In Memoriam: Sir John Hurt (1940-2017)



I asked several friends and colleagues who enjoy movies, but are not necessarily aficionados, what they thought of the late John Hurt.  Many replied that they didn’t know who that was.

Hurt was one of those character actors that people don’t know by name, but immediately recognize on sight.  His most memorable role was that of “Kane,” the hapless astronaut in Alien (1979) who had one of the worst cases of dyspepsia recorded on film.  (I’m referring to the alien being who popped out of his abdomen.  I’ll spare all of you a photo of that.)

Hurt’s second most famous role was that of the Elephant Man in the 1980 film of the same name.  John Merrick, the historical Elephant Man, was horribly deformed due to a hereditary disease.  In portraying Merrick, Hurt was made up to the point that he was unrecognizable.  In addition, he had to play the role with significant slurring in his speech.  Nevertheless, his brilliant acting provided us  with a portrait of an intelligent, sensitive, and artistic man to whom life had dealt an awful hand of cards.


I was listening to an old radio interview of John Hurt today, and one word came out which accurately described many of his roles:  Flamboyant.  Although Hurt played everything from politicians and intellectuals to priests and jockeys, his most famous characters are pretty out there; or at least placed in extreme situations.  I’ve already given you two examples.  Two others would include his roles as transvestite Quentin Crisp in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, and the insane Emperor Caligula in the British TV miniseries I, Claudius (1976).  He was brilliant in both parts.

Here are scenes from both productions:

I, Claudius (1976)

The Naked Civil Servant (1975)

Hurt’s distinctive voice was utilized in several animated features, and he narrated many other live action films.  In addition, Hurt was one of many distinguished British film actors cast in the Harry Potter movies.  He played Garrick Ollivander, the magic wand maker.

My personal favorite?  Hurt’s “Caligula” in I, Claudius. 

I, Claudius is a 12-episode production concerning the early history of imperial Rome, narrated by its fourth emperor, Claudius.  The entire series is entertaining, witty, and chilling, with lots of intrigue and back stabbing (both figurative and literal).  It is soap opera of the very highest quality, perhaps the best ever made.  Look out for Derek Jacobi in the title role, and Sian Phillips as the malevolent Empress Livia.

Warning:  Lots of explicit sex and violence.  A definite R rating bordering on NC-17; kids should not see it.

You can purchase the DVD of I, Claudius on by clicking onto the following link:

For additional information about John Hurt, I recommend film critic Justin Chang’s excellent article in the January 30, 2017 Los Angeles Times, “Voice of wit, wily humanity,” Calendar Section E.  I also recommend that you review a filmography of this excellent actor and watch his movies.  You will be well-rewarded.



“John Hurt.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.   25 January 2017.  Web.  1 February 2017.

Chang, J. (2017, January 30).  Voice of wit, wily humanity.  Los Angeles Times, pp. E7

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