What if 2016 wasn’t just a horrible year, but the beginning of horrible, period? 2017 is off to an awful start, with the passing of John Hurt the latest piece of unbearable news to come thudding on the doorstep.
He was so much more than just an insanely versatile actor. He gave everything he had to this world, in every way he could. Aside from his brilliant career of more than half a century, Sir John also devoted massive amounts of his time and talent to great causes, including Greenpeace, the WAVE Trauma Center for victims of violence in the north of Ireland, and Project Harar, an Ethiopian medical charity he became involved with after playing the disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
My own introduction to this amazing man came in Catholic school, of all places, when we got to spend one blessed afternoon watching a great movie instead of listening to Sister Mary Arthur boom at us from behind her massive desk and even bigger glasses. (Thank you, God!) The film, as you may have guessed, was A Man for All Seasons, and Hurt played the sniveling, villainous Richard Rich, who perjures himself for a cushy post, helping doom Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to the chopping block. (“Why, Richard,” More tells him. “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”) Good Lord, he was a creepy little bastard! So why did I develop such a huge crush on him? Like I didn’t have enough Catholic guilt?
Not long after, our local PBS station showed The Naked Civil Servant, where Hurt disappeared into the role of flamboyant British writer Quentin Crisp. But there was something about those eyes… Wait. Hold it. That guy was this guy? Another head-exploding moment soon followed, when PBS aired I Claudius, with Hurt pulling out every crayon in the crazy box as Emperor Caligula (but he was so fabulous you missed him when he was murdered). So, just to recap:
And he was just getting started!!
The man who betrayed a saint and and knocked off half of Rome became the leader of the rabbits in Watership Down. A desperate heroin addict in Midnight Express. A doomed space traveler (who got “indigestion” way too early in the movie—and later parodied his role in a Spaceballs cameo) in Alien. A brilliant wastrel in Heaven’s Gate. A prisoner of his own body in The Elephant Man. The head propagandist in Nineteen Eighty Four. A dogged detective in Crime and Punishment. An obsessed writer in Love and Death on Long Island. A hero’s weather-beaten sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (He was the only one who insisted on reading the script before signing on. No one else did “because Steven [Spielberg]—you know, ‘God’—was doing it. And I said, ‘Well, I need to have a little bit of previous knowledge even if God is doing it.'”) An ex-con struggling for a new start in Night Train to Munich. A mystic wand-maker in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A proud, betrayed MI-5 boss in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. An Elizabethan scribe in Only Lovers Left Alive.
The only thing these characters have in common is the actor who played them all. No one but John Hurt could have. Still, I have only scratched the surface of his work. And you get the feeling he had, too.
We will never see his like again, in a million different guises, with only a singular soul in common. Godspeed, Sir John. And thank you for every crazy, beautiful thing.