In the mid-1980s, William Hurt, who has died at the age of 71, looked set to become a major star after he received three consecutive Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. His distinctive brand of patrician empathy and cerebral sensuality suggested it was becoming okay for leading men to show vulnerability. However, Hurt detested the limelight and Hollywood in equal measure and settled into character roles after taking time out to deal with his off-screen alcoholism.
Born in Washington DC on 20 March 1950, Hurt was the son of a State Department bureaucrat and became the step-grandson of the founder of Time and Life magazines when his mother married Henry Luce III when he was 10 years old. Raised in privilege, Hurt trained at the prestigious Juilliard School and cut his stage teeth with the Circle Repertory Company, winning an Obie Award on debut in 1978. His screen bow also drew plaudits, as he plumbed the depths of consciousness as the psychopathologist experimenting with sensory deprivation in Ken Russell’s cult body horror, Altered States (1980).
Having played a janitor who helps reporter Sigourney Weaver solve a murder in Peter Yates’s Eyewitness, Hurt remained in neo-noir mode for Body Heat (both 1981), generating sparks with Kathleen Turner in playing a lawyer duped into killing his lover’s husband. This remake of Double Indemnity (1944) marked the start of a four-film partnership with director Lawrence Kasdan, which continued with one of the decade’s seminal features, the baby-boomer reunion drama The Big Chill (1983). In this ensemble masterclass, Hurt again reveals his gift for fragility as an impotent Vietnam veteran who seeks solace in drugs.
He later lampooned this persona as the stoner hitman in Kasdan’s I Love You to Death (1990), which came two years after the director had reteamed Hurt and Turner in an adaptation of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist. Earlier in the decade, another bestseller adaptation, the 1983 film of Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, had continued the impression that Hurt was the new Robert Redford, as he brought blond integrity to the part of a Moscow cop. But Redford would never have taken the role of Luis Molina, the gay child rapist telling tall tales to his revolutionary cellmate (Raul Julia) in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985).
In addition to a Bafta and the Best Actor prize at Cannes, Hurt also won the Academy Award for his performance. Source novelist Manuel Puig had been famously dismissive, claiming, “La Hurt is so bad she will probably win an Oscar.” Further nominations followed for his work as a teacher at a school for the deaf in Children of a Lesser God (1986) and as a low-wattage sports reporter struggling as an anchorman in Broadcast News (1987). He had a two-year relationship with his debuting co-star in the former, Marlee Matlin (then 19 to his 35), who won the Oscar for Best Actress. In 1989, allegations of violence were made by his former partner, Sandra Jennings. Then, in her 2009 book I’ll Scream Later, Matlin wrote about the domestic abuse she experienced at Hurt’s hands, including beatings and rape. After its publication, Hurt’s reputation did not suffer; in fact, he saw a career resurgence in the MCU.
Following Lesser God, he had spent time in rehab for his alcohol addiction, but when he returned, Hurt found his moment in the spotlight had passed and he opted for character roles. Occasional leads came his way, with Professor John Robinson in Lost in Space (1998) affording him a rare opportunity to headline a blockbuster (albeit a misfiring one). However, he looked more at home as a slippery opal thief in Wim Wenders’ turn-of-the-millennium odyssey Until the End of the World (1991) and as Mr Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s take on Jane Eyre (1996).
While he seemed incapable of giving a bad performance, Hurt did appear prone to making curious choices. Thus, while he could exude actorly class in Smoke (1995), Wayne Wang’s collaboration with Paul Auster, and Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York (1996), he could also bring some conviction to a folly like Nora Ephron’s angel saga, Michael (1996).
Similarly, when he did crop up in fanboy fare like Dark City (1998), Hurt contributed a gravitas that helped make them feel less generic. Hence his five appearances as Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in Marvel movies The Incredible Hulk (2008), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Black Widow (2021).
Towards the latter part of his career, Hurt developed the happy knack of stealing scenes without departing from his customary steadiness, most notably in The Village (2004), Syriana (2005), The Good Shepherd (2006) and Into the Wild (2007). However, he plumbed a darker side as the crime boss brother of assassin Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for just nine minutes of screen time.
Increasingly seen in series television and teleplays like Too Big to Fail (2010) and Moby Dick (2011), Hurt continued to grace indie sleepers like the 2008 remake of Yōji Yamada’s The Yellow Handkerchief and ex-partner Sandrine Bonnaire’s affecting study of grief, Maddened by His Absence (2012), which epitomised Hurt’s capacity for stillness and intensity.
- William Hurt, 20 March 1950 to 13 March 2022