Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Hurt, John (1940-)


Main image of Hurt, John (1940-)

As an actor, John Hurt is drawn to misfit roles, outsiders and mavericks, victims and - occasionally - oppressors, sometimes pathetic (the Elephant Man), sometimes defiant (Emperor Caligula, or the flamboyantly out gay icon, Quentin Crisp). His craggy, mobile features and distinctively deep, gravelly voice have kept him in demand for over half a century, chiefly for character roles in which he frequently steals scenes and sometimes the entire movie.

He was born in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, where his father was the Anglican vicar. His older brother, Michael, later converted to Catholicism and became a monk. Hurt had a strict upbringing: even though the family lived opposite a cinema, he was never allowed to see films there. He was also discouraged from playing with the local children, who his parents thought 'too common'.

At age eight Hurt was sent to a preparatory school, St Michael's in Otford, Kent, which he later described as "one of those very rarefied, very Anglo-Catholic establishments where they rejoiced in more religious paraphernalia and theatricality than the entire Vatican". There he developed a taste for acting and was sexually abused by the headmaster. When his father moved to a parish in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, Hurt (then 12) was transferred to Christ's Hospital School in Lincoln as a boarder. While there he appeared as Lady Bracknell in a school production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

His parents, who disapproved of his acting ambitions, pressured him to become an art teacher, and in 1957, aged 17, he enrolled in Grimsby Art School. In 1959 he won a scholarship to study at Central St Martin's School in London; but the desire to act was still strong, and in 1960 he won another scholarship, this time to RADA.

His professional career started with some routine television bit-parts (Z-Cars, BBC, 1962-78; Armchair Theatre, ITV, 1956-78, and the like) and he made an unimpressive big-screen debut with Ralph Thomas's tepid student drama, The Wild and the Willing (1962). But in 1966 his performance in the title role of David Halliwell's stage play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (he later recreated his role in the screen version, released in 1974) attracted the attention of Fred Zinnemann, who cast him as the treacherous Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966). Hurt effectively held his own against such formidable co-stars as Paul Scofield and Leo McKern.

In the wake of Zinnemann's film Hurt landed a support role in Tony Richardson's The Sailor from Gibraltar (1967) and the title role in John Huston's picaresque romp Sinful Davey (1969). But neither film found its director at his best, while Hurt almost walked out of the multi-directored disaster that was Mr Forbush and the Penguins (1970). 10 Rillington Place (d. Richard Fleischer, 1971) was a considerable improvement; Hurt played the hapless Timothy Evans, framed for murder by serial killer John Christie, and was nominated for a BAFTA.

Though his career had been building steadily, it wasn't until the latter half of the 70s that Hurt achieved an international reputation. His tour de force performance as the outrageous Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (ITV, tx. 17/12/1975) was followed by another as Caligula in I, Claudius (BBC, 1976). Also on TV he was Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (BBC, 1979) and the Fool to Laurence Olivier's King Lear (Channel 4 , tx. 3/4/1983). By then he had appeared in three films that made his name: as Max, the imprisoned heroin addict in Alan Parker's Turkish-prison melodrama Midnight Express (1978); as Kane, the astronaut who has an alien erupt out of his chest at the breakfast table in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979); and as Joseph Merrick, the Victorian freak known as The Elephant Man (d. David Lynch, 1980). All three performances were widely acclaimed and won awards.

Since then, Hurt has only occasionally appeared in big-budget movies ("I don't suppose we could talk about the lack of enjoyment in making it?" he commented about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, US, 2008), generally preferring low-budget independent films. "I've spent a great deal of my life doing independent film," he remarked in an interview, "and that is partly because the subject matter interests me and partly because that is the basis of the film industry." Quirky and put-upon roles attract him: he played the ultimate outsider victim-figure, Jesus Christ, in Mel Brooks' scattershot comedy epic History of the World: Part 1 (US, 1981), Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (d. Michael Radford, 1984) and the establishment's fall-guy, Stephen Ward, in Michael Caton-Jones' account of the Profumo affair, Scandal (1989). On TV he reprised his role as Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York (ITV, tx. 28/12/2009), having played a more uptight version of him in Love and Death on Long Island (1997) as a prissy gay British author ludicrously obsessed with a beefcake American movie actor.

Devious or ruthless villains are also within his range: a kidnapper in The Hit (d. Stephen Frears, 1984); the Marquis of Montrose in Highland drama Rob Roy (d. Caton-Jones, 1995); a bounty hunter in Aussie western The Proposition (Australia/UK, d. John Hillcoat, 2005); the Big Brother figure in the dystopian thriller V for Vendetta (US/Germany, 2006). On rare occasions, he's even portrayed heroism: he was moving as a Catholic priest in Caton-Jones' treatment of the Rwandan genocide, Shooting Dogs (2005).

With his distinctive vocal timbre, he has often been chosen for voice roles: among others, he was Hazel, leader of the rabbits, in Watership Down (d. Troy Sullivan, 1978), Aragorn in the animated Lord of the Rings (1978), the Horned King in Disney's The Black Cauldron (US, 1985), Mr Mole in Thumbelina (Eire/US, 1994) and the Dragon in the TV series Merlin (BBC, 2008-2012). He was the offscreen narrator in Lars von Trier's Dogville (Denmark/Sweden, 2003) and Manderlay (Denmark/Sweden, 2005), and in Tom Twyker's period thriller Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Germany/France, 2006).

At the 2012 BAFTAs Hurt won the award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. But given his lack of self-importance it seems unlikely that he'll lapse into the role of either elder statesman of acting or national treasure. As he recently remarked, "Someone once asked me, 'Is there anything you regret?' and I said, 'Everything!' Whatever you do, there was always a better choice."

Philip Kemp

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 10 Rillington Place (1970)10 Rillington Place (1970)

Grim but unsensationalised account of the John Reginald Christie murder case

Thumbnail image of AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone (1986)AIDS: Iceberg / Tombstone (1986)

Powerful public information films warning of the dangers of AIDS

Thumbnail image of Elephant Man, The (1980)Elephant Man, The (1980)

Moving drama starring John Hurt as a grotesquely deformed man

Thumbnail image of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film that brought J.K. Rowling's boy wizard to the big screen

Thumbnail image of Hit, The (1984)Hit, The (1984)

Spanish-set thriller about a supergrass 'escorted' home to face the music

Thumbnail image of Man for All Seasons, A (1966)Man for All Seasons, A (1966)

Oscar-laden story of Sir Thomas More's defiance of Henry VIII

Thumbnail image of Watership Down (1978)Watership Down (1978)

Lively, grisly animated version of Richard Adams' children's classic

Thumbnail image of I, Claudius (1976)I, Claudius (1976)

Epic, gory and salacious drama of murder and intrigue in ancient Rome

Thumbnail image of King Lear (1983)King Lear (1983)

Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Naked Civil Servant, The (1975)Naked Civil Servant, The (1975)

John Hurt's breakthrough role as the flamboyantly gay Quentin Crisp

Related collections

Related people and organisations