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Obituary: Sir John Hurt, Elephant Man star who conquered the world of film and TV

PUBLISHED: 07:40 28 January 2017 | UPDATED: 08:21 28 January 2017

Stephen Fry hands over a mystery script to actor John Hurt to perform at The Auden Theatre, Holt.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Stephen Fry hands over a mystery script to actor John Hurt to perform at The Auden Theatre, Holt. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

JOHN HURT, actor, born January 22, 1940.

Sir John Hurt, the rebel-rousing star of The Elephant Man and Harry Potter’s Mr Ollivander, was one of Britain’s most formidable and successful actors.

Actor John Hurt visits The Belfry Primary School, Overtstrand, and reads to the pupils. 
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY Actor John Hurt visits The Belfry Primary School, Overtstrand, and reads to the pupils. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

The son of a vicar, he played a huge variety of characters, from a mad Roman emperor to a pimp on the road to stardom; a circus freak, to a heroin-addicted prisoner.

Although renowned as a maverick, he was in constant demand for distinguished film work and chose his roles with care.

In the last few years of his life he lived in Norfolk, where he was a well known figure on the arts scene.

He was best-known for his portrayals of the famously misunderstood - the grotesquely deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man, Stephen Ward, the Profumo affair scapegoat in Scandal, and Quentin Crisp struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality in The Naked Civil Servant.

The Jabberwocky by John Hurt. The Jabberwocky by John Hurt.

Instinctively, he was able to submerge himself in characters in a chameleon-like way, believing that method acting was for people with no imagination.

But for many years the actor with the hang-dog face, baggy eyes and parchment-coloured skin was almost as famous for his off-screen, hell-raising antics.

He famously blotted his copybook at a Bafta awards ceremony when he hurled himself in a drunken rage at a pack of paparazzi.

The picture of a legendary drinker was often splashed across the newspapers but age mellowed him and he admitted to being happier sitting with his beloved painting easels.

John Hurt launches a £50,000 appeal for the creation of a new accessible education facility at Cinema City which will benefit local people like Ruth Cordle from Equal Lives Youth Forum.
Photo by Simon Finlay. John Hurt launches a £50,000 appeal for the creation of a new accessible education facility at Cinema City which will benefit local people like Ruth Cordle from Equal Lives Youth Forum. Photo by Simon Finlay.

Towards the end of his six decade-long career, he received a string of honours including being knighted by the Queen at Windsor Castle.

John Vincent Hurt was born the youngest of three in Derbyshire on January 22, 1940 and spent what he described as a lonely childhood first at an Anglo-Catholic prep school and later at a boarding school in Lincoln.

His acting aspirations were almost shattered forever by his headmaster’s insistence that he did not stand a chance in the profession.

He left school to go to art college but dropped out, impoverished and living in a dismal basement flat.

This March 17, 1981, file photo shows actor John Hurt, nominated for an Academy Award, sitting with actresses Catherine Hicks, at a cocktail party in Los Angeles. Hurt was nominated for best actor for his role in This March 17, 1981, file photo shows actor John Hurt, nominated for an Academy Award, sitting with actresses Catherine Hicks, at a cocktail party in Los Angeles. Hurt was nominated for best actor for his role in "The Elephant Man." (AP Photo/Ut, File)

He finally plucked up enough courage to apply for a scholarship and auditioned successfully for Rada, although he later recalled being so hungry he could hardly deliver his lines.

That was the crowning moment which started his acting career.

On leaving Rada in 1962, his first turning point came at the tender age of 22 with a part in the film The Wild And The Willing with Ian McShane.

Four years later he won praise for his acting on stage in Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs at the Garrick.

Hurt gained international recognition for the first time in the 1960s as Thomas More’s betrayer Lord Rich in the highly acclaimed multiple-Academy Award winning historical drama A Man For All Seasons.

But it was not until 1978 that Hurt finally consolidated his position as one of the cinema’s foremost character actors - he gained an Oscar nomination for his performance as a tragic heroin addict in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express.

Then, conclusively, came David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, and the role of the hideously deformed circus freak John Merrick turned him into a household name, although with his head encased in latex and plaster he was unrecognisable on screen.

Yet by using his eyes, gestures and a deliberately restricted voice he made the tragic figure acceptable, pitiable and finally admirable.

Another unforgettable performance was in 1979 as Kane in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror Alien where, in a harrowing scene, the parasite bursts out of his chest.

More recently, he enjoyed success playing the wand merchant Mr Ollivander in the Harry Potter films.

Part of Hurt’s success was that he was one of the few major film actors who refused to drop television after his first breakthrough.

He readily turned down rival film work to take on some of his most famous roles - as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant for which he won an Emmy Award in 1976, the mad emperor Caligula in I, Claudius, and Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment.

Among his performances was the harrowing portrayal in the BBC’s Prisoners In Time (1995) of Eric Lomax, a former PoW, who suffered brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese and, in retirement, sought out his former captor and torturer.

The critically acclaimed role was another in a long list of agonised souls that Hurt depicted so powerfully.

Another was his portrayal of Winston Smith in the 1984 film of George Orwell’s vision of a totalitarian world, Nineteen Eighty-Four, playing opposite Richard Burton’s O’Brien.

And he was unforgettable as the tragic Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place, portraying the real-life character who was falsely accused of murder and hanged.

In another vision of a futuristic dictatorship, V For Vendetta, he played the head of the government.

In the film Scandal, which recreated the story of the Profumo affair, his compassionate portrayal of Stephen Ward, the tragic osteopath who was accused of procuring call-girls and committed suicide when faced with ruin, grabbed the headlines.

More recently, he saw success in The Last Panthers and appeared in a special 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who in 2013 as the War Doctor, a “forgotten”’ incarnation of the main character.

Less than two years later, the star was given a knighthood for services to drama by the Queen at Windsor Castle.

The actor was nominated for two Academy Awards, for The Elephant Man and Midnight Express, and won four Baftas, including a lifetime achievement recognition for his outstanding contribution to British cinema in 2012.

In contrast to the steady success of his career, Hurt’s private life was at times scarred by disaster.

His first marriage ended in the 1960s. In 1968 he started a relationship with the “love of his life” Marie Lise Volpeliere-Porrot. It ended 15 years later when she was killed in a riding accident.

The following year he married US actress Donna Peacock but the couple divorced four years later, although they remained good friends. He married his third wife Jo Dalton in 1990 and they had two sons. But again the marriage ended in divorce in 1995.

Ten years later he wed Anwen Rees-Myers, who has remained at his side for the last decade.

Hurt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2015 and the following summer was forced to pull out of a production of the play The Entertainer with Sir Kenneth Branagh after being taken to hospital with an intestinal complaint.

But he remained prolific, starring in Jackie Kennedy biopic Jackie, which is due for UK release next year, and filming Darkest Hour, in which he will star in 2017 as Neville Chamberlain opposite Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill.

The actor leaves two sons, Sasha and Nick.

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