Our hearts are saddened by the loss of another great actor. John Hurt had an enormously varied career, from his iconic (and horrifying) scene in Alien to his incredible turn as wandmaker Ollivander in the Harry Potter series. A sublime actor who gave us decades of impactful performances, we take a moment to admire and share just some of our many favorite films of John Hurt’s career.
Despite only having a few minutes of screen-time, John Hurt left one of the biggest impressions in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016) as Father Richard McSorley, the Catholic priest whom Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) turns to in the wake of her husband’s assassination. During a private walk, he tells her the story of Jesus healing a man born blind in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” And just like that the film clicks into place; Jackie finds meaning in her suffering and direction in her grief. And much like in this scene, Hurt was always an actor who could make films click into the right place no matter the genre or story. He was one of those few actors who could embody both complete brokenness and steadfast dignity; both total submission and resolute grandeur. There was an authenticity to his performances that seemed to emanate from his very being. He was a pauper and a king, a weakling and a hero, a victim and a warrior. The whole totality of humanity was displayed in him. Now and forever. Amen. – Nathanael Hood
Watership Down (1978)
John Hurt’s performance as Hazel in Watership Down is one of the greatest voice-overs in the history of animated film. Hurt injects so much gravitas and humanity into his role that at times you almost forget you’re watching a cartoon about rabbits (although that sells the brilliance of the film considerably short). In particular, Hurt’s performance highlights the character’s sense of leadership and inner strength better than Richard Adams’ novel does.
The fact that Hurt is playing Hazel never feels intrusive the way that other films with celebrity voice acting feels, allowing you to get lost in the film without it calling attention to the iconic actor voicing the lead character. Along with the sheer quality of his performance, that nuance is what makes Hazel one of the very best roles Hurt played in his career, animated or otherwise. – Ryan Gibbs
Merlin (2008 TV series)
John Hurt’s role in the BBC television series Merlin is smaller than you’d expect: he voices the dragon Kilgharrah, whose main role is to show up for 10 minutes every other episode, blow the CGI budget, and offer Merlin vague hints to solve the episode’s plot. And yet, John Hurt gave Kilgharrah his all, pouring life and warmth into a character that had the potential to remain stagnant. Largely due to Hurt’s wonderful voice, Kilgharrah grows from enigmatic and untrustworthy mentor to friend and confidante, to the point where when he reveals he’s slowing down and growing old in the fifth season, your heart breaks alongside Merlin’s. Hurt’s filmography shows that he took plenty of voice roles–but his time on Merlin proves that he excelled at them. – Katie Gill
I, Claudius (1976 TV mini-series)
One of British television’s great treasures is I, Claudius, an adaptation of an equally acclaimed novel by Robert Graves. Of course one watches it and can’t help but admire each and every actor (most of whom come from the stage) who appear in every episode but not one was more indelible than John Hurt as the psychotic and narcissistic Roman emperor Caligula. There’s so much to say about his performance, where to start? His spine-chilling cackle, his eerie ghostly white appearance, his unpredictable mood swings. John Hurt is most acclaimed for playing characters who possess striking humanity, but let’s not forget that Hurt—a character actor—had just as much zeal in portraying those completely devoid of it. Caligula is not simply an or a re-reading of historical text, it’s John Hurt at the height of his creativity and reminding us (and Hollywood) why he was always destined to become one of the silver screen’s finest talents. – Gary Shannon
Midnight Express (1978)
John Hurt’s Max in Midnight Express is a special character, not because it earned him his first Oscar nod or because of his remarkable transformation into the role, but rather because he seems to fully embody the open-endedness of a fool’s hope nestling at the film’s core. Because a fool’s hope is all that it takes to get on the midnight express. This is not an easy thing to pull off, particularly when the character he plays is so complex and layered. The amount of screen time he has is meagre, and that’s because Midnight Express isn’t really his story. But in that time on screen he proves to be more than a second-in-command. Max’s eyes glint with sadness, yearning, and a deep capacity to love and live. Beneath Hurt’s oddball appearance, or his is stoned-out catatonia, is a deeper understanding of human empathy. – Gary Shannon
John Hurt’s tremendous inner life shined throughout his career. His honey voice — both comforting and foreboding, whimsical and melancholy — often opened a soulful window into various worlds, myths and ideologies. He was the kind of storyteller you feared and admired, the withering old man that compelled you and filled you with remorse. That sense of longing and acceptance is seen and felt throughout his turn as Professor Bloom in Hellboy, which gave him the usual distinction of raising the half-son of Satan on Earth.
Such a role suggests villainy, but it’s only a further testament to Hurt’s extraordinary talents that the supporting turn was so inviting and open-hearted — even under the most extremist of conditions. Hurt’s Professor Bloom was an anchor throughout this sci-fi fantasy superhero fable. He’s the one that propelled the elusiveness, while also inviting a much-needed sense of humanity throughout the proceedings. Without him, both Hellboy and its sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, wouldn’t come near the success they found. Well, at least critically and amongst fans. The Hellboy films — whether they admitted it or not — were always aiming for a niche audience, but it’s an ongoing credit to Hurt that they could resonate so widely. It’s unclear if Hellboy III will ever see the darkened light of day, but if comes to completion, it won’t be the same without Hurt involved. – Will Ashton
The Proposition (2005)
One can never get a full grasp on John Hurt’s Jellon Lamb in The Proposition. The man is deranged yet sensible. He is well-spoken but often diluted to pure rubbish. He is theatrical yet introspective. He is a drunkard but more thirsty for knowledge. He is a racist yet constantly looking for someone to listen. He is not a man defined by simple explanations. The same can be said for Hurt’s wonderfully impressionistic performance, which channels a Shakespearian-level tongue, yet only an actor as versatile and utterly ravenous as the late thespian could pull off such a high-wire performance. It’s both confounding and entirely absorbing, stunning and compelling in its layered depth. You never know where to stand with Jellon, and thanks to Hurt, that’s part of what the character such a delightfully transfixing person. Hurt doesn’t merely play crazy; only a true talent can find the sensibility within complete madness. Hurt was more than an extraordinary talent. He was a maddening genius. – Will Ashton
Harry Potter (2001, 2010, 2011)
While John Hurt only had a few scenes in three of the eight Harry Potter films, his presence brought an aura of mystery to the films. When Harry first gets his wand in Sorcerer’s Stone, Hurt was able to take one short scene and leave a mark on the films until his reappearance in Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2. With his talent, viewers are left to ponder the mystery of Harry and Voldemort’s wands, and it beautifully comes full circle at the end of the franchise. He treated the character with care, and as a massive fan, it was a pleasure to watch his performance as the legendary wandmaker. – Brian Acunis
Admittedly, John Hurt’s chest bursting scene in Spaceballs isn’t as iconic as the one in Alien. However, that’s the joke. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the production team to contact Hurt and offer him a cameo to play literally the exact same token death character. As silly as it sounds, Hurt was more than game for it and nailed the brief sequence; with the line “Oh no, not again!” It is scenes like this that really give the tone for how Hurt saw his own work. To him, regardless of the project’s quality or his screen time, it deserved the best he could give; and he loved to do it. Even if it was just a silly cameo in a Mel Brooks sci-fi parody. – Travis Hymas
The Black Cauldron (1985)
I would like to say that my first exposure to John Hurt as a child was his take on Ollivander from the Harry Potter series, but growing up during the Disney Renaissance, my early years were during a time when The Walt Disney Corporation still got away with traumatizing it’s younger audiences.
Amongst the stellar titles produced during the 1980s and 1990s was a lesser-known escapade called The Black Cauldron. Based on a fantasy book of the same name, although the movie feels like a spiritual successor to The Sword In the Stone, albeit with a twist of horror. What makes The Black Cauldron memorable is due in no small part to Hurt providing the voice of The Horned King, one of the most terrifying villains in the Disney canon.
While a number of Disney villains have a certain style and pathos, The Horned King is just unequivocally evil. The raspy nightmare-inducing tones provided by Mr. Hurt remain as haunting now as they did in our childhoods. His insidious, whispering death rattle help make the film as terrifying as it is, which may be why it’s a more obscure film compared to other Disney flicks. Although it’s not as popular as The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, those who have experienced The Black Cauldron all have that same chill down their spines from The Horned King’s creepy presence. – Jen E. E. Norman
The Plague Dogs (1982)
While it’s not as popular as its companion piece, Watership Down, The Plague Dogs offers yet another memorable voiceover role from John Hurt. As Snitter, Hurt balances the sadness and humor tight rope throughout the entire film. We follow his character on the run from humans who believe the dogs are carrying a strain of the Bubonic Plague. As a result, Snitter has to reattach himself to his primordial instincts in order to survive in the wild. Animation is a way of depicting what cannot be shown in live action films. In this case, we explore the tragedy of animal abuse in a way that will never let you forget what a crime it really is. The power of the message and animation largely comes for Hurt’s terrific oratory performance. – Matthew Goudreau
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Despite his longevity in cinema, John Hurt was an actor I found to be refreshingly enigmatic. Having the ability to jump from science fiction to prestige historical drama to BBC hokey family fantasy was a demonstration of just how much variety he was able to express over the span of his career. His character in Jim Jarmusch’s lovely Only Lovers Left Alive wasn’t the biggest role he’s ever landed in his career, but it showcases just why he was such a coveted character actor. He disappeared into the role of a withering old vampire who had seen more in life than many other lives put together, imbuing his character with a sense of grace, wisdom and empathy despite his blood thirsty roots. – Allyson Johnson
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
There was a sense that late in his career Hurt was trying to interact with as many as the on-screen and off-screen “greats” as he could, and there were no shortage of them in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Taking on yet another small but memorable role, Hurt was able to convey much of his power player’s doubts and imposing threat with very little, as always a master of nuance and of delivering pathos in just a single line. – Allyson Johnson
John Hurt 1940 – 2017