Sir John Hurt: Profile

John Hurt Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption John Hurt received the Bafta fellowship in 2012

Very few actors can claim to have played Caligula, Jesus Christ and Doctor Who. But John Hurt, who has been made a knight in the New Year Honours, is one of them.

Over six decades, his distinctive, gravelly voice and lived-in face have kept him in demand for lead and character roles alike.

His portrayal of Kane, the astronaut who meets a grisly death in Ridley Scott's Alien, has often been described as one of cinema's most memorable moments.

But he has also thrived in the theatre, performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and staging Samuel Beckett's quietly devastating one-act play, Krapp's Last Tape, several times.

An incisive character actor, Hurt is drawn to misfits and mavericks on the fringes of mainstream society, and his quietly dignified portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man earned him an Oscar nomination in 1981.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Hurt excelled in the role of Joseph Merrick

John Vincent Hurt was born on 22 January, 1940 in the colliery town of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, the youngest of three boys. His parents later adopted a girl after their middle son died.

His father, originally a mathematician, had taken holy orders and, when Hurt was five years old, became parish priest at Woodville on the Derbyshire-Leicestershire border.

His parents were reluctant to let him mix with local children, who they considered common, and although the family lived across the road from a cinema, he was not allowed to go and see films.

At eight, Hurt was sent to board at a prep school in Kent, an establishment he later described as "so high Anglo-Catholic it was flying".

There, he played the part of a girl in a production of Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird, a tale of two children seeking happiness with the aid of a fairy.

'Wild girls'

"I felt an extraordinary feeling that I was in the place that I was meant to be," he later recalled.

But the school also had a dark side: Hurt later revealed he had suffered abuse at the hands of a senior master.

When he was 12, his father was appointed to a church in Grimsby, and Hurt was enrolled in a nearby school, where, by his own admission, he could be "distinctly lazy."

He captained the school cricket, rugby and football teams and also took part in school plays. By the time he was 15, he says, he knew he wanted to be an actor.

At his parents' request, he agreed to study for an art teacher's diploma instead, and attended art school for four years.

But a chance meeting with two "wild Australian girls" in London persuaded him to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art - Rada - where, to his surprise, he was offered a full scholarship.

Image copyright Ronald Grant Archive
Image caption His small role in The Wild & the Willing earned him £75 a week during shooting

He fell in love with French cinema while studying in London, once going to see Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim every Sunday for seven weeks.

"In exploring this complex relationship between two men and a woman, it looked into areas that film-makers don't normally look into," he explained. "It was full of secret moments, and I think film is a brilliant medium for that sort of secrecy."

When he finally graduated, Hurt walked straight into a small role in a 1962 film, The Wild and the Willing which earned him the princely sum of £75 a week.

At the same time, he began performing on the London stage, and took minor roles in TV shows such as Z-Cars. He also married fellow actress, Annette Robertson, although the union lasted less than two years.

It was while appearing in a London production of Little Malcolm in 1965 that John came to the attention of director Fred Zinnemann, who cast him as Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons.

While his part was not a major one, the success of the film - it won six Oscars - pushed him into the spotlight.

Five years, later he was nominated for a Bafta for 10 Rillington Place, the true story of Timothy Evans, framed for the murder of his daughter by serial killer John Christie.

Image copyright Ronald Grant Archive
Image caption He made a speciality of playing victims like Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place

Evans was the sort of vulnerable character that would become a speciality for Hurt - but he was simultaneously gaining the reputation of a hell-raiser, mixing with Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris, and claiming to get through seven bottles of wine a day, although he later revised the figure down to three.

He was considered part of the firmament - a good actor, but not necessarily a great one - until he was offered the chance to play Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, an ITV adaptation of Crisp's autobiography.

"It was an absolutely stunning piece of writing; it screamed off the page," he told The Times in 2000.

"It was a very risky piece for an actor - a television play about an effeminate homosexual who is also an exhibitionist. Many people told me it would be the end of my career - well, how often do you have to hear that?"

Image caption John Hurt (l) in the character of Quentin Crisp and Crisp as himself

Crisp was so impressed with the performance, he called Hurt "my representative here on Earth".

"I told Mr Hurt it was difficult for actors to play victims, but he has specialised in victims."

Hurt said the TV show "changed the business's perception of me" and acted as his calling card in Hollywood.

Film roles came thick and fast. In 1978, he narrowly missed out on an Oscar for his role as heroin addict Max in Alan Parker's controversial Midnight Express. Alien followed a year later.

Image copyright Ronald grant archive
Image caption Hurt (r) starred with Brad Davis in the harrowing film Midnight Express

Famously, Ridley Scott kept the manner of Hurt's death a secret from the rest of the cast before filming. So, when a prosthetic alien punched through the actor's chest, amid copious quantities of blood - six gallons per take - Veronica Cartwright, who played Lambert, passed out.

Prosthetics featured heavily in Hurt's next major role, too, but to a very different effect.

Hurt's moving portrayal of deformed Victorian circus freak John Merrick required seven hours in the make-up chair every morning, and won him a second Oscar nomination.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Alien's "chestbursting" scene is one of cinema's most visceral moments

Other impressive performances included Winston Smith in a film adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. and the gleefully deranged Roman emperor Caligula in the BBC's adaptation of I, Claudius.

He also played Jesus in Mel Brook's History of the World, Part 1, and voiced the heroic rabbit Hazel in the animation Watership Down.


Tragedy struck in 1983 when his partner of 16 years, Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, died after a horse riding accident.

The following year, he married a Texan barmaid, Donna Peacock, with whom he set up home in Kenya. But when he returned to the UK in 1988 to film Scandal, he instantly fell in love with a young production assistant called Jo Dalton.

They married in 1990 and had two children, Alexander and Nicolas, but she eventually left him, apparently exasperated by his drinking.

A brief reunion with Donna was also scuppered by his taste for alcohol but, since cleaning up his act almost a decade ago, he has married for a fourth time, to Anwen Rees Meyers, a former actress and classical pianist who is 25 years his junior.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Hurt with his wife Anwen Rees Meyers at the premiere of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in 2009

Over the decades Hurt's workload has remained prodigious, although he takes fewer starring roles than in the 1980s.

"I've never sought out a particular part," he once said. "I've never done a Meryl Streep and said 'I've absolutely got to work with a particular director' and taken a piece to them. I've never had that confidence."

He was a convincing Alan Clark in a BBC adaptation of the philandering politician's diaries, and a memorable Control in the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Children will know him as wand maker Garrick Ollivander from the Harry Potter films, but he has largely avoided big-budget Hollywood films, calling the process "endless".

"They do shots from your point of view, from his point of view, from her point of view, from under your legs, from that corner, from the other corner, from different points of view, three sizes - until you are just bored stiff with the whole thing."

Image caption He memorably portrayed the philandering politician Alan Clark

With more than 100 films to his name, he has inevitably ended up in a number of turkeys.

'I've done some stinkers in the cinema," he admitted to The Telegraph in 2008. "You can't regret it; there are always reasons for doing something, even if it's just the location."

He took a role on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull solely to experience working with Stephen Spielberg, but grew frustrated with singing the film's praises in interviews.

Lifetime achievement

"I don't suppose we could talk about the lack of enjoyment in making it?" he quipped to one journalist.

In 2013, he appeared in Doctor Who as the War Doctor, a hitherto unseen incarnation of the character, who ditches his pacifist credentials to become a warrior.

It was one of Hurt's toughest roles, he told the Daily Mail. "There is a lot of quasi-scientific nonsense which doesn't stay in your head that easily and that meant entire weekends spent on solid learning."

Image caption He was sufficiently menacing as the War Doctor

As he approaches his 75th birthday, the actor is still working as hard as ever, with upcoming projects including Warner Bros' revival of the Tarzan story.

Hurt was made a CBE in 2004 before being receiving a knighthood in the 2015 New Year's Honours.

He also accepted the Bafta fellowship in 2012, telling the audience he was "very honoured".

"I know that film means a great deal to me, but I had no idea that I meant so much to film."

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