As writer Giles De’Ath in 1997’s Love and Death on Long Island, John Hurt uttered what is probably my favorite line of his from all 206 or so of his credits. Asked if he’d consider getting with the times and using a word processor, he exclaimed, “I’m a writer! I write! I don’t process words!” It may be a semantic difference, but it’s one that comes to mind now, as it’s very easy to write down all of his classic roles and say they were great; harder, however, to process the words that may explain what his loss means.Hurt’s acting career begin with a series of small TV roles, building to more prestige parts like Caligula in I, Claudius, but it was in 1978 that he really put himself on the nerd map–albeit in voice-over form–with the double-whammy of Hazel in Watership Down and Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings. We all know what came next: as Kane, he became the first actor to be face-hugged and chest-bursted by the xenomorph in the original Alien. He was about to turn 40, and stardom was finally fully upon him. There followed, right away, The Elephant Man, Heaven’s Gate, and History of the World Part I. While still doing prestige projects like King Lear and 1984, he was the voice of the Horned King in Disney‘s The Black Cauldron, and reprised his Alien role for Spaceballs in 1987.
One of the reasons we felt like he was immortal is that his characters from Kane onward nearly always looked close to death; the first time a Judge Dredd movie was being talked about, in the late ’80s, he was the unanimous fan choice to play Judge Death (with minimal makeup, as many joked); in a way, he was the Keith Richards of acting. But he lasted 30 more years after Spaceballs. You may remember him as Professor Broom in Hellboy, Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies, Indiana Jones’ colleague Oxley, Â dictator Sutler in V for Vendetta, and the dragon on TV’s Merlin; but did you remember he was Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, the time traveler in Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound, the narrator of Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Disney’s The Tigger Movie, and even Brother Carnak in Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie? He was no snob in the material he chose, but he always automaticall added gravitas, cunning, and human frailty to every part.Heck, I even have a personal connection: in Rob Roy, he played one of my direct ancestors, Marquis of Montrose James Graham. He was cast in a villainous role, which of course my family disputes, but had he shown up to a family reunion as that character, he would have blended right in.
Perhaps our most lingering memory of him will be as the War Doctor on Doctor Who, a dark and world-weary hidden alias for our favorite Time Lord who had dropped his chosen moniker when forced to fight wars rather than help people. We bought as somebody who had already lived 8 iconic lives, because to us, of course, he had and more.Hurt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago, and while he was reported as saying he and his doctors were optimistic, the prognosis with that particular disease is rarely good news. He kept working nonetheless, with four films as yet unreleased, per imdb, including a role as Neville Chamberlain in Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill biopic Darkest Hour. It’s an ironic final role for a man best known for his famous last words as UK prime minister.Hurt never failed to deliver–the moment you saw or heard him, you know that whatever story you were watching was about to kick it up a notch. It’s sad that we’ve lost him, but he left us with hours upon hours of greatness, and odds are there are lots of things he’s done that you still haven’t seen. Maybe look a few of them up.In the meantime, share your favorite memories of the great man in comments below.