most painful parts of ourselves within the glittering pain of Hurt’s eyes, in the gravelly crack of his voice.
Hurt’s upbringing, which included sexual abuse by his school’s headmaster, social isolation imposed by his parents for fear of the influence of “common” children, and utter poverty and hunger when he dropped out of art school, forged a man who knew pain, who knew how to portray it.
Shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 16th 2015—one of the most dangerous forms of cancer—Hurt was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to drama. Hurt has also been honored with two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe, and four BAFTA Award, including a Lifetime Achievement recognition for his contributions to British Cinema.
Hurt brought the experience of his deadly diagnosis into one of his final roles, John Hurt portrayed an aging screenwriter with a terminal illness in The Good Night, telling the Radio Times in a subsequent interview that “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.”
John Hurt is survived by his wife of 12 years, Anwen, and his two sons, Alexander and Nicolas Hurt.
Hurt’s life, in the end, was one drawn along by his passion and calling—he never had much of a plan, only a love for what he did.
“I’ve just been whipped along by the waves I’m sitting in,” he wrote on his IMDB profile page. “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?“