Considered one of Great Britain's most consistently brilliant players, John Hurt was at his best when playing victims forced to suffer mental, physical, or spiritual anguish. A small man with a slightly sinister countenance and a tenor voice that never completed the transition between early adolescence and manhood, Hurt was generally cast in supporting or leading roles as eccentric characters in offbeat films.
The son of a clergyman, Hurt was training to be a painter at St. Martin's School of the Arts when he became enamored with acting and enrolled in London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art instead. He made his theatrical and film debuts in 1962 (The Wild and the Willing). Though he frequently appeared on-stage, Hurt, unlike his many colleagues, was primarily a film and television actor. He gave one of his strongest early performances playing Richard Rich in Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons (1966). His subsequent work remained high quality through the '70s. On television, Hurt made his name in the telemovie The Naked Civil Servant and furthered his growing reputation as the twisted Caligula on the internationally acclaimed BBC miniseries I, Claudius (1976). He received his first Oscar nomination for playing a supporting role in the harrowing Midnight Express and a second nomination for his sensitive portrayal of the horribly deformed John Merrick -- but for his voice, Hurt was unrecognizable beneath pounds of latex and makeup. In 1984, Hurt was the definitive Winston Smith in Michael Radford's version of Orwell's 1984. Other memorable roles include a man who finds himself hosting a terrifying critter in Alien (1979), his parody of that role in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs (1987), an Irish idiot in The Field (1990), and in Rob Roy (1995).
In 1997, Hurt played the lead role of Giles De'ath (pronounced day-ath) for the comedy drama Love and Death on Long Island. The film, which follows a widower (Hurt) who forms an unlikely obsession with a teen heartthrob who lives in Long Island and occasionally stars in low-brow films. Love and Death was praised for its unlikely, yet poignant portrait of unrequited love. The same year, Hurt took on the role of a multi-millionaire willing to fund a scientist's (Jodie Foster) efforts to communicate with alien life in Contact. Hurt took a voice role in the animated series Journey to Watership Down and its sequel, Escape to Watership Down in 1999, and again for The Tigger Story in 2000. In 2001, Hurt joined the cast of Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone to play the small but vital role of wand merchant Mr. Ollivander, and narrated Lars von Trier's experimental drama Dogville. Later, Hurt played an American professor in Hellboy (2004), and won praise for his portrayal of a bounty hunter in The Proposition, a gritty Western from director John Hillcoat.
Hurt continued to work in small but meaty supporting roles throughout the next several years, most notably in the drama Beyond the Gates (2005), for which he played a missionary who arrived in Rwanda just before genocide erupted, and as the tyrannical Chancellor Sutler in director James McTiegue's adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta (2006). In 2010, Hurt reprised his role of Mr. Ollivander for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and for its sequel in 2011. The actor co-starred with Charlotte Rampling in Melancholia (2011), Lars von Trier's meditation on depression, and played the Head of the British Secret Intelligence Service in the multi-Academy Award nominated spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the same year. In 2013, Hurt appeared in the futuristic sci-fi movie Snowpiercer and later played the War Doctor in the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who. The following year, Hurt played the King of Thrace in Hercules. Hurt died in 2017, just days after his 77th birthday.