At the news of Hurt's death, tributes poured in from around the world, including from collaborators such as Mel Brooks, producer of The Elephant Man, who wrote on Twitter that Hurt "carried that film into cinematic immortality. He will be sorely missed." Elijah Wood, who starred with Hurt in 2008's The Oxford Murders, tweeted: "Very sad to hear of John Hurt's passing. It was such an honor to have watched you work, sir."
Born in 1940, Hurt earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1960, and appeared in television and on the stage throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. He came to prominence on television with roles in the ground-breaking The Naked Civil Servant as well as I, Claudius, and broke into film with Midnight Express, playing a British prisoner in a role that would earn him his first Oscar nomination.
For his turn in David Lynch's film, Hurt wore some of the most memorable and complicated prosthetic makeup in film history. In a 1980 interview, the actor revealed that though making the film was a considerable challenge, "The Elephant Man is about a superior human being and was worth making." The film, which was the indirect reason for the creation of the Academy Award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling, earned Hurt an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull), and won him a BAFTA. Hurt's performance is all the more remarkable for the extraordinary limitations it placed on him; beneath all that makeup, the actor had to show a universe of emotion using just his eyes, and did so with pathos and intelligence.
"We’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly”
Another role that involved special effects makeup was Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic Alien, a film that would produce one of the most memorable moments in film history. For the scene in which an alien bursts through Kane's chest, who is played by Hurt, Scott kept the rest of the cast in the dark about what was going to be shown, hoping to catch their genuine surprise at the moment. It worked. Later, Sigourney Weaver recalled the moment, "all I could think of was John, frankly. I wasn't even thinking that we were making a movie." Hurt's role earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and a few years later he parodied his performance in Mel Brooks' sci-fi sendup, Spaceballs (Brooks, uncredited, had produced The Elephant Man).
Besides Lynch, Hurt worked with many trail-blazing indie filmmakers, including Lars von Trier, for whom he provided the voice of the narrator in Dogville, as well as acting in Melancholia. A memorable late-career turn was in Richard Kwietniowski's indie Love and Death on Long Island, in which Hurt portrayed a love-lorn British scholar whose object of affection is a pretty-boy actor (played by pretty-boy actor Jason Priestly).
Indeed, Hurt was a friend to the indie film community, telling The Guardian that, "in the independent market, I have to say that more than in the studio market I've found things which have interested me and the sort of things that I like making." But Hurt was an actor who, more than anything, liked to work, and who appeared in big budget sci-fi, avant-garde literary fare like Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, as well as studio mega-hits like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (and the two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films, in which he portrayed Mr. Ollivander.)
"I put everything I can into the mulberry of my mind and hope that it is going to ferment and make a decent wine"
When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, Hurt revealed in an interview, "I can't say I worry about mortality, but it's impossible to get to my age and not have a little contemplation of it...We're all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly." And, when asked in the Guardian interview about the secret to his success in so many diverse roles, Hurt could only say, "I put everything I can into the mulberry of my mind and hope that it is going to ferment and make a decent wine. How that process happens, I'm sorry to tell you I can't describe."