One of the greats has left us

He always seemed to be dying, at least in his recent roles. And now that John Hurt really has left us (January 27, aged 77), it feels very personal. Some actors give you the sense that you know them, can read them, like you could sit down in a pub and have a long conversation with them because you know they’d listen as much as they talked and never tell you a lie…. and if he did it would be the biggest and most outrageously entertaining one he could think of and then you’d both roar with laughter. Some actors are like friends, and their deaths affect us in the same way, although we’ve never met them.

And some of those actors have that quality of decency on screen that he had, more than most – a sense of melancholy, as if he had seen too many things, each of which had left another line on his face. Hurt by name and hurt in his very body and soul. For that role in which someone needed to play an old soul, directors wanted Hurt, like the priest he plays in Jackie, one of his final roles. Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) wants to know how God could take her husband and leave two little children orphaned? Hurt gives in a few scenes a complete picture of a man who is haunted by the same questions and finally confesses to her that he does not have the answers. This small role is one of the most important in the film, because it brings us to the big questions.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he played a man who actually was dying. We feel the pain in every joint in the way he moves and in the effort required to get his words out as Control – the old fox – tries to find the mole in the Circus, the British Secret Service, before he goes. Among Hurt’s many gifts as an actor, the voice is his greatest, and it comes with an extraordinary range, from chainsaw to ice-cream. Every one of the ten million ciggies and two million whiskies that formed it is audible in this clip.

He was raised in a strict Anglican family, the son of a vicar who was also a mathematician, Arnould Hurt. His mother Phyllis Massey had done some acting. There was a family legend that his great-grandmother Emma Stafford was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Sligo. Hurt cherished that somewhat tenuous connection with Ireland and moved there in the late 1990’s with his fifth wife/partner, the Irish writer/presenter Sarah Owens.

Hurt’s upbringing was genteel, but strict. Like so many English children, he was sent away at the age of eight to a boarding school, where the headmaster abused him. He told The Independent in 2005 that Donald Cormack, the senior Master at St Michael’s Preparatory School in Otford, Kent used to take out his two false front teeth and insert his tongue into the boys’ mouths. ‘It happened to me, yes. It happened to lots of people, I think,’ Hurt said to interviewer Sholto Byrnes (no relation).

How had it affected him, Byrnes asked? ‘Hugely, actually. I thought I swam through it but it must have affected me, because it is the only part of my childhood that I remember with absolute clarity. From arriving to leaving, there’s hardly an event, the lifting of a desk lid, that I can’t recall.’

Hurt knew early that he wanted to be an actor, but his parents discouraged such foolishness. In 1957, at 17, he enrolled in art school in Grimsby. Two years later he won a scholarship to St Martins School of Art in London. In 1960, he won another scholarship to RADA – the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – where he could finally study acting, for two years. After a few small roles, he was cast in a major supporting role in A Man for All Seasons in 1966 as the ambitious and treacherous Richard Rich, who betrays Paul Scofield’s Thomas Beckett. It’s an interesting role in the light of his abuse at school – the first of many outsiders. ‘Everyone I’ve ever played has been flawed,’ Hurt said – a key statement about his nature, and his appeal.

Notice the voice: it is already distinctive, sonorous, ranging freely from high to low, rasping and sweet, tender and bitter. The voice was not all that John Hurt had, but many of his contemporaries would gladly have slit his throat to get it. Now might be a good time to revisit one of his most amazing and enduring performances, as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, from 1975, the role that established Hurt’s fame in America. The full film is available on the tube of you, so I will post the link here and direct you to a scene at 28.5 minutes, if you don’t feel up to the full experience. In this scene, Hurt uses the low register, sounding much more masculine than he does earlier in the film. It works as a kind of counterpoint to his image, a deepening of the character. One of the distinctive things about Hurt is the ease with which he handles comedy; this is a very funny scene, in a quiet sort of way. Hurt plays it with great stillness and reserved humour – he’s prim in the face of the young woman’s statements of undying love, then his speech about love turns quickly to pathos. He understands himself better than anyone else, that he is doomed never to be loved as he would wish to be. ‘You want to act in order to show people that you are more than you appear to be,’ he said, ‘that you have more to offer than had been allowed at the school or in the vicarage. It’s down to a desire for love and, er, all those tricky things to talk about.’

In his middle years, world famous and highly sought after, Hurt was a legendary carouser – the full disaster, as Zorba would have said. Drunk and disorderly might have been a more accurate description, but he was hardly alone. Britain produced a series of these actors from the 50’s to the 80’s and probably still does: Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Richard Burton. Hurt could match them: that is part of what made that face, with its topography of deep experience. ‘I have not behaved as I should have done on certain occasions,’ he admitted in that interview in The Independent. It’s clear from some of his public appearances on television that he could be as cutting as he was entertaining. I’m not sure if this Irish interview was when he had a drink taken, but it shows the full withering impact of his intelligence, faced with a somewhat doltish interviewer. Suffering fools was not his forte, although he does it with good humour.

Around this time he participated in an episode of Who Do You think You Are? in which he discovered that great grandma Emma Stafford was not the illegitimate Irish woman he thought she was. In fact, he was not Irish at all, at all. His disappointment here points to the romantic side of his nature – something that was always there in the background in his performances. And perhaps to a temper that was rarely displayed.

Hurt could do pretty much anything: Shakespearean drama, gay or straight, BBC costume pageant (I, Claudius) or Hollywood schlock (who can deny him his place in history as the first to die, and so well, in Alien (not John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, as I wrote initially). He had a fabulous career in small parts for Hollywood movies, which introduced him every ten years to a new generation of fans. Many of whom, like me, will raise a glass in his memory tonight. Vale Sir John Vincent Hurt.