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One of Britain's most esteemed and prolific actors, John Hurt fashioned an international career as a consummate screen chameleon, living his parts to the fullest without revealing the man behind the mask. He emerged from the London drama stage to film stardom in the late 1970s with a pair of powerhouse performances in "Midnight Express" (1978) and "Alien" (1979) - roles that established Hurt's strength for playing mental and physical suffering. In addition to his other renowned characters of torment - most famously, "The Elephant Man" (1980) - Hurt's palette grew to include the oppressed Winston Smith in "1984" (1984) and numerous baleful deadbeats, such as in "Night Train" (1998). He also displayed a penchant for playing morally compromised nobleman, as portrayed in "Rob Roy" (1995) and "V for Vendetta" (2006). As he aged, Hurt added an increasing number of academics and authors to his résumé, including roles in "Love and Death on Long Island" (1997) and "Hellboy" (2004). Despite the character actor's naturalistic portraits, there was no denying Hurt also had an eye for the commercial as well, co-starring in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (2008) and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal...
One of Britain's most esteemed and prolific actors, John Hurt fashioned an international career as a consummate screen chameleon, living his parts to the fullest without revealing the man behind the mask. He emerged from the London drama stage to film stardom in the late 1970s with a pair of powerhouse performances in "Midnight Express" (1978) and "Alien" (1979) - roles that established Hurt's strength for playing mental and physical suffering. In addition to his other renowned characters of torment - most famously, "The Elephant Man" (1980) - Hurt's palette grew to include the oppressed Winston Smith in "1984" (1984) and numerous baleful deadbeats, such as in "Night Train" (1998). He also displayed a penchant for playing morally compromised nobleman, as portrayed in "Rob Roy" (1995) and "V for Vendetta" (2006). As he aged, Hurt added an increasing number of academics and authors to his résumé, including roles in "Love and Death on Long Island" (1997) and "Hellboy" (2004). Despite the character actor's naturalistic portraits, there was no denying Hurt also had an eye for the commercial as well, co-starring in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (2008) and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Scull" (2008). Whether he starred in a high-profile audience pleaser or a critically acclaimed dramatic film, Hurt always brought his talents to the fore.
John Hurt was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, on Jan. 22, 1940. The son of a rigid Anglican minister, Hurt was not allowed to see the films at his local movie house, but when he was sent away to Catholic boarding school in Kent, the sheltered lad joined a school play and quickly decided that his future was as an actor. His lackluster academic performance at a series of schools supported that career trajectory, but his parents did not. They did, however, respond to Hurt's fine art talent and allowed him to pursue a future as an art teacher. Hurt attended the Grimsby Art School before landing a scholarship to the teacher's certification program at Central St. Martin's College in London. But after several years in the creatively swinging city, Hurt scrapped the teaching idea and returned his focus to the stage, spending two years studying at the renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before he was quickly embraced for his thespian skills.
Fresh out of RADA in 1962, Hurt made his professional stage debut in "Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger" and his feature debut in "The Young and the Willing" (1962), earning raves the following year onstage in Harold Pinter's "The Dwarfs." Hurt came to Broadway in the title role of "Hamp" (1965), but it was his work in a 1966 London production of "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuch" that convinced director Fred Zinnemann to cast him in the Judas role of Richard Rich in the Academy Award-winning film version of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons" (1966). Hurt's performance as the extremely nervous, fresh-faced Rich brought the young actor his widest exposure up until that time, and he generated interest from distinguished directors like Tony Richardson, who cast him in a small role in the romantic drama "The Sailor from Gibraltar" (1967) and the legendary John Huston, who gave him the lead as an aspiring highway robber in the comedy "Sinful Davey" (1969).
Hurt played a Lieutenant sorting through the aftermath of a World War II prison camp in J. Lee Thompson's "Before Winter Comes" (1969) before a landmark starring role in Richard Fleischer's "10 Rillington Place" (1970), in which his hysterical turn as a wrongfully accused murderer first showcased his signature panache for mental anguish. The theater lover stuck close to the stage over the next few years, appearing in revivals of Pinter's "The Caretaker" and "The Dumb Waiter," a taut one-act about a pair of hitmen killing time before their next assignment. He starred as Romeo in a Coventry production of "Romeo and Juliet" and starred in the original cast of Tom Stoppard's "Travesties," portraying renowned poet and Dadaist, Tristan Tzara. In 1975, Hurt returned to the screen and gave a historic performance as flamboyantly gay writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp in a TV movie adaptation of Crisp's memoir "The Naked Civil Servant" (1975). Hurt's electrifying portrayal brought him widespread attention and a British Academy Television Award for Best Actor. Hot on its heels, he delivered a riveting performance as the crazed, cruel Caligula in the campy and immensely enjoyable TV miniseries "I, Claudius" (BBC, 1976).
Hurt's international film breakthrough came in 1978's "Midnight Express," with his portrayal of an ill-fated heroin addict and inmate in the violent tale of an American serving time in a Turkish prison. After earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe win for the same movie, his film career was truly ignited. He provided voicing for two 1978 animated features "The Lord of the Rings" and "Watership Down" before landing his first major role in a U.S. production, Ridley's Scott's influential sci-fi actioner "Alien" (1979). Hurt not only earned a BAFTA nomination for his role as Kane, the executive officer of the interstellar barge, Nostromo, but he also secured a place in film history for the awe-inspiring scene in which his abdominal pains unleash the "chestburster" alien on the dining room table while the crew stands by helplessly as his body is ripped apart, blood spurting everywhere. The following year, Hurt gave an astounding performance (and endured a punishing makeup routine) as the grotesquely deformed outsider fighting for dignity and acceptance in David Lynch's "The Elephant Man" (1980). The fact-based biopic of the enduring 19th century figure was a sleeper hit on the art house circuit and wound up with a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards, a Best Actor nomination for Hurt, and BAFTA and Golden Globe wins for the actor in the same category.
After an unfortunate association with the legendary Western flop "Heaven's Gate" (1980), Hurt made a cameo as Jesus in Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part I" (1981) and starred as an East German escaping Communism via hot air balloon in Disney's "Night Crossing" (1981). In an uncharacteristic comedy, he essayed a simpering gay cop in the buddy comedy outing "Partners" (1982) and a vengeful CIA agent in Sam Peckinpah's last film, "The Osterman Weekend" (1983), before opting to work primarily in British films. Perhaps Hurt's best work of the decade was his central performance as thought criminal Winston Smith in "1984" (1984), Michael Radford's admirably low-key and harrowing adaptation of the George Orwell classic. The director's images emphasized the character's tragic isolation as an increasingly unhappy rewriter of history, Hurt's haggard visage eloquently projecting the character's agony. He was also memorable as The Fool in the renowned "King Lear" (BBC 1984) production that won Laurence Olivier an Emmy, and excellent as the brooding, experienced assassin in Stephen Frears' little-seen crime drama "The Hit" (1985). After a long absence from the stage, Hurt appeared at the Lyric in Hammersmith as Trigorin in a 1985 production of "The Seagull."
In 1987, Hurt sent up his now legendary character from "Alien" in Mel Brooks' sci-fi parody "Spaceballs" and spent the remainder of the decade starring in British dramas including "Rocinante" (1987), Michael Radford's "White Mischief" and Michael Caton-Jones' fact-based political tale "Scandal" (1989), where he portrayed the physician/pimp who inadvertently helped topple a cabinet minister before committing suicide over his ultimate role as scapegoat. Hurt stayed busy as a perennial favorite among independent directors, starring in Roger Corman's surprise return to directing "Frankenstein Unbound" (1990), making a BAFTA-nominated supporting turn as a town drunk in the rural Irish drama "The Field" (1990), and donning drag for Gus Van Sant's "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (1994). His haggard visage made a perfect addition to Jim Jarmusch's stark frontier tale "Dead Man" (1995) before Hurt enjoyed a supporting role as the Duke of Montrose in "Rob Roy," the historic Scottish epic starring Liam Neeson. The same year Hurt returned to the London stage to star opposite Helen Mirren in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country" (1995).
In 1997, Hurt received some of his best reviews in years in "Love and Death on Long Island," playing parched and rumpled to perfection and balancing dour with droll as a discerning English author who becomes obsessed with an all-American teen movie heartthrob (Jason Priestley) and steps out of his cloistered Old World existence to pursue him on his own turf. Hurt earned a nomination from the British Independent Film Awards as well as a special notice from the Chicago International Film Festival. Hurt was much more widely seen in that year's sci-fi blockbuster hit "Contact," as a wealthy industrialist who enables a team of scientist's quest to make contact with extraterrestrial life. Hurt's next starring role as a reclusive animal lover who helps a misfit teen find his way in "All the Little Animals" (1998) debuted to good reviews at Cannes but his follow-up "Night Train" (1998), in which Hurt gave an excellent performance as an ex-con trying to make a new start, remained relatively below the radar.
In 2001, Hurt starred in an Atom Egoyan version of Samuel Beckett's autobiographical one-man drama "Krapp's Last Tape," and was simply brilliant as the sweaty old man with the spiky shock of cropped hair looking back on the wreckage of his life. The over 60 actor found his ever dramatic brilliance more in demand than ever, appearing in a steady string of big Hollywood films including the popular (if critically smeared) romantic drama "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (2001), and the blockbuster "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (2001), where he assumed the role of Mr. Ollivander. Hurt's portrayal of Porfiry in an adaptation of "Crime and Punishment" (2002) never made a U.S. release, but 2003's portrait of gambling addiction "Owning Mahowny," in which Hurt essayed a slick casino manager, did well on the festival and art house circuit. His highest profile role of the era was as Professor "Broom" Bruttenholm, the scientist who raises a demon infant to become earth's greatest paranormal hero in the comic book adaptation of the critically dismissed "Hellboy" (2004).
With the thriller "The Skeleton Key" (2005), Hurt's talents were ultimately wasted as a speechless invalid in a haunted and isolated Louisiana plantation, in a film that fell flat from cheap thrills and chintzy dialogue. But Hurt shone considerably stronger in his supporting role as a bounty hunter in that year's "The Proposition," a critically lauded film about the lawless 1880s Australian outback penned by rocker Nick Cave, and in his reteaming with director Michael Caton-Jones in the Rwanda-set story of a BBC journalist "Shooting Dogs" (2005). The 2006 political thriller "V for Vendetta" was an international hit that generated its share of controversy and garnered Hurt notice for his portrayal of a conservative member of Parliament. Hurt was slated to appear in no less than six films in 2008, including the highly anticipated "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," in a role that was kept secret from the press prior to the film's release. Later in the year Hurt would co-star as a professor trying to unravel a series of killings in "The Oxford Murders" (2010) and prior to that revived his role as another academic, Trevor Bruttenholm, in yet another sequel, "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army." Hurt next joined the "Harry Potter" series, playing Mr. Ollivander, a genial old man who sells magic wands in Diagon Alley in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows" (2010).
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"The reason I like independents is a very simple one, the smaller the project, the more adventurous the content." --John Hurt to Newsday, March 1, 1998.
About his frequently playing gay characters, despite being heterosexual: "I don't know whether it has to do with what I give off. I've never had a problem with people's sexuality and maybe that comes across. It seems to me that you're very lucky to be in love and very lucky to be loved, no matter who it is. Also, being brought up in an all male boarding school with mutual masturbation, it never occurred to me there was anything particularly wrong with it." --Hurt to Jim Farber in the Daily News, March 8, 1998.
On the script for "The Naked Civil Servant": "It was an absolutely stunning piece of writing; it screamed off the page. It was a very risky piece for an actor--a television play about an effeminate homosexual who is also an exhibitionist. many people told me it would be the end of my career--well how often do you have to hear that?" --Hurt quoted in the London Times, January 9, 2000.
"I told Mr. Hurt it was difficult for actors to play victims, but he has specialised in victims. When he stopped playing me, he played Caligula, which was only me in a sheet. Then he played The Elephant Man, which was only me with a paper bag over his head." --Quentin Crisp quote reprinted in The Guardian, January 3, 2000.
On why he returned to stage acting with "Krapp's Last Tape": "I love film and I always have and I don't regret having spent most of my time doing it. But film roles become rarer and rarer the older you get. Most of the interesting and exciting parts are between the ages of 25 and 45. It's not the same in theater. And the chance to be eloquent on film is far less than it used to be. If you make something work on stage, it is still my belief that it will work. If you make something work on film, it may not get past the marketing boys." --Hurt quoted in London's Evening Standard, January 26, 2000.
"If I've been anything I've been adventurous. There have been times when things haven't been going that great. And I don't know anybody who has a career that goes swimmingly from beginning to end. Everyone says, 'Yes, but you're established now, you can choose what you want to do.' But there's a hell of a lot of other people very well proven who can also choose what they want to do. And there are many fewer roles. The biggest mistake is trying to make yourself younger. You should allow yourself to be the age you are and enjoy exploring that area." --Hurt to London's Evening Standard, April 26, 2001.
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