Acclaimed actor John Hurt dies at 77 following battle with cancer

Actor John Hurt has died at the age of 77 after battling cancer since June 2015.
Actor John Hurt has died at the age of 77 after battling cancer since June 2015. AP

Actor John Hurt, known for his roles in “The Elephant Man,” “Alien,” “Harry Potter” and numerous other films, died Friday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, according to British media reports.

The news of Hurt’s death was first reported by the Daily Mail and the Mirror in the United Kingdom and was confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter and The Telegraph on Friday evening. His agent confirmed the news to the BBC, though the exact cause of death is unclear.

Hurt, whose career spanned more than five decades, revealed in the summer of 2015 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. However, he continued to act while undergoing treatment and even recently expressed optimism about beating the disease, per the Radio Times.

Hurt’s first major film role came when he was 26 years old, in the 1966 Oscar-winning movie “A Man For All Seasons” as the British clerk Richard Rich. He would go on to be nominated for two Academy Awards and win three BAFTAs and a Golden Globe. He was also knighted in 2015 for “services to drama.”

In "I, Claudius," released in 1976, Hurt gave a terrifying portrayal of the Roman emperor Caligula, a mad degenerate who fancies himself a god. Two years later, Hurt received his first Oscar nomination, for his supporting role in "Midnight Express" as an English junkie abused by guards in a Turkish jail.

New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael praised Hurt's performance in "Midnight Express," saying he demonstrated "such inner force that he can play the most passive of roles, as he does here (he barely moves a muscle), and still transfix the audience. . . . He's an almost burned-out light bulb with just a few dim flashes of the filament left. Yet he's the most moving character in the film."

Hurt’s most critically acclaimed role came in 1980, when he starred as John Merrick in “The Elephant Man,” a drama inspired by real events in 19th century London involving a severely deformed man. Per The Hollywood Reporter, Hurt had to spend eight hours in makeup for all the prosthetics to be applied. He was rewarded with a BAFTA for his performance, as well as Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations.

Famed film critic Roger Ebert, despite giving a mixed review of the film as a whole, said Hurt was “very good” in his role, “somehow projecting a humanity past the disfiguring makeup.” The project’s director, David Lynch, called him, “simply the greatest actor in the world.”

But Hurt gained particular notoriety among some fans for his many on-screen deaths. Among his 206 acting credits listed on the Internet Movie Database, Hurt perished in more than 40, with none more famous than his iconic death scene in 1979’s “Alien,” directed by Ridley Scott.

In that film, an alien creature graphically erupts from Hurt’s chest, terrifying the other actors. Later, it was revealed that only Hurt and Scott knew exactly would happen as they filmed in order to provoke more realistic reactions from the other actors, per The Guardian. That scene has been consistently ranked as one of the best on-screen deaths in cinematic history.

Hurt would later parody the famous scene in Mel Brooks’ comedy “Spaceballs,” released in 1987.

To modern viewers, Hurt is perhaps most known for his portrayal of the wandmaker Ollivander in the massively successful “Harry Potter” film series. After appearing briefly in the series’ first film, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in 2001, Hurt took on a larger role in the series’ seventh and eighth movies, released in 2010 and 2011.

Even after Hurt was diagnosed in 2015, he continued to work, appearing in films, television and radio productions, as well as lending his famous voice to several other projects. Most recently, he appeared in “Jackie,” a biopic of President John F. Kennedy’s wife. According to IMDB, he had also completed filming on three other projects before his death and was in the midst of another.

Hurt is survived by his wife of 12 years, Anwen Rees Meyers. He also has two children through three previous marriages.

Actor Chris Evans, famous for his role as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, posted a tribute to Hurt on Twitter Friday night. The two worked together on the 2013 film “Snowpiercer.”

The Washington Post’s Adam Bernstein contributed to this story.