In Memoriam: Sir John Hurt (1940 – 2017)
Throughout my life, I have been making a mental list of all those actors who I consider to have a “bedtime story” voice. Topping this list has always been John Hurt. As much as I realise that this is a somewhat absurd way to begin a eulogy, stay with me – because this list means more than it’s face value would suggest. The fact that I have always considered John Hurt to be the number one person I’d like to read to me, is a comment on his ability to fully captivate an audience, as though with some sort of magical enchantment. Shape shifting into a myriad of colourful characters throughout his (more than) half-century of acting, today we have truly lost a titan of exquisite British acting.
Sir John Hurt, as we should know him after his 2015 knighthood for services to drama, began his life in such a manner that you wouldn’t have imagined that he would end up an actor. Born to strictly religious parents, he grew up across the road from a cinema that he was never allowed to go to, though perhaps the idea of drama being a ‘forbidden fruit’ made it all the more sweet. In fact, when he told his headteacher of his acting ambitions, Hurt was laughed at and told that he “wouldn’t stand a chance in that profession.”
This seemed to start him on a life-long mission to prove them wrong, building a career of incredible roles on both stage and screen that would resonate with audiences for decades to come. Beginning his career in film with The Wild and the Willing in 1962, less than a decade later he would receive his first BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place leading quickly to a win in the Best Actor category just four years later for the TV play, The Naked Civil Servant. This led to further acclaim for his role as the Roman Emperor Caligula in the BBC drama series I, Claudius – a role that he would later reveal that he originally declined, before accepting when meeting the rest of the cast and crew.
He then went on to win both a Golden Globe and another BAFTA for his role in Midnight Express, as well as being nominated for an Academy Award (which he lost out on to Christopher Walken for his role in The Deer Hunter), and voicing parts in both Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings and (both the TV and movie version) of Watership Down. And in 1981, he would star in one of his most iconic roles as the titular character in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, which won him another BAFTA, and earned nominations at the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
However, though his long career garnered him much credit from the critics, many of the roles that audiences will remember John Hurt for, are the ones that would not be nominated and praised as these early roles had been. He had a certain penchant for choosing Science-Fiction and Fantasy works which made him well-known to a mass audience. From Alien, Doctor Who and Nineteen Eighty-Four, to Harry Potter, V for Vendetta and Indiana Jones, Hurt seemed to quickly become a staple of the genre, and in many works such as the BBC series Merlin and 2013’s Snowpiercer he would take on the role of the wise character that would eventually aid the lead in their quest.
And so, with all of this experience under his belt, it was no surprise that at the 65th British Academy Film Awards, Hurt was presented with an award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. Famed for his ability to completely inhabit a role as a chameleon, Hurt would say of his craft that “method acting is for people with no imagination” and thus it was not for him.
And though the world has been robbed, entirely too soon, of one of the last few acting greats, John Hurt has left behind him an incredible body of work, that will forever showcase how truly remarkable he was. So, although he is gone, he will truly never be forgotten, as Hurt himself said “We are all racing towards death. No matter how many great, intellectual conclusions we draw during our lives, we know they’re all only man-made, like God. I begin to wonder where it all leads. What can you do, except do what you can do as best you know how.”
Today, we must put our wands to the sky, for the Wandmaker. May he rest in peace.