Legendary British Actor John Hurt passed away today from cancer at the age of 77. The word "legendary" almost doesn't even begin to describe someone who has played quite so many iconic roles in the geek pantheon. He was one of those actors in the same vein as Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan that was as comfortable with the classics as genre films and who brought an amazing gravitas and meticulous, nuanced performances to every role, no matter how small.
He had that voice -- that voice! -- that was both comforting and soft and also gravelly and rough. It was instantly recognizable and reassuring you were going to watch something worth seeing.
Hurt's most recent role was as a priest in the Oscar-nominated Jackie, who acts as a sounding board for the grieving Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of her husband. This capped an amazing career that spanned media and genres.
While Hurt's most celebrates roles were in straightforward dramas like Midnight Express and The Elephant Man (for both of which he was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe) it's almost impossible to understate the importance of Hurt's roles to geek culture. While just as comfortable playing everything from Caligula to Jesus, Hurt found himself at the heart of so many foundational films in the nerd pantheon.
First and foremost, Alien. That scene where the xenomorph pops out of his chest is just spectacular, and the work Hurt does is nuanced and phenomenal. Seriously, go back and watch that scene -- frame by frame -- and watch Hurt's face. And body language.
Not only that, but then he reprised the same role in Spaceballs-- the second time he teamed with Mel Brooks, the being the aforementioned role of Jesus in History of the World, Part I. Hurt could do comedy, but just chose not to.
Perhaps most importantly for today's context, he played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of the current best selling book on Amazon, 1984. Not to be outdone (and perhaps because everyone involved had an extreme sense of irony), he also played the leader of the Norsefire government in V for Vendetta.
These two roles, if you haven't seen them, should be at the top of your John Hurt memorial playlist. As the victim of the fascist government learning what it is to wake up and resist, and then as the head of the same type of government, we can learn so much about the nature of authoritarian regimes-- and John Hurt will be your guide on both sides of the coin. While neither one is anywhere near a perfect film (nor a truly fitting adaptation of their written versions), they are worth visiting because of their incredibly timely message and because of the meticulous work by Hurt.
He was Ollivander in Harry Potter. He was Professor Broom in Hellboy. And perhaps most importantly for me, he was The War Doctor in Doctor Who.
A previously unknown incarnation of The Doctor between Doctors 8 and 9, The War Doctor faced an unbelievable crisis of conscience deciding whether or not to commit genocide against the Daleks and his own people, the Time Lords, in order to stop a devastating war between them. And in the 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor" he comes back, reuniting with Doctors 10 and 11, to revisit this most fateful of decisions.
Hurt's performance is so soulful, so nuanced, so layered-- it's a man at the top of his craft who knows exactly what he is doing. And indeed, nearly all of his roles felt this same way.
And it was never the size of the role, nor the genre of the film, that determined how good he was. As a voice-over actor he was in both Watership Down and the animated version of The Lord of the Rings, and a recent Thomas the Tank Engine special.
The complete opposite of this, he also a played a treacherous bounty hunter in the Australian western The Proposition. Even if you don't like westerns, this is an amazing film, although, it is incredibly hard to watch because of its very brutal depictions of violence. Hurt's final words on screen here remain incredibly poignant, especially thinking about life and death.
Some of Hurt's other recent performances include supporting roles in both Last Lovers Left Alive and Snowpiercer. It's astounding how Hurt seemed to have a nose (or perhaps a very good agent) who delivered him these often offbeat but meaty roles in interesting projects.
You can pick any of Hurt's over 160 film roles and nearly every one is brilliant and nuanced. He was an actor who never took a small role and did anything but take it seriously, and he rarely phoned it in or was there just to pick up a paycheck.
We raise a glass to John Hurt, and wish him and those closest to him all the best. You are simply irreplaceable and left a huge mark on geekdom only a very small few can match.
John Hurt Memorial Playlist (aka what I'll be watching over the next few days):
1. Doctor Who - "The Day of the Doctor"
4. V for Vendetta
What will you be watching? Let us know in the comments.
PS-- Of all the strangest and various projects Hurt ever did, one is playing a record executive in the music video for Paul McCartney's "Take It Away" off his 1982 Tug of War album. Much of the album was a reflection on McCartney's time as a Beatle and his relationship with John Lennon-- this second track was about the rise and fall of a working class music act, and Hurt was asked to play a role that was a tribute to the late Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager during their meteoric rise. While the song is cheesy in all the ways only soft rock from the early 80s/late 70s could be, there something about it I've always loved. And John Hurt is in the video.