Sir John Hurt, the brilliant and prolific British actor who scored an Oscar nom for his title role in The Elephant Man, landed a supporting nom for Midnight Express and appeared in three Harry Potter movies during a 65-year career, died today. He was 77. The BBC confirmed media reports out of the UK that he had fought pancreatic cancer and intestinal problems in recent years.
Born January 22, 1940 in Derbyshire, Hurt appeared in more than a dozen films and TV shows before landing a key role as Richard Rich in 1966’s A Man For All Seasons. Also featuring Orson Welles, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Paul Scofield and Wendy Hiller, the Fred Zinnemann film won six Oscars including Best Picture.
Hurt continued to work in film and TV throughout the ’60s and ’70s, but his profile was boosted by his role as a heroin addict who helps Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) escape from a Turkish prison in the harrowing Midnight Express (1978). The film won a pair of Oscars — including Oliver Stone’s first for his adapted screenplay — but lost Best Picture to The Deer Hunter.
After that, Hurt landed a memorable role in Ridley Scott’s Alien as Kane, the poor sap who has an alien burst through his chest. (He would suffer those consequences again eight years later via a hilarious cameo as himself in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs.) After Alien, he starred as Raskolnikov in the BBC miniseries Crime & Punishment before landing the role of his career.
Hurt starred as the horribly malformed but very human John Merrick, who moves from freak-show exhibit to darling of London society in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), opposite Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud. That film earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Hurt’s only lead actor Oscar nom, but was shut out at the ceremony that was dominated by Ordinary People (whose co-star Mary Tyler Moore also died this week). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took some flak for not recognizing Elephant Man‘s stunning makeup effects, leading it to create the Best Makeup & Hairstyling category the following year. Hurt won the BAFTA Award for his role, the third of four in his career, including one for Midnight Express.
His next role was as the boozy Billy Irvine in Michael Cimino’s all-time bomb Heaven’s Gate, but Hurt would follow up with a funny “Who’s on First?”-like cameo as Jesus in Brook’s star-stacked romp History of the World – Part I. Scores of film roles followed throughout the 1980s and ’90s before Hurt was cast as master wandmaker Garrick Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). He would reprise the role for the two-part series finale Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010 & 2011).
Hurt never stopped working, continuing to act in movies and TV until the end. He plays a priest in the Natalie Portman-led biopic Jackie; they also worked together in 2005’s V for Vendetta. Also among his many varied projects, Hurt voiced the Dragon in more than 60 episodes of the toon series Merlin and won a Special Award at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival for his role in An Englishman In New York. More recently he appeared in Snowpiercer and Doctor Who, and he had four films in various stages of completion at the time of his death. He also appears in SundanceTV’s limited series The Last Panthers.
In July, Hurt was forced to withdraw from the West End revival of John Osborne’s The Entertainer opposite Kenneth Branagh, due to health problems. “I have recently been in hospital with an intestinal complaint,” he said in a statement at the time, “and although I am much improved and on the road to a full recovery, my doctors have advised that it is too soon for me to undertake a lengthy and arduous stage role.”
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2015.