Famous Derbyshire people - Sir John Hurt

John Hurt at Derby QUAD, where he was a patron

John Hurt at Derby QUAD, where he was a patron - Credit: Graham Lucas Commons + Ashley Fr

Chesterfield-born Sir John Hurt was regarded as one of Britain’s finest actors

John Hurt (1940-2017)

For over half a century, Chesterfield-born Sir John Hurt was regarded as one of Britain’s finest actors.

Oscar-winning director David Lynch once described him as ‘simply the greatest actor in the world’, and his unmistakable, gravelly voice was lauded as the most distinctive in Britain, and memorably likened by The Observer newspaper to ‘nicotine sieved through dirty, moonlit gravel’.

John Vincent Hurt was born in the darkest days of World War Two in January 1940 in Chesterfield, the son of Arnold Herbert Hurt, a mathematician who became a Church of England clergyman and vicar and curate at Holy Trinity Church in Shirebrook, and Phyllis (née Massey), an engineer and one-time actress.

His family had moved to Derbyshire in 1937, and when Hurt was five, his father became the vicar of St Stephen’s Church in Woodville, where he remained until 1952.

At the age of eight, Hurt was sent to an Anglican preparatory school in Kent, where his passion for acting began. He decided he wanted to become an actor after his first role as a girl in a school production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck. At the age of 12, Hurt became a boarder at Lincoln School, then a grammar school. His headmaster scoffed when Hurt told him he wanted to be an actor, apparently telling him: ‘You may be all right in school plays, but you wouldn’t stand a chance in the profession.’

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By this time, Hurt’s father had moved on to St Aidan’s Church in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire. In a newspaper interview Hurt said the family lived in a vicarage opposite a cinema, but he was never allowed to go there, as films were frowned upon. However, going to the theatre was approved, particularly by his mother, who took him regularly to the Cleethorpes repertory theatre.

But his parents also disapproved of his acting ambitions and encouraged him to become an art teacher. Aged 17, Hurt enrolled in Grimsby Art School, and in 1959 he won a scholarship to study at St Martin’s School of Art in London. But in 1960, he finally achieved his ambition and won a scholarship to RADA, where he trained for two years.

Hurt first came to national prominence for his role as Richard Rich in the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, and gained BAFTA Award nominations for his portrayals of Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Quentin Crisp in the TV film The Naked Civil Servant (1975), which won him his first BAFTA. He also played Caligula in the BBC TV series I, Claudius in 1976.

But it was Hurt’s performance in the prison drama Midnight Express (1978) that first brought him international acclaim and earned Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards along with an Academy Award nomination. His BAFTA-nominated portrayal of executive officer Kane, in the Ridley Scott directed science-fiction horror film Alien, in 1979, included a scene which has been named as one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history, where an alien creature bursts out of his chest.

Hurt earned his third BAFTA, along with his second Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, playing John Merrick in David Lynch’s biopic of The Elephant Man in 1980. Other significant roles during the 1980s included Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Stephen Ward in Scandal, the drama depicting the Profumo affair, in 1989. Hurt was again BAFTA-nominated for his work in the Irish drama The Field in 1990, and he played the villain, James Graham, in the epic adventure Rob Roy in 1995.

His later films include the part of shopkeeper Mr Ollivander in the Harry Potter films (2001–11); the Steven Spielberg action adventure Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and the Cold War espionage film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011. Hurt reprised his role as Quentin Crisp in An Englishman in New York in 2009, which brought him his seventh BAFTA nomination. In 2012, he was honoured with the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to cinema. He was knighted in 2015 for his services to drama.

Hurt had been wed three times before marrying his fourth wife, film producer Anwen Rees-Meyers, in March 2005. It was after this that Hurt gave up smoking and drinking and the couple moved to Cromer, Norfolk. In June 2015, Hurt was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer. He died at his home in Cromer in January 2017, three days after celebrating his 77th birthday.

During his life Hurt never forgot his Derbyshire roots. He was a regular visitor to Derby QUAD and became the arts centre’s first patron. He also received an honorary degree from the University of Derby in 2002.