The word ‘iconic’ is used, and misused far more often than it should be. Not because it’s often used for things or people of low quality, but because it doesn’t mean good or great at all. It means something that, all by itself, can immediately create a connection in your mind to a wider, more powerful concept. Something that distils everything about an idea, a time, a place, into one single image or person.
Sir John Hurt was iconic.
He contained, is his person and history, an entire type of English actor. Understated, unshowy; a craftsman of performances that did not invite you to look on admiringly thinking “There’s John Hurt, doing his good acting,” but he sculpted whole human beings out of tone of voice, expression, and sometimes the smallest mannerisms. The people he played were never less than real to him, so they were never less than real to us. And, in his personal life, he carried himself with a dignity and lack of arrogance or presumption that endeared him both to the public and to everyone who worked with him.
Sir John’s career covered six decades and he moved, apparently effortless, continuously working, through life perhaps because of his acceptance of change. In his younger years he specialized in strange young men who, whether heroes or monsters or simply naïve tools of other forces, shared an otherworldly quality. In middle age, he often played people who had been beaten down by life, sometimes embittered, sometimes holding on hope, while the 21st century saw him adopt his place as a series of wise old sages and angry old men pushing back against the dying of the light. It was perhaps this ability to find something new to say about the human condition with every passing decade, and not cling to a particular niche, that allowed him his longevity. It was certainly this kind of flexibility and personal evolution that enabled him to return successfully to the same work twice – first as the guilt ridden murderer in the 1979 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and then as the Columbo-esque detective gently nudging him toward confession in the 2002 version.
He’s most famous to readers of this blog, most likely, for his two episodes as the Doctor in Doctor Who. And those episodes are a testament to his skill; how rare it must be to find an actor able to square off against two other actors playing the same role as him at the same time. Tennant and Smith had almost a hundred episodes experience with the character under their collective belt, and yet Hurt still played the role completely, easily both the same character and yet with a unique and special take on him, which we all found endearing.
But it’s an undeniable fact that as the tributes and memorials spread across the internet and airwaves this morning, Doctor Who hardly got a mention. For Sir John Hurt was a talent and an institution of such scale that even Doctor Who is a footnote in his history of over two hundred roles, rather than he a footnote in Doctor Who’s.
Anyone invested in any level of genre fandom knew him. The Alien fans have been mourning the passing of Executive Officer Kane, who was part of one the most exceptional and famous scenes in science fiction. Comic book fans remember the passing of the evil, Big Brother style dictator from V for Vendetta. Harry Potter fans raise their wands in salute to Mr. Ollivander, wandmaker extraordinare. His role as Winston Smith in the 1984 adaptation of Orwell’s dark dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is being shared widely too, as the coincidence of Hurt’s death and recent events resonate with people.
But he was more even than that. He was the naïve, easily manipulated Rich in the acclaimed A Man for All Seasons, the dangerously lunatic tyrant Caligula in I, Claudius, and Stephen Ward in Scandal. He returned time and again to socially conscious roles like early, almost accidental, gay rights icon Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York, the gentle but victimized John Merrick in The Elephant Man, as well as roles in Who Bombed Birmingham? and The Discarded. He was even the voice of the still unforgotten “Don’t Die of Ignorance” public information campaign that was the beginning of the pushback against AIDS in the UK. His forays into voicing animated films shared this sense of social conscience too, with Watership Down (the story of a colony of rabbits facing hardship and death as they make an exodus from the lands destroyed by humans) and The Plague Dogs (in which he plays one of a pair of abused experimental dogs who escape the lab and struggles to survive) which scarred the minds of a generation of innocent children.
In his personal life, consistency was something Hurt neither achieved not desired. He was married four times, and had a fifteen year relationship that ended in tragedy when his girlfriend died in a horse riding accident. He spent fifteen years of his life, including the whole of the 1990s, living in Wicklow in Ireland and often spoke about his own lack of forward planning.
“I've never guided my life,” he said, “I've just been whipped along by the waves I'm sitting in. I don't make plans at all. Plans are what make God laugh. You can make plans, you can make so many plans, but they never go right, do they?”
Diagnosed with cancer in 2015, he never stopped working. Although visibly ill, he attended GallifreyOne, the world’s largest Doctor Who fan convention, last year, saying it was something that he wanted to add to his list of life experiences. He starred in nine Doctor Who audio dramas for Big Finish Productions while recovering from chemotherapy, saying he was grateful to be able to continue doing the work he loved without the physical strains of filming.
In 2012, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Hurt’s first role, he put on his official YouTube channel a retrospective of almost all his roles up until that point. While it doesn’t include the last few years of his career, it powerfully communicates what great range he had, and what a substantial contribution he made to the world of cinema and television:
Sir John Hurt died on the 27th of January, 2017, five days after his 77th birthday.
Written by: Peter Nolan