Yesterday brought us the sad news of the death of the great British actor, John Hurt. He of the mellifluous voice and so many unforgettable roles on stage and screen.
Many of his most celebrated roles are drawn from literature, here are ten of the best:
1. Ten Rillington Place (1971): Timothy Evans
Ten Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy was based on the real-life case of the British serial killer John Christie, and the tragedy of his neighbors, Timothy and Beryl Evans. John Hurt played Timothy who was wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife.
2. The Naked Civil Servant (1975): Quentin Crisp
The mini-series of The Naked Civil Servant was based on Quentin Crisp’s autobiography of the same name. It was ground-breaking television. His performance as Crisp won John Hurt the BAFTA for Best Actor in 1976.
3. I, Claudius (1976): Caligula
I, Claudius by Robert Graves takes in the form of biography. The TV series was chock-full of brilliant performances: Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Patrick Stewart as Sejanus and Brian Blessed as Augustus. John Hurt shone as Caligula, the mad, bad Roman emperor.
4. Midnight Express (1978): Max
Midnight Express by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer is the true story of author Hays’ experience in a Turkish prison. He was there for attempting to smuggle hashish. John Hurt’s portrayal of Max, an English heroin addict, was a standout.
5. Crime and Punishment (1979): Raskolnikov
John Hurt starred as the flawed, conflicted, and impoverished ex-student Raskolnikov in this television adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s celebrated novella Crime and Punishment.
6. The Elephant Man (1980): John Merrick
In David Lynch’s break-out film, John Hurt played John Merrick, a heavily disfigured man — The Elephant Man — who ekes out a living as a side-show freak. Merrick’s confronting visage hid intelligence and sensitivity.
7. 1984 (1984): Winston Smith
In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith’s job is to rewrite past newspaper articles to reflect well on the regime. Hurt played Winston, whose act of falling in love was the ultimate rebellion.
8. Harry Potter (2001, 2010 and 2011): Ollivander
Just about every British actor of note has appeared in the Harry Potter films. John Hurt took his turn as Ollivander, the eccentric wand-maker in three installments: The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Deathly Hallows parts one and two.
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011): Control
When John le Carré’s great Cold War spy novel was brought to the big screen, John Hurt played Control, MI5’s top spymaster whose career was brought to an abrupt end by a failed operation.
10. The Hollow Crown (2012): The Chorus
Henry V’s prologue opens with the lines, “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”
In Part 4 of The Hollow Crown — Shakespeare’s history plays spanning the reigns from Richard II to Richard III — the voice that spoke those words belonged to John Hurt. His performance, though all too brief, perfectly ended the story of Henry’s brief and glorious reign.
Goodbye Sir John Hurt and thank you for five decades of wonderful performances.
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