With a career spanning six decades and over 200 different roles on big and small screens, the loss of John Hurt cannot be understated. Still hard at work at the age of 77, even while suffering from the ravages of stomach cancer, Hurt was one of the most recognizable and reliable character actors of our time, and his presence and persistence will be sorely missed in the years to come. But before saying a final goodnight to the tremendous talents of John Hurt, let’s take a minute to remember all he was to the nerdy among us, and recall his Top 10 Nerdiest roles in the movies and on TV.
Kane – Alien (1979)
No matter how many prequels and spin-offs they keep cranking out, one man will stand for all time as the first person on screen to ever be killed by a chest-bursting xenomorph, and that person is John Hurt in Alien. We don’t learn a lot about Kane, the executive officer of the Nostromo, though it is inferred that he’s kind of a cowboy. Hurt spends most of his screen time unconscious with an alien hugging his face, but it’s the show-stopping dinner scene where the xenomorph bursts forth from Kane’s chest that Hurt will always be remembered for. So much so that several years later he was asked for an encored in Spaceballs, and as most working British actors know: a gig is a gig is a gig.
Professor Bruttenholm – Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
It says a lot when an actor’s performance makes a writer regret killing off his character, but that was the case with Mike Mignola. As in the graphic novel, Hellboy’s adopted father, BPRD head Prof. Bruttenholm, is killed by Rasputin and his flunkies, but seeing Hurt fill the shoes of the kindly but stern Prof. Bruttenholm, Mignola had regrets. So naturally, despite the fact that it was an entirely original story that had no bearing on the life and times of Prof. Bruttenholm, Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro found a way to get Hurt back for the sequel. (And his voice would also return for the animated Blood and Iron.)
John Merrick – The Elephant Man (1980)
Based on the life of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man was a breakthrough for both John Hurt and the film’s director David Lynch garnering a cult status and eight Academy Award nominations (the same number as Raging Bull, which came out that same year). For Hurt though, the challenge was acting through odious layers of make-up, an experience that Hurt described to his then-wife saying, “I think they finally managed to make me hate acting.” But the pain was worth it as Hurt translate all that struggle into his performance as Merrick, a gentle man that just wanted to belong and be seen for the content of his character than his outward appearance. When he cries in front of an unforgiving mob “I am not an animal! I am a human being. I am a man,” your heart breaks.
Adam Sutler – V For Vendetta (2006)
Here’s a role that takes on new resonance presently with current events. But seriously, Hurt was called upon by James McTeigue to be the embodiment of every hateful, spiteful, and terrifying characteristic of a modern demagogue. Although not physically imposing, the matter is overcome by the sheer bombasticity of Hurt’s performance, screaming at his underlings from a huge screen as he slowly loses control of the country he’s so viciously brought under heel. Of course, Sutler’s cruelty is only matched by his cowardliness, and after nearly two hours of fire and brimstone, when brought face-to-face with his tormentor, Hurt reminds us just how small a man like Sutler really is.
Gilliam – Snowpiercer (2013)
Any British actor of a certain age must inevitably take on the role of mentor, but there’s a twist to John Hurt’s role as mentor to train insurrectionist Chris Evans in Snowpiercer. One of Hurt’s gifts as an actor seemed to be the way his characters could illicit trust while giving you something that might make you suspicious of his intentions, and this quality was used to great effect in Snowpiercer. No man sacrifices his arm lightly, and you can easily see Hurt play the guilt that Gilliam feels, but you can never guess just how terrible Gilliam’s regret might be no matter how much it dances across Hurt’s face.
S.R. Hadden – Contact (1997)
As a kind of Bill Gates by way of Howard Hughes, John Hurt doesn’t get a lot of screen time as S.R. Hadden in Contact, but his shadow looms largely through the film. At first, Hadden appears to be the savior of SETI researcher and “I Want to Believe-r” Ellie Arroway, but was Hadden the philanthropist he appeared to be? Did he, as James Woods’ character inferred at the end, the puppeteer behind the so-called alien message in order to get the government to fund and test experimental technology? It seems far fetched given what we see in the movie from Ellie’s perspective, but then again, Hurt plays Hadden as coy but still very much a showman at heart.
Mr. Ollivander – The Harry Potter Series (2001-2011)
Who else but John Hurt could imbue the Daigon Alley wand shop owner with a worldly insight into the art and craft of wandmaking, while capturing the quality that makes young Harry uncertain of whether or not he likes the shopkeep in their first meeting. Although probably harmless, Ollivander always seems to have dispassionate fascination at the power and ability of the wands he sells that’s separate from the horrors some wizards commit with their magical tools. If ever there’s an actor that can strike you as familiar but off at the same time, it’s Hurt, and that’s a quality brought out very well in his short amount of screen time in the Harry Potter series.
The War Doctor – Doctor Who (2013)
Thank Christopher Eccleston’s reluctance to return as the reason that John Hurt got the tap to suit up as the never before seen or heard of War Doctor for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary. Showrunner Steven Moffat required an actor of significant stage presence to fill the boots of a Doctor so reviled that his future incarnations refused to acknowledge his existence. At the same time, he needed an actor who could disappear into the part and make you forget that your watching a legendary British thespian. In the end, there could only be one answer to the question: Who could play the War Doctor? And it was John Hurt.
Aragorn – The Lord of the Rings (1978) / The Horned King – The Black Cauldron (1984)
It’s fascinating to thing that John Hurt’s unique rasp has been used for both animated heroes and villains. For those who are used to Viggo Mortensen live-action performance, it’s unusual to see the heroic Aragorn and hear him talk in the voice that usually belongs to the small, older man we typically see standing behind the hero. It gives one of the most important roles in the J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga a new dimension. As for The Black Cauldron, it’s actually unusual to see Hurt play an out-and-out villain, but his voice combined with the visuals of the Horned King was terribly haunting, part of a grander departure of the film from the typically light and good humoured Disney fair. The Black Cauldron may not be one of Disney’s best, but the Horned King is definitely one of its standout villains.