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He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match

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The actor Sir John Hurt, who died on Friday, left behind a huge array of roles and stories of excess, write Richard Brooks and Tony Allen-Mills

AN AMERICAN critic once wrote that John Hurt's face evoked "a poached worm". Yet to gaze upon the veteran British actor in almost any role was to feel "a drooly adoration: he is irresistible", wrote Cintra Wilson on the Salon magazine website.

The extraordinary range and appeal of one of Britain's finest character actors was confirmed yesterday by the remarkable outpouring of praise and regret that followed the announcement of Hurt's death from pancreatic cancer aged 77.

His family, friends and many younger Hollywood stars who worked with him on a striking array of both highbrow and lowbrow projects, paid tribute to the actor, described by his widow, Anwen, as "the most gentlemanly of gentlemen".

Some remembered his "glorious" Oscar-nominated turn as The Elephant Man, the 1980 story of John Merrick, an Englishman born with severe facial deformities; others recalled his epic demise at the hands of a special effects monster in Alien — "where his stomach explodes in volcanic yellow snot", as one critic noted.

In one of the last films Hurt completed before his death — That Good Night, due to be released later this year — he played a poignantly different role: a terminally ill screenwriter putting his life in order before he dies.

"He just loved to play different roles and was always seeking challenges," said Mim Scala, a former television and film agent, who first met Hurt in the 1960s and had been a close friend ever since. "He hated the idea of being pigeon-holed."

Warned early on by an unsympathetic headmaster that he would never make it as an actor, Hurt, the son of an Anglican vicar, persisted to become one of Britain's most prolific performers. In a film, stage and television career spanning 55 years, he won four Bafta awards, one Golden Globe, a best actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Merrick and a supporting actor nod for Midnight Express (1978). "He was a truly magnificent talent," said Mel Brooks, the Hollywood director. He was knighted in 2015, shortly before his cancer was diagnosed.

He was also, in his youth, a notorious drinker and partygoer, reputedly putting away half a dozen bottles of wine at a time, and helping to turn the central London district of Soho into a byword for bohemian excess. His drinking partners included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the painters, famously hell-raising actors such as Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris and Richard Burton, and the writer Jeffrey Bernard. He was once thrown out of a Spearmint Rhino club for "boorish behaviour".

Hurt often defended the alcohol-fuelled camaraderie of that time as a valuable spur to the creative process. "It was never just wanton merrymaking . .. it was always channelling whatever one was doing into the creative area of your life," he once said. Yet he admitted much later that tragedy had partly driven his drinking — in 1983 his then partner of 16 years, Marie - Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, was killed in a horse-riding accident.

Hurt has said he became "a distressed person looking for something he couldn't find". He eventually stopped drinking more than a decade ago after meeting Anwen Rees-Meyers, a producer of advertising films who became his fourth wife in 2005. The couple settled in Norfolk, where Hurt died on Wednesday. "He touched all our lives with joy and magic and it will be a strange world without him," his widow said yesterday.

Although his private life was sometimes tumultuous — his first three marriages all proved short-lived — Hurt kept up a prodigious pace of film and television projects that turned him into one of Britain's most respected cultural ambassadors. Luke Evans, the Welsh-born actor who appeared with Hurt in the 2011 Greek god fantasy Immortals, recalled sitting around chatting in their trailer in loincloths. "I was so new to the business but he spoke to me like an equal, with a kindness and dignity only a man of his generation possessed," said Evans.

Elijah Wood, who co-starred with Hurt in The Oxford Murders (2008) said: "It was such an honour to have watched you work, sir." Bonnie Wright, who played Ginny Weasley in the Harry Potter series, said of Hurt's cameo turn as Garrick 011ivander, the wand maker of Diagon Alley: "What an acting legend. Wand shopping won't be the same without you." JK Rowling paid tribute to "the immensely talented and deeply beloved John Hurt".

Hurt was born in Chesterfield in 1940. After dropping out of art school he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London — much to his father's dismay — and leapt to prominence playing the queenly provocateur Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant in 1975.

"It was what you call a big break," he said. "I was warned not to do it — they said you'll never work again. You will be typecast as a homosexual after this." But he told The Guardian in 2009: "It changed the business's perception of me as a performer."

The roles that followed merely cemented Hurt's reputation as an actor for all roles and all genres. He played the Emperor Caligula in the BBC's I, Claudius; the War Doctor in Doctor Who; and Alan Clark in The Alan Clark Diaries on BBC4. He was an imprisoned heroin addict in the film Midnight Express, and the hero Wm-ston Smith in the movie of George Orwell's 1984. He lent his richly elastic voice to animated films, television narration and public service campaigns. He appeared only occasionally on stage and was perhaps best known in theatre for the lead role in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape.

Hurt lived for most of the 1990s in Ireland, where at the age of 50 he had his first son, Sasha, and then a second, Nicholas, three years later. "He was getting off the drink then as he realised he had a responsibility as a father," said Scala.

At one point two years ago, Hurt told Radio Times that his treatment for cancer was going "terrifically well", and he felt "optimistic". He added: "I can't say I worry about mortality, but it's impossible to get to my age and not have a little contemplation of it. We're all passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly."

Caption: John Hurt, once a heavy drinker and keen party-goer, hated the idea of being pigeon-holed — 'He was always seeking challenges'

A life on screen, from Alien to Doctor Who via Quentin Crisp

1979: falling victim to the monster in Alien: 'His stomach explodes in yellow snot'

1980: heavily made up as John Merrick in The Elephant Man, for which he was Oscar nominated

2009: as Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York

2013: three appearances in the Doctor Who series

1984: playing Winston Smith in the film of George Orwell's novel, alongside Richard Burton

'Vroom! Here we go! Hurt's views on dying - and discos


"When I say that acting is just a rather more sophisticated way of playing cowboys and Indians, it's my way of trying to quash all the pretentious crap that's said about acting ... If you pretend well enough, the audience will believe you"


"My drinking days are over ... When it no longer seemed to help, creatively, I mean, as it unquestionably had helped at one stage, it seemed time to give it up. To talk about my drinking now is of no interest to me"

Being an outsider

"You're automatically an outsider if you're the son of a vicar"

His notorious moodiness

"With all of these moods I've got that everyone tells me about, I'm obviously an absolute menace"

Old age

"I am really not a disco man ... We eat-in most nights. I am afraid I am just a hopeless old Brit"


"I've never changed the way I live, I still walk the streets, I don't give a damn. And everyone's very nice to me. But this new idea of being famous for no reason at all? I can't actually get my head round it"


"I hope I shall have the courage [when dying] to say, Let's become different molecules!"'


"I've done some stinkers in the cinema. You can't regret it. There are always reasons for doing something, even if it's just the location."

Caption: Hurt with his fourth wife, Anwen

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  • APA 6th ed.: Allen-Mills, Richard Brooks and Tony (2017-01-29). He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match. The Sunday Times p. 3.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Allen-Mills, Richard Brooks and Tony. "He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match." The Sunday Times [add city] 2017-01-29, 3. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Allen-Mills, Richard Brooks and Tony. "He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match." The Sunday Times, edition, sec., 2017-01-29
  • Turabian: Allen-Mills, Richard Brooks and Tony. "He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match." The Sunday Times, 2017-01-29, section, 3 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match | url=,_and_a_thirst,_that_few_could_match | work=The Sunday Times | pages=3 | date=2017-01-29 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=He had a range, and a thirst, that few could match | url=,_and_a_thirst,_that_few_could_match | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=21 May 2024}}</ref>