For many John Hurt it was his chest bursting role in ‘Alien’ that he’ll be remembered for but a closer look at his career showed an enormous array of memorable roles in equally memorable films.
Born on 22nd January 1940 in Chesterfield the youngest of three children to a father who was a vicar and a mother who was an engineer with a bent for amateur dramatics. He attended St Michaels school in Kent where he alleged that he’d been sexually abused before then attending a grammar school in Lincoln and finally going to art college in Grimsby to do a foundation course before winning a scholarship to St Martin’s where he dropped out to go to RADA in 1960. Like most students he had little money complaining that he ouldn’t afford to eat and as too hungry to even deliver his lines.
His stage debut was with the RSC appearing in several plays. It was a time he enjoyed greatly with its relaxed atmosphere rehearsing with Harold Pinter and drinking gin and tonic late in the morning. He continued working in theatre through most of the sixties but once into the seventies his work was predominantly on TV. He memorably appeared opposite Richard Attenborough in 10 Rillington Place. But it was his role in the groundbreaking role as Quentin Crisp in ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ that really bought him to the public’s attention. It was a role he feared would prevent him from getting cast ever again. He was wrong of course going on to appear as Caligula in the award winning TV series,’ I, Claudius’.
His career was now heading ever upwards and would appear in his first notable film role in Alan Parker’s ‘Midnight Express’ followed in quick succession by Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’, David Lynch’s astonishing ‘The Elephant Man’ and Michael Cimino’s studio bankrupting ‘Heaven’s Gate’. They were roles that would secure his reputation to play a wide diversity of roles and his later films would include ‘1984’ to ‘King Ralph’ and he worked with directors as diverse as Mel Brooks( Spaceballs), Roger Corman (Frankenstein Unbound), Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy) , Robert Zemeckis(Contact) Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), Lars Von Trier (Melancholia) and inevitably several Harry Potter films.
He was not afraid to speak out against the Hollywood system being vocal in his criticism of Harvey Weinstein who wanted to cut 20mins from the film, ‘Snowpiercer.’
As he grew ever more in demand for films his theatre work reduced but his reputation as a hellraiser increased over the years with a penchant for heavy drinking often getting him into well publicised scrapes. He was married four times with his marriage to his first wife Actress Annette Robertson. only lasting or two years. It’s been speculated that his drinking was instigated at the tragic death of a relationship he had with Marie Lise Volpeliere-Porrot who was tragically killed in a riding accident 15 years later. He had described her as, ‘the love of my life’. His marriage to second wife Donna Peacock lasted for only 4 years and his marriage to wife number three in 1990 last only for 5 years although they did have two sons.
In 2004 he was mnade CBE and in 2015 he was knighted for his services to drama having been given a BAFTA for lifetime achievement in 2012.
In 2005 he married for the last time to actress Anwen Rees Myers until his death from cancer for which he had been diagnosed with in 2015. He worked right up until his death having recently completed work on ‘That Good Night’, ‘My Name is Lenny’ and most recently ‘Darkest Hour’ as Neville Chamberlain.
He leaves an outstanding body of work for which he will be justly remembered.