The versatile actor Sir John Hurt, who could move audiences to tears in “The Elephant Man,” terrify them in “Alien,” and spoof that very same scene in “Spaceballs,” has died. He was 77.
Hurt, who battled pancreatic cancer, died Friday in London according to his agent Charles McDonald.
Twice nominated for an Oscar for playing the tortured John Merrick in David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man” and for his role as the heroin addict Max in “Midnight Express,” Hurt’s career spanned over 50 years. After minor television and film appearances, his breakout came in 1966 as Richard Rich in Fred Zinnemann’s “A Man For All Seasons,” followed by his portrayal of Caligula in the BBC miniseries “I, Claudius” in 1976.
The wiry Hurt brought gravitas to Alan Parker’s 1978 film “Midnight Express,” for which he received a supporting actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Christopher Walken for “The Deer Hunter”) and an uneasy humor to Kane in Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” immortalized by his disturbing death scene, which Mel Brooks later poked fun at with Hurt’s help in “Spaceballs.”
“It was terribly sad today to learn of John Hurt’s passing,” Mel Brooks wrote on Twitter. “He was a truly magnificent talent.”
Hurt is unrecognizable in perhaps his most memorable role as the lead in David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man.” He endured eight hours in the makeup chair daily to transform into John Merrick. The elaborate mask prohibited him from sleeping lying down or even eating while it was on. He would eat his last meal midmorning as the mask was being applied — usually raw eggs mixed in orange juice — and not again until after midnight.
“To be quite honest, the film was misery to make because of the physical problems, so if it’s working I’m jumping for joy,” Hurt said in a 1980 interview. Hurt did score a lead actor Oscar nomination for the role, but lost out to Robert De Niro’s performance in “Raging Bull.”
Hurt was also a prolific voice actor, appearing as Hazel in the animated “Watership Down,” and as Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s “The Lord of the Rings.” He also voiced The Horned King in “The Black Cauldron” and provided the narration for “Dogville.”
In the “Harry Potter” films, Hurt played the wand-maker Mr. Ollivander. In recent years, he appeared in notable fare such as “Melancholia,” ”Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” ”Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Snowpiercer.”
“We’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly,” Hurt said in a 2015 interview while undergoing treatments for the early stage cancer.
As prolific as ever, Hurt recently appeared alongside his “V for Vendetta” co-star Natalie Portman in the Oscar-nominated film “Jackie” as a priest who consoles and advises the recently widowed first lady.
Hurt leaves behind a few in production credits, including Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” which is listed as still filming. Hurt plays Neville Chamberlain in the film about Winston Churchill’s charge against Hitler. Gary Oldman plays Churchill.
“I have lots of favorite memories but I can’t say that I have a favorite film. I have favorite parts which are not in particularly successful films,” Hurt told The Guardian in 2000. “I’ve worked with people from Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, through to Richard Fleischer, all of those boys from Hollywood and so on and Sam Peckinpah and then the Mike Radfords… I’ve been incredibly lucky with the directors I’ve worked with. You don’t realize it at the time, it’s just in retrospect if you look back you think, ‘Jeez, when I saw that CV it nearly frightened the life out of me.’ I thought, “That’s not bad for an old drunk.”