Last night, we learned that legendary character actor, a man who was seemingly everywhere and in everything, John Hurt, passed away at the age of 77.
There seemed to be no job too small or too brief for Hurt, who never bothered turn his celebrity into leading-man roles. He worked brilliantly in the margins of classic movies; and anytime he popped up on screen, those in the audience who knew best would light up. His gruff delivery and dogged gaze elevated any otherwise insignificant role.
It would be a fool’s errand to try and list all of the wonderful roles from John Hurt. There are too many to count scattered among his 205 imdb credits. So I just picked five roles that stuck out to me, personally. Five that are great, however brief they may be, and five that encapsulate the diversity of one of the best “That Guy in That Thing” actors of all time.
Hazel, Watership Down
Yes, one of John Hurt’s most memorable roles was a cartoon. But it wasn’t just any cartoon; Watership Down is a harrowing adventure story about a group of rabbits fighting for their own survival, and the gravity of Hurt’s iconic voice – he plays Hazel, one of the leaders of the group – makes every serious moment hit home.
Winston Smith, 1984
If you want to go back and revisit one of John Hurt’s biggest, most compelling roles, perhaps 1984 is the most timely. Just saying. Hurt plays Winston Smith, the man who, while rewriting history, meets and falls in love with a woman and must escape the clutches of Big Brother. It’s the most open starring role from Hurt, and it showed his ability to carry an entire film.
Jellon Lamb, The Proposition
He may only be in John Hillcoat’s nihilistic western for a few scenes, but what a haunting performance. He is Jellon Lamb, a bounty hunter who’s been poisoned by the unforgiving Outback, ruined by the drink, and reduced to spouting Irish folk songs while dying in a bar. It was John Hurt at his most disheveled, and disturbed. Brilliant.
John Merrick, The Elephant Man
Hurt’s one and only Best Actor nomination (he got a supporting nom for his great work in Midnight Express) came, fittingly, in a role where he was hidden beneath heavy prosthetics and shroud. And in a David Lynch film. This was, much like Watership Down, Hurt conveying emotion through his wonderfully magnetic voice.
There was never going to be another number 1. Character actors often take pride in their death scenes, and there was no better a death scene in all of sci-fi/horror cinema than the unfortunate demise of Kane. His death kickstarted one of the greatest films of its kind in 1979.