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John Hurt - Biography

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John Hurt

Personal details

Name: John Hurt
Born: 22 January 1940 (Age: 75)
Where: Shirebrook, England
Height: 5' 9"
Awards: Won 3 BAFTAs, 1 Golden Globe, nominated for 2 Oscars

All about this star


Regardless of a CV that's longer and more impressive than most, John Hurt remains thankfully self-deprecating. "I've done some stinkers in the cinema," he's said. "You can't regret it. There are alwaysreasons for doing something, even if it's just the location". And it's true, he has done some stinkers. Remember King Ralph? Spaceballs? There was even the ultimate stinker, Heaven's Gate. Yet for 35years the man's taken centre stage in some of film's finest moments, from A Man For All Seasons, through I,Claudius and The Naked Civil Servant, Midnight Express and The Elephant Man, through to today's Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Born John Vincent Hurt on January 22nd, 1940, in Shirebrook, Derbyshire, his life began inauspiciously and, as he recalls it, really rather sadly. His father was a Church of England clergyman, called upon to move from parish to parish, and Hurt lived until the age of 12 in the industrial countryside of the North, in a small village named Woodville surrounded by coal mines. He remembers being an unhappy boy, solitary and negative, his rigorously middle-class parents denying him permission to play with the other village boys. Consequently he felt trapped in a world of "sham and convention", despite the presence of an older brother, and sister (she later became a teacher in Australia).

Cinema did not mark his early childhood. There was a picture-house directly opposite the vicarage, but he was not allowed to attend (again, too common), and jealously watched the queues that regularly formed across the road. In fact, he did not see a movie till the age of 8, though he does vividly recall his visits to a Mrs Fox-Robinson's, where he was captivated by her Bakelite TV.

Hurt hated school. Run by stridently High clergymen, he found it "bizarre" and painful. Indeed, he loathed all of it but drama. Two events made him decide, at the very tender age of 9, to be an actor. First there was Alec Guinness. One of Hurt's first movie experiences was seeing David Lean's Oliver Twist and he was utterly smitten by Guinness's incredibly expressive Fagin. Then came his own school-play debut, as a girl in Maeterlinck's The Bluebird. Even so young, he remembers feeling "I was in the place I was meant to be".

His education continued to pain him. Expected to follow in his older brother's shining footsteps, he'd failed wretchedly to gain entry to the same prep school (he later had the satisfaction of witnessing his father's appalled reaction when, while at Cambridge, his feted brother dedicated himself to life as a Catholic monk). Now, after his parents' move to Grimsby, Hurt was sent to board at Lincoln School. Again he hated it, but at least it was better than home where the one good thing was, his mother being a keen theatre-goer, he would regularly be taken to Cleethorpes Rep (on Tuesday evenings, when it was cheaper). At 17, he moved on to a local art school then, two years later, won a scholarship to study at St Martin's in London. He'd still wanted to act, but his parents thought it too insecure a career and forced him to take an ATD (art teacher's diploma). Renting his own studio at 30 shillings a week, he'd persuade his newfound friends to pose nude for him, and supplement his meagre income by selling the results.

Painting certainly sharpened Hurt's observational skills, but he soon decided that he'd much rather play people than teach them or paint them. Receiving no help from home, he was fortunate enough to win another scholarship, this time to the famed Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts (that's RADA, dahling). With '5 a week, plus a small income from occasional TV parts, he remained there for two years. This was filmic liberty, Hurt spending much of his time devouring movies (particularly the innovative material currently produced in France and Italy) at Camden Polytechnic and The Academy, Oxford Street.

1962 was a landmark year. Hurt made his London stage debut as Knocker White in Infanticide In The House Of Fred Ginger (hard to imagine John Hurt playing someone called Knocker, but there you go), and also his screen debut in the sensationally titled The Wild And The Willing. For the latter, he received the princely sum of '75 a week, though his co-star Ian McShane, who Hurt had introduced to the project, got '100 (the film also featured a young Johnny Briggs - later Mike Baldwin of Coronation Street). For the next couple of years, Hurt concentrated on theatre, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, and eventually starring in a strange parallel of Hitler's career called Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs. The play got excellent reviews but no audience, closing very quickly. But one man who did attend was Fred Zinnemann, legendary director of High Noon and From Here To Eternity, and he proceeded to place Hurt on the world stage by casting him in his Oscar-winning A Man For All Seasons.

Hurt continued his commitment to stage work, but still took the occasional classy film role. There was Tony Richardson's Sailor From Gibraltar, John Huston's Sinful Davey (Huston actually battled with United Artists to have Hurt star) and then 10, Rillington Place where he played poor Timothy Evans, wrongly executed for the crimes of John Christie. In 1975 came the role that really made him a household name. In The Naked Civil Servant he was brilliant as the vulnerable, defiant Quentin Crisp, making a one-man life-affirming stand for homosexuality in prudish, sneering, Bible-bashing England. Then he was a marvellously decadent and vicious Caligula in the astounding I, Claudius, surprising even the series' director by jumping nonchalantly into bed with his own grandmother. He was tremendous as the wise Max, slowly drained of life in Midnight Express, a performance for which he was Oscar-nominated (it also won him a Golden Globe). And, of course, there was The Elephant Man. To play John Merrick in David Lynch's black and white masterpiece, Hurt rose at 4am, spent seven hours having his make-up applied, filmed until 10pm (consuming raw eggs and orange juice through a straw), then spent a further two hours having his make-up removed. Again, deservedly, he was Oscar-nominated.

Part of Hurt's success is down to his extraordinarily rich voice. He's narrated many a project, and is exceptional when providing voices for animation (he also spoke over Art Of Noise's Seduction Of Claude Debussy). He was furthermore appropriately stern and moving when contributing to the earliest UK campaigns against AIDS, between 1987 and 1989. But there's something else about him; his ability to portray flawed characters - brave, intelligent yet often unable to resist temptation, and usually suffering terribly on the wheel of life. Perhaps his private life has fuelled this. Beyond that unhappy childhood, his marriage to Annette Peacock lasted only from 1962 to '64. His longest relationship, with model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot ended after 16 years when she was killed in a riding accident. Then there was a six-year marriage to Donna Peacock, and another to Jo Dalton (with whom he had sons Nicolas and Alexander), both apparently ending due to his drinking (he's since cleaned up and is happily ensconced with Sarah Owen). Maybe this ongoing trouble made him so sensitive to the wretched and broken Winston Smith in 1984, to The Fool in King Lear, to the cancer-battling jockey in Champions, to the sorry scapegoat Stephen Ward in Scandal, even to the super-smart, law-baiting killer in From The Hip.

Sure, there were those many stinkers but, after over 100 filmed performances, John Hurt can say he's pretty much done it all. He especially enjoyed his time as a shades-wearing assassin in his personal favourite The Hit, and in another favourite, Love And Death On Long Island, where he played a time-abandoned old fuddy-duddy embarrassingly besotted by soap star Jason Priestley. Then there was Romeo-Juliet where, 41 years after his cross-dressing debut in The Bluebird, and 15 years after his cross-dressing breakthrough as Quentin Crisp, he played a boatwoman in a beautiful but hopelessly bizarre Belgian production, acted out mostly by cats. And next, proving his enduring appeal, he'll appear as Mr Ollivander in what is sure to be one of the biggest hits of all time - Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone.

And finally, aside from that gem-studded CV and all his work for charity, John Hurt must be commended for his amused acceptance of one particular fact. After all these years and all those brilliant performances, millions know him best for hacking, gurgling, collapsing over a table and having an alien burst out of his chest. That's gotta hurt!

Dominic Wills

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