I always feel guilty when the first place I think of someone is somewhere with a lot of prosthetics. It’s not that I haven’t seen a ton of other John Hurt works—for goodness’ sake, I’ve seen the Overly Sarcastic Productions video of 1984, featuring his hangdog Winston Smith, often enough if nothing else. It’s just I have such strong memories of being a child and watching him and a Muppet dog on Sunday nights with my family. It’s hard to overcome that level of sense memory, which is probably why a lot of people will grow up with him in the TERF wizard movies.
Hurt’s father was a mathematician-turned-vicar who discouraged his son’s ambitions. For a while, the family lived in a vicarage across the street from a movie theatre, and young Hurt wasn’t allowed to go to movies. Plays were deemed acceptable, and he was allowed to go to plays with his mother, who seems to have loved them. As for Hurt himself, he was in a school play that cemented his determination to act. His father pushed him to be an art teacher instead; the scholarship he won wasn’t really enough to cover his living expenses, and he financed himself by selling nude portraits of his friends.
Eventually, he was able to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for two years. One of his early film roles was as the political and religious windmill Richard Rich in A Man For All Seasons, which makes me curious as to whether his father saw it and, if so, what he thought. The first ten years or so of Hurt’s career would be the sort of dignified British career that has carried so many people for so many years. He was making a living at it, probably while not selling nude portraits of anybody.
And then, we start hitting the genre stuff. Okay, fine, The Naked Civil Servant, Midnight Express, and I, Claudius. But there’s The Elephant Man, the first prosthetic-heavy role Hurt would take. Alien, of course, where his chest explodes in a mass of special effects midway through. He did voice acting—the Bakshi Lord of the Rings and Watership Down—and, to his father’s doubtless horror, played Jesus Himself in the Brooks History of the World Part I. Can you imagine how the vicar who didn’t want him to be an actor reacted to that? (His father lived until 1999, at which point he was 95.) It’s mind-blowing.
He seems to have been a decent enough guy who was able to cross the line between genre and “respectable” quite easily. Apparently Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wasn’t fun for him to make, which is not enormously surprising, but he did more genre work after. He enjoyed playing the War Doctor and was a bit surprised at how popular it made him. He spent a lot of time in prosthetics over his career, which must have made the voice work something of a relief. After all, that’s something you can do in pajamas if you want to, rather than twelve hours in a makeup chair to be John Merrick.