John Hurt has died. A veteran actor of stage and screen with more than 200 credits to his name, Hurt was responsible for some of the most memorable moments of 20th and 21st century cinema, from the infamous “chestburster” sequence from Alien, to his appearance as the deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Playing everything from depraved villains—embodying Caligula in 1976’s I, Claudius—to kind-hearted father figures (in everything from Hellboy to the wand maker Ollivander in the Harry Potter films), Hurt’s performances always promised a boundless amusement twinkling behind his eyes.
Few clips can capture the width of Hurt’s talents, though, as well as contrasting Ridley Scott’s famed shock scene from Alien, and Mel Brooks’ parody of it in his space-spoof Spaceballs. In Alien, Hurt is all primal terror, going from laughing in relief with the rest of the crew into pure, body-shaking horror. Spaceballs hits those same emotions, too, before giving Hurt one of the great punchlines in all of Brooks’ oeuvre:
(Hurt later described that latter scene in an interview with us, saying Brooks was always promising him an easy paycheck, “And when you get there, you suddenly realize, it’s a $3 million scene—God knows how much the animatronic singing and dancing alien cost—and they couldn’t possibly have done it if it hadn’t been for you. What I’m saying is, I think he got me rather cheap,” he added with a laugh.)
Hurt moved seamlessly from film into TV and back again, lending gravitas to Jim Henson’s anthology series Storyteller, and taking a memorable turn as “The War Doctor” in the recent seasons of Doctor Who. One of his last regular roles was on TV, lending quiet, bureaucratic menace to The Last Panthers.
Given the sheer breadth of his career, it’s somewhat amazing that Hurt never won an Oscar, and was only nominated twice. Once, for his work in Alan Parker’s prison drama Midnight Express, and once for one of his most famous roles, “Elephant Man” John Merrick. The prosthetics in Lynch’s 1980 film were widely praised, but they would have been worthless without Hurt, conveying rage, dignity, fear, pain, and more from within a very narrow frame. The film’s most famous scene, in which Merrick demands that a baying crowd recognize that he is a man, and not an animal, is rife for recognizable parody. But the rage in Hurt’s voice adds a layer of undeniable humanity to it that has always made it a little too painful to ape.
It would be futile to attempt to list every great performance John Hurt ever gave. (Even a compilation of his great onscreen deaths, of which there were many, runs something like five minutes long.) Few actors ever captured such a range, from Shakespearean fool to Shakespearean king, or from totalitarian victim to voice of the regime. The greatest loss of his death—which was reported in British papers earlier today—was how steadily he was still creating memorable, distinct performances in the months leading up to his death. (There are at least three films featuring his performances in post-production as of now.) Despite his age (77), it was easy to imagine that Hurt would be treating us to sinister smiles and devious, mischievous energy for many more years to come.