We were sad to learn Friday night (January 27) of the passing of Sir John Hurt (1940 – 2017), but it naturally got us thinking about some of the iconic roles he’s played in his long and illustrious career.
A brilliant and versatile actor, his unconventional presence would steal any scene he was in — whether it was a major Hollywood movie or a classic British serial.
We’ve previously highlighted roles from his body of work, but now feels like the right time to revisit a career that earned Hurt a knighthood and a BAFTA Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award. Below are our ten favorite John Hurt performances from the last five decades.
1. The Elephant Man (1980)
Hurt secured his reputation with the lead role in David Lynch‘s astonishing portrait of London grotesque: his portrayal of the unfortunate Joseph Merrick, who was considered a freak of nature in the late nineteenth century, won him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination.
2. Doctor Who (2013)
It’s fair to say Whovians are an exacting bunch, but even they didn’t quibble when Hurt was added to the ranks of Doctor in the 2013 50th anniversary episode “Day of the Doctor”. Writer Steven Moffat designated him “the War Doctor” — an apparently forgotten incarnation of the Time lord — and his quirky, unconventional approach meant he fitted in straight away.
3. Alien (1979)
Hurt’s character Kane might be killed off relatively early on, but his final stomach-churning scene (literally) is often voted one of the most memorable in cinema history. He became the first victim of the alien we now know as a xenomorph, kicking off a major franchise that still continues to this day.
4. I, Claudius (1976)
Hurt delivered a chilling performance as the mad emperor Caligula in this brilliant BBC miniseries about the politics and backstabbing that went on during the early Roman empire.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
2011 saw Hurt take the role of Control, the head of British intelligence, in this big screen adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A relatively small role, and in a film stuffed full of actors at the top of their game (Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, and a pre-Sherlock blond-coiffed Benedict Cumberbatch), Hurt still managed to hit it out of the park.
6. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Hurt plays lead character Winston Smith in this quintessential story of fascist thought control. A man living under the watchful gaze of Big Brother, he is eventually captured and broken down by the Thought Police. In this clip, Party member O’Brien (Richard Burton) counters Winston’s beliefs with his own set of alternative facts.
7. The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
Hurt made his name in the U.K. with his portrayal of the English writer Quentin Crisp, famous for wearing women’s clothes and documenting life as a gay man in the early part of the twentieth century. In 2008, Hurt reprised the role in An Englishman in New York, which covered the latter years of Crisp’s life spent in Manhattan.
8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Hurt found a whole new fanbase with a younger generation when he took the role of the eccentric and mysterious wand-maker Mr. Ollivander in the Harry Potter films. Initially a small role, albeit one who represented one of Harry’s first introductions to the magical Wizarding World, he became a much larger part of the story during the franchise’s final two films, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2.
9. Watership Down (1978)
Hurt’s distinctive gravelly voice meant he was frequently in demand as a voiceover artist, and can be heard in a famous Aids PSA from the 1980s, and a concept album by instrumental group the Art of Noise called The Seduction of Claude Debussy. Most notable of all though was his role as the heroic rabbit leader Hazel in the 1978 animation Watership Down, though the film’s violence and sad ending still gives viewers nightmares almost 40 years on.
10. Midnight Express (1978)
Hurt scored a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for a memorable side role in this critically acclaimed “prisoner-abroad” movie from director Alan Parker. He played doomed English junkie Max, who joins a group of prisoners as they attempt to escape a Turkish prison.
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