If names are destiny, then John Hurt offers a case in point. Many of his most memorable roles were those of victims: the wretched illiterate Timothy Evans, framed for murder and hanged, in 10 Rillington Place (1971); the experimental composer felled by The Shout (1978); Max, the imprisoned heroin addict in Alan Parker’s Turkish-prison melodrama Midnight Express (1978); the astronaut from whose chest the creature gorily erupts in Alien (1979); the title-role as the Victorian freak Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980); on TV, the Fool to Laurence Olivier’s King Lear (1983); Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984); the establishment’s fall guy, Stephen Ward, in Michael Caton-Jones’s account of the Profumo affair, Scandal (1989); and the ultimate victim figure, Jesus Christ, in Mel Brooks’ scattershot comedy epic History of the World: Part 1 (1981).
Not all his roles were victims, of course; his range was far wider than that. But he favoured outsiders and mavericks, kickers against the pricks: never more pointedly so than in his embodiment of flamboyantly gay icon Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975). Introducing a fluting tremor into his distinctive gravel-in-honey voice, Hurt played Crisp as a deliberate provocateur, pushing the outrageousness to see how far he could get away with it. In full drag and taken on a bus by his current boyfriend, he announces to all within earshot “I’m rather glad we couldn’t get a taxi – I’ve never been on a bus before! Isn’t it fun?” – and, as his embarrassed companion pays the fare, “Does one tip the conduct-or?”, elevating the final syllable to an interrogatory falsetto.
Something of the same relish in outrageousness, though in a more lethal register, informed Hurt’s performance as deranged emperor Caligula in BBC TV’s I, Claudius (1976) in which, as he later admitted, he was “having a ball”. Sporting curly blond locks, he returns from his ‘victory over Neptune’ (his ‘spoils’ chests full of seashells) to confront a terrified group of elderly senators and berate them for not having arranged a suitably effusive reception. But you ordered us not to, sire, protests a quavering senator. “Ye-e-es – and you took me at my word, didn’t you? Ty-pi-cal!” raves Caligula. “Didn’t occur to you that it might be my natural hu-mil-it-y spea-king?” Hurt separates out the syllables to bring out the emperor’s paranoia; here as ever, he could make the spaces between words, and even within the words themselves, infinitely expressive.
For while Hurt could play villains, the putting-upon no less than the put-upon, consummately well, he always brought to them an underlying vulnerability. It’s there in his Caligula, in his professional hitman Braddock in The Hit (1984), in his avaricious Marquis of Montrose in Rob Roy (1995), his philosophical bounty hunter in John Hillcoat’s Aussie western The Proposition (2005) – “Life is very sweet, brother,” he says, shot and dying – in his snarlingly misogynistic mobster Old Man Peanut in 44 Inch Chest (2009), even in his teeth-grinding Big-Brother-style dictator in V for Vendetta (2005). He was rarely attracted to heroic characters, finding them less interesting – an exception was his Catholic priest in Michael Caton-Jones’ treatment of the Rwandan genocide, Shooting Dogs (2006) – yet while Hurt was in no sense religious, there was what could perhaps be seen as a spiritual dimension in virtually every role he played.
If so, it might be traced back to his upbringing. He was born in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, where his High Church father was the Anglican vicar. (His older brother, Michael, later converted to Catholicism and became a monk.) Hurt had a strict upbringing: although the family lived opposite a cinema, he was never allowed to see films there – something he had in common with David Lean. At age eight he was sent to a preparatory school, St Michael’s in Otford, Kent, which he later described as “one of those very rarefied, very Anglo-Catholic establishments where they rejoiced in more religious paraphernalia and theatricality than the entire Vatican”. When his father moved to a parish in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, Hurt (then 12) was transferred to Christ’s Hospital School in Lincoln as a boarder. While there he appeared as Lady Bracknell in a school production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
He was developing a taste for acting – something of which, as might be expected, his parents disapproved. Instead they pressured him to become an art teacher, and in 1959 he won a scholarship to study at St Martin’s School in London; but the desire to act, first inspired by seeing Alec Guinness in Oliver Twist (1948), was too strong to be resisted, and in 1960 he won another scholarship, this time to RADA.
Starting out with some routine television bit-parts (Z-Cars, Armchair Theatre and the like), he made a forgettable screen debut with Ralph Thomas’s tepid student drama, The Wild and the Willing (1962). But in 1966 his performance in the title role of David Halliwell’s stage play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (a role he would later recreate in the screen version, released in 1974) attracted the attention of Fred Zinnemann, who cast him as the treacherous Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966). Here already, it was the vulnerability he lent what might otherwise be a routinely despicable character that made him so effective. When Paul Scofield’s Thomas More gently reproaches him after he’s given lying evidence against him (having been bribed with the post of Secretary of State for Wales): “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”, the mortification on Rich’s face tells us this moment will haunt him forever.
Over a screen career lasting 55 years, Hurt featured in over 200 films and TV dramas. Inevitably, given his sheer volume of work, he appeared in some inferior movies (“I’ve done some stinkers in the cinema. You can’t regret it; there are always reasons for doing something, even if it’s just the location”), but it’s hard to think of a bad performance from him. Whatever the material, he gave it his all: only once, with the multi-directed car-crash of a ‘comedy’, Mr Forbush and the Penguins (1971), did he come close to walking off a movie. Low-budget independent work attracted him the most: “I’ve spent a great deal of my life doing independent film,” he once remarked, “and that is partly because the subject matter interests me and partly because that is the basis of the film industry.” Also, it seems, because those films gave him much more pleasure than big-budget productions; interviewed after his largely expositional role as Professor Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) he asked wryly, “I don’t suppose we could talk about the lack of enjoyment in making it?”
Ironically though, it’s perhaps for a few big-budget productions that he’ll be best remembered by most movie-goers: as chest-ruptured Kane in Alien, as Max in Midnight Express, as wand-merchant Mr Ollivander in three of the Harry Potter movies (2001/2010/2011). But for connoisseurs of acting at its most savoury, it’s the relatively brief bit-parts in lesser-known films that stick in the mind, like chief clerk John Scholfield in Jim Jarmusch’s typically idiosyncratic western Dead Man (1995), switching in a heartbeat from cackling mockery of the clown-suited Easterner (Johnny Depp) to deferential mugging in support of the rifle-toting boss (Robert Mitchum in his near-final role). And all this with barely half-a dozen lines.
Some of his best performances didn’t even appear on screen. With his distinctive vocal timbre, he was often chosen for voice roles: among others, he was Hazel, leader of the rabbits, in Watership Down (1978), Aragorn in the animated Lord of the Rings (1978), the Horned King in Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985), Mr Mole in Thumbelina (1994) and the Dragon in the TV series Merlin (2008-2012). Lars von Trier chose him as the offscreen narrator in Dogville (2004) and Manderlay (2006), as did Tom Twyker for his period thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006).
Ageing suited Hurt. The seamed, craggy face grew yet more ravaged; the bags beneath the eyes deepened; the voice gained ever more resonance; a whole lifetime of sardonic amusement informed the lop-sided grin. With his gargantuan screen workload, he had relatively little time for theatre, but what he did was prime quality: Pinter, Osborne, Stoppard, Turgenev, Chekhov, Brian Friel – and he seemed born to play the monologue role in Beckett’s mercilessly bleak meditation on regret and old age, Krapp’s Last Tape.
It’s been said that there are two types of actor – those who hate acting (Marlon Brando would be the classic example) and those who love it. John Hurt would unmistakably fall into the second category. Even after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, he continued to work indefatigably; at the time of writing, four films that feature him are still either in post-production or awaiting release.
“I’m very much of the opinion,” he once observed, “that to work is better than not to work. 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.”
We can all be grateful that he usually did.