Probably one of his most famous scenes of all time in a classic science-fiction movie became one of the most memorable scenes of a science-fiction parody a few years later.
Yes, we’re talking about chest-popping aliens that plagued actor John Hurt first in 1979’s Alien and later in Mel Brooks’ 1987 space-faring comedy Spaceballs. But Hurt played so many more roles – at least 200 more – in a career that spanned 55 years.
But it all came to an end Friday when he died two years after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Hurt was 77.
Hurt was twice nominated for an Oscar – first in 1979 for Midnight Express, and later in 1981 for playing the title role in The Elephant Man. By then, however, he played one of his most famous international roles, that of Kane, the very first character director Ridley Scott killed off with his title character.
But while he would take on a number of critically acclaimed roles, Hurt was never shy to take part in science-fiction and fantasy films. Those roles included 1984, as wand-maker Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter film series, as Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm in Hellboy, and even voicing the dragon in Merlin.
Hurt also tackled a unique role in time for the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who – playing a gap regeneration of The Doctor known as the War Doctor, that allowed him to play opposite David Tennant and Matt Smith.
John Vincent Hurt was born Jan. 22, 1940, in the British city of Chesterfield. His mother was an actress, while his father was a mathematician who later became a clergyman with the Church of England.
Hurt had a sheltered childhood because of his father’s religious work, not allowed to watch movies, or even play with other children considered to be “too common.” When he turned 8, Hurt decided he wanted to be an actor. Yet both his parents and his educators discouraged him, prodding him to consider becoming an art teacher instead.
Hurt started earning small roles in British television shows in his early 20s, working regularly as a character actor until landing his first somewhat longer-term role as Caligula in the 1976 television mini-series I, Claudius.
Two years later, he landed in one of Oliver Stone’s first major writing successes, Midnight Express, which also starred Randy Quaid. He played Max, and English heroin addict in a Turkish prison with an American accused of trying to smuggle hashish out of the country.
In 1980, he was cast in the starring role of David Lynch’s second feature length film, The Elephant Man, which won him both praise and accolades. The film included a cast that would be considered all-star today with the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft.
Despite his 2015 cancer diagnosis, Hurt refused to stop working. While most of his appearances would be limited to stage, he did complete a few projects that were scheduled to be released this year, including That Good Night from playwright N.J. Crisp, Damascus Cover with Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and the British sports drama My Name is Lenny.
He was in the middle of filming the historical drama The Darkest Hour as former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain for Atonement director Joe Wright. However, it’s not clear if Hurt finished his work on the film.
Hurt was married four times, including Anwen Rees-Myers in 2005, who survives him. He’s also survived by two children.
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