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John Hurt: celebrating a life

Posted by: Comms 22 January 2019

John Hurt

John Hurt CBE was born on 22 January 1940 in Chesterfield, famous for its twisting and strangely crooked church spire. He was a much admired actor, receiving an Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema BAFTA in 2012.

Perhaps a little like the Chesterfield church spire, his characters were often unusual (for their time at least) but also beautiful - with Hurt’s tender, humane performances helping to engage audiences and tackle stigma. For example, one of his most celebrated roles was Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980), someone with severe physical deformities who came to find great friendship late in his tragically short life. He also brilliantly played another real-life character, Quentin Crisp – who was out in an era when gay pride was incredibly rare, and who suffered for his bravery - in The Naked Civil Servant, a TV movie that saw Hurt win the BAFTA for Best Actor in 1976.

John Hurt's voice was as unique as his characters - it 'could tremble with terror and fragility' as the LA Times memorably put it. And his career is strewn with genuinely iconic roles - he worked both frequently and regularly right up to his later years, with parts in Indiana Jones, Merlin and Doctor Who bringing him newer generations of fans. 

Sadly he died on 25 January 2017, aged 77, from pancreatic cancer. Stephen Fry, Toby Jones and many others later paid him moving tribute at a special BFI memorial event

"Simply the greatest actor in the world" - David Lynch, film director

"...what a brandy-injected fruitcake sounds like" - Michael Coveney, theatre critic

In the video clip below, John meets his brother - a monk - for the BBC tv series 'Who Do You Think You Are'.