Sir John Hurt: Alien and The Elephant Man actor dies aged 77

Sir John Hurt, one of the great British performers of his generation, has passed away at the age of 77.

The four-time BAFTA-winning actor’s death was confirmed last night by his agent after he had battled pancreatic cancer for the last few years of his life.

Born in Derbyshire in 1940, Hurt initially started his acting career in various BBC productions before making his big-screen debut as the Lord Chancellor Richard Rich in the Oscar-winning historical drama A Man for All Seasons (1966).

In the early 1970s, he received his first BAFTA nomination for his supporting role as the wrongly-accused Timothy Evans in the real-life crime drama 10 Rillington Place (1971).

After appearing in various low budget films and television series, Hurt then landed his first BAFTA win for his portrayal of flamboyant homosexual Quentin Crisp in the TV-biopic The Naked Civil Servant (1975). He would later reprise the role over thirty years later in its follow-up An Englishman in New York (2009).


Another memorable small-screen role in that era was as the insane emperor Caligula in the BBC mini-series I, Claudius (1976).

Hurt’s film work then began to take shape as he received the first of two Academy Award nominations for his strong supporting turn as Max, a heroin addict who befriends fellow prisoner Billy Hayes in the biopic drama Midnight Express (1978). The role won him a Golden Globe and BAFTA in Best Supporting Actor though it wasn’t enough to help him win the Oscar.

1978 also had him contribute his voice to the first of several animated / live-action projects as he provided the vocals for rabbit protagonist Hazel in the emotional Watership Down and the heroic Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings.

However the following year saw Hurt become part of one of cinema’s most memorable moments with his role as Kane, the unfortunate first victim of the disgusting chest-bursting xenomorphs in the classic sci-fi horror Alien.

He would later reenact that iconic scene with a hilarious cameo appearance in Mel Brooks‘ sci-fi farce Space Balls (1987).

After appearing in the television adaption of Crime and Punishment (1979), Hurt would take on the greatest role of his career when he portrayed the tragic and disfigured John Merrick in David Lynch’s emotional biopic drama The Elephant Man (1980). Amongst the highlights of the film is Merrick’s anguished cry when confronted by a horde of people in a train station; “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I AM A HUMAN BEING! I AM A MAN.”

However work on the film wasn’t easy for Hurt as the ‘elephant man’ makeup took seven to eight hours to apply each day and two hours to remove!

His brilliant performance won him a third BAFTA though he sadly missed out on winning the Best Actor Oscar to Robert De Niro’s powerful turn in Raging Bull (1980).

Throughout the 1980s, Hurt featured in the likes of Heaven’s Gate (1980), 1984 (1984) and Scandal (1989) as well as playing the Storyteller in the fantasy series The Storyteller (1987-88). He also voiced the role of the sinister Horned King in the disappointing Disney animation The Black Cauldron (1985).

In the 1990s, he contributed to various films including The Field (1990), King Ralph (1991), Rob Roy (1995), Contact (1997) and also lent his voice to Thumbelina (1994) and A Monkey’s Tale (1999).

Remarkably his career began to strengthen further in the new Millennium with a high number of supporting roles in various blockbusters and big / small screen dramas.

One of those appearances came as wand-maker Mr Ollivander in the hit fantasy series Harry Potter for which he popped up in The Philosopher’s Stone (2001), The Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) and The Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011).

He then went on to star in other recognisable films including Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001), The Skeleton Key (2005), The Proposition (2005) and The Oxford Murders (2008) plus provided his vocals to Valiant (2005) and as the Owl in The Gruffalo (2009).

Other memorable roles from that period included Professor Bloom in the two Hellboy films (2004 and 2008), dictator Adam Sutler in V for Vendetta (2005) and Marion Ravenwood’s father Professor Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).

In the final few years of his life, Hurt appeared in the likes of Brighton Rock (2010), Melancholia (2011), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), Snowpiercer (2013), and Hercules (2014). He then won a new generation of fans when he played the lost War Doctor in Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’ (2013). There was  also a vocal role as The Dragon in the ITV fantasy series Merlin (2008-12).

BAFTA celebrated his incredible film career in 2012 by presenting him with its coveted Outstanding Contribution award, and he was then knighted in the 2015 New Year Honours List for his contribution to drama.

After appearing in the thriller series The Last Panthers (2015), Hurt’s final film role came as a priest who helped Jackie Kennedy grieve the loss of her husband John F. Kennedy in the recent historical biopic Jackie (2016).

He is survived by his third wife and two children.

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