The 15 Best Performances Of John Hurt

John Hurt as the War Doctor in Doctor Who

In early 2017, we said goodbye to an incredible man and formidable actor: the late, great John Hurt. In the spirit of remembering, CBR thinks it’s only fitting that we celebrate his illustrious career in the best way we know how, with a list of our favorite moments in his career.

RELATED: Legendary Actor John Hurt Dead at 77

Of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds; after all, John Hurt’s career spanned six decades, encompassed 140 film roles and numerous other appearances on TV shows and in animation. He’s a beloved part of many fandoms -- Harry Potter, Merlin, Doctor Who and The Lord of the Rings among them -- and featured in some of the most iconic films ever made. He was the first man to fall victim to a face-hugger. He was a Doctor of War. He’s been a wandmaker, a spy, a villain and a king. There really isn’t a list long enough to encompass this man’s many achievements, but we thought we’d try.


John Hurt as Professor Broom in Hellboy

Let’s start this list with a bang -- or, rather, a Broom! John Hurt played a key supporting role in Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 live action adaption of “Hellboy” and the 2008 sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” taking on the role of occult expert, B.P.R.D. Director and father-figure, Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm. He was also the voice of Professor Broom in the 2007 animated movie, “Hellboy: Blood and Iron.”

There’s already a lot of love for Professor Broom floating around from fans of Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy: Seed of Destruction,” but it’s fair to say John Hurt brought the character to life and helped induct a whole new generation into the Hellboy fandom. It’s really not hard to see why: Professor Broom is a pretty loveable dude. Sure, he’ll kill Nazis without hesitation, but present him with a demon baby that’s just crawled out of a dimensional portal, and what does he do? Adopt the little Hellboy and read him bedtime stories! Hurt’s Professor Broom is the sort of hero we can all get behind!


John Hurt as Aragorn in LOTR Animation

We at CBR understand that, for many people, Viggo Mortensen is the definitive Aragorn, but let’s not forget that John Hurt was there for us -- and Middle Earth -- long before Peter Jackson came along and turned “The Lord of the Rings” into one of the best live-action trilogies ever made. Hurt was part of the voice cast for Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s high fantasy epic, playing the role of shadowy-figure-come-hobbit-bodyguard, Aragorn.

The film’s hybridization of traditional animation and rotoscoped live action footage was revolutionary in its day, and despite receiving mixed reviews upon release, it’s since become a bit of a cult classic. It certainly had a huge impact on the way Peter Jackson interpreted Tolkien’ characters and brought them to the screen, as he said himself in the DVD extras of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Watching the Prancing Pony scene back, it’s not hard to figure out Jackson’s inspiration -- he was taking lessons directly from Hurt, the gravelly-voiced master of intrigue!


John Hurt as Control in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Cold War espionage movies arguably don’t come much better than Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 hit, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the suspenseful thriller based on John le Carré's 1974 novel of the same name that follows the hunt for a Soviet double agent at the top of the British secret service. In this film, John Hurt plays Control, master strategist and the head of “the Circus” that is British Intelligence; a man so good at maintaining his cover that no one actually knows his real name, not even in his inner circle.

Forget all the glitz and glamour of James Bond, this is what it’s really like to be a spy: dark smoky rooms, ill-fitting suits and whispered conversations, not knowing who you can trust and who your enemies are, and not a single shaken-not-stirred Martini in sight. John Hurt and the rest of the all-star cast are stellar throughout, so if you’re not familiar with the film (or the award-winning 1979 BBC TV miniseries), CBR can’t recommend it enough!


John Hurt as The Horned King in The Black Cauldron

All the entries so far have focused on John Hurt’s heroic roles, but it’s worth pointing out that he’s also got a darker side. In the 1985 dark fantasy animation “The Black Cauldron,” Hurt voiced one of the most terrifying and criminally underrated Disney villains to date: the Horned King. What, you’ve never heard of him? Well, you could be forgiven for that -- after all, “The Black Cauldron” bombed at the box office (to the extent that it nearly put Disney out of business) and the company went to great lengths to disown the movie for several years after its release.

Despite its poor reputation, it’s got a few cool accolades to its name and shouldn’t be written off: it was the first Disney film to be given a PG rating (probably because its antagonist was straight-up evil!), as well as the first Disney animation to feature computer-generated imagery. It also features one of the most nightmare-inducing villain deaths ever to feature in a kid’s movie -- think Voldemort’s resurrection but in reverse, and you’ve kind of got the gist of how the Horned King gets offed. That’s got to be worth a second watch, right?


John Hurt as Winston Smith in 1984

Simply put, George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is one of the most important novels that has ever been written. With that in mind, it’s reasonable to suggest John Hurt was carrying the weight of a generation on his shoulders when he agreed to take on the role of the main protagonist, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation of the same name… and, as always, he performed the role to heart-breaking, soul-crushing perfection.

It’s no small feat translating the inner turmoil of one of fiction’s most iconic heroes onto the big screen, but the sheer, shattered emptiness expressed by Hurt’s face in the film’s closing moments make the audience believe his entire psyche has been dismantled and reassembled according to Big Brother’s will. Somehow, he makes the horror of Orwell’s dystopian nightmare -- the all-encompassing totality of it all -- real. Okay, so there’s a little bit of cheating here and there (like the whispered “I love you” on voiceover to convey Smith’s internal monologue), but none of that undermines the fact that John Hurt IS Winston Smith, and when they break him, they break us all.


John Hurt as Hazel in Watership Down

From one emotional upset to another! Yup, it’s time to revisit that age-old classic animation that reduces all but the stoniest souls to tears: Martin Rosen’s “Watership Down.” In this adaptation of Richard Adams’ much-beloved novel of the same name, John Hurt plays Hazel, the brave and intelligent rabbit who leads his warren-mates to safety and then tries to ensure their survival when faced with the fearsome General Woundwort, the ruler of a warren that is tantamount to a fascist state.

There are many memorable scenes in this animation -- many of which feature John Hurt’s Hazel -- but arguably none is more iconic than the closing scenes of the movie, when Hazel is visited by the Black Rabbit of Inle (sort of like the Grim Reaper of rabbits) and asked to become one of his Owsla… and then ol’ Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes” starts to play (c’mon, ‘fess up, you cried too!). This scene is all the more special after John Hurt’s passing, and we here at CBR hope that generation after generation will be bawling like children over “Watership Down” for many years to come.


John Hurt as Harold Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Okay, so most fans agree “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is their least favorite "Indiana Jones" movie, but still… it’s Indiana frickin’ Jones! Being part of such an awesome franchise and fandom earns John Hurt some serious cool points, even if the premise of this latest instalment doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (did it ever?). Not that Hurt was intimidated by the epic Lucas/Spielberg combo: Hurt is famously quoted as saying he was one of the few people involved who didn’t automatically jump on board, “because Steven [Spielberg] -- you know, God -- was doing it,” and insisted on reading the script before signing on.

He did sign on, though, and quickly, joining an all-star cast as Dr. Harold Oxley, the presumed-to-be-bonkers Archaeology Professor whose obsession with crystallized alien skulls got him and his mates into all kinds of trouble (please don’t ask CBR to explain… there’s Soviets, giant ants and a flying saucer in there somewhere, does that help?). The plot may be somewhat bewildering, but Hurt’s Oxley is barmy, brilliant and -- dare we say it? -- one of the best Indie sidekicks ever!


John Hurt as Stephen Ward in Scandal

Who doesn’t love a good political scandal? Especially when it’s true! Michael Caton-Jones’ 1989 British drama is based on a real-life controversy known as the “Profumo affair” which rocked the British government back in 1963 and contributed to the defeat of the Tories at the following year's general election (which, trust us, isn’t necessarily a bad thing). In this film, John Hurt plays Stephen Ward, a fashionable English osteopath-slash-artist in the habit of rubbing shoulders with the ruling classes, including prominent British MPs like the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo. Ward gets into hot water after introducing Profumo to a young exotic dancer, who he starts an affair with and (inevitably) gets caught by the press with his trousers down.

It’s a compelling tale, made all the more shocking when considering that as a result of these events, the real Ward was promptly investigated by police, charged with “immorality offences” and (allegedly) committed suicide before a verdict could be announced. Hurt turned this scapegoat of the establishment into an underdog everyone can’t help but root for, and we here at CBR reckon that more than warrants a place on this list!


John Hurt as Caligula in I Claudius

John Hurt’s appearance in the 1976 BBC TV adaptation of Robert Graves' “I, Claudius” is an oldie, but most definitely qualifies as a goodie: Hurt joins an all-star cast (including Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies, to name but a few) as Caligula, one of the first Emperors of Rome and a tyrannical lunatic who secured his ascension through sex, murder and endless scheming.

Although younger audiences might assume that “I, Claudius” is one long, dusty toga party, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually a gripping power struggle full of deceitful behavior, evil plotting and backstabbing that’s good enough to rival anything on TV today, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” included! Seriously, this show has it all -- sex, nudity, betrayal, incest, despotism, murder, a horse made into a magistrate (yup, that really happened) …you name it and we’ll bet that the Romans did it first! If you’re craving a "GOT" fix, then a binge-fest of “I, Claudius” might be just what the doctor ordered!


John Hurt as Adam Sutler in V For Vendetta

John Hurt’s role in the 2005 dystopian political thriller, “V for Vendetta,” has arguably never been as relevant as it is today. Hurt stars in the film as High Chancellor Adam Sutler, the dictator whose fascist regime has brought the UK to its knees. Civil liberties are treated as an unnecessary luxury. The Norsefire Party is in complete control of the media and uses it to intimidate its citizens. Political opponents, immigrants, Muslims, atheists, homosexuals and other “undesirables” are imprisoned and executed in concentration camps. He’s basically an embodiment of the enemy Hurt fought against as Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”… except, this time, resistance isn’t futile.

Although fans of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel series know Sutler alternatively as Susan (James McTeigue and The Wachowski Brothers chose to alter the name, making it an amalgamation of “Susan” and “Hitler” -- subtle!), they’ll have no trouble recognizing Hurt’s villain as the man who tried and failed to take on V and his resistance. Hurt brings all the imposing menace of Moore and Lloyd’s Susan to the big screen and transforms him into a villain we all want to see toppled. Power to the people!


John Hurt as the War Doctor in Doctor Who

John Hurt claims a rather unusual first in the BBC’s “Doctor Who” TV series: he’s the only Doctor that wasn’t the Doctor. Confused? Let us explain: he may be a reincarnation of our favorite Time Lord, but when the Time War forced him to fight wars rather than help people, he abandoned his chosen title and acted outside his moral code, becoming a warrior instead. As 11 (Matt Smith) explains in the 2013 episode “The Name of the Doctor,” the name you choose is a promise you make, and Hurt “broke the promise.”

It wasn’t hard to accept Hurt as the dark, desperate and world-wearied War Doctor who had lived many lifetimes already -- in a way that was true, as this list evidences. Seeing him agonize over whether to burn Gallifrey using the superweapon known as The Moment (which, weirdly, personified itself as Rose Tyler to challenge him) was utterly heart-breaking, and the scene where he, 10 (David Tennant) and 11 unite to save their home planet from destruction is one of the best in “Doctor Who” history, hands-down. Hurt may not have been the Doctor for long, but he’ll always be one of CBR’s favorites!


John Hurt as Mr Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone

Mr. Ollivander is a character who, for many, needs no introduction… but just in case, he’s the wandmaker from "Harry Potter." Although John Hurt took on the role in three Harry Potter films -- and would have appeared in four, if his scenes in “Goblet of Fire” had not been cut -- arguably his most memorable performance comes in his first appearance in “The Philosopher’s Stone.” When Harry steps into Ollivander’s shop to purchase a wand, Hurt made us feel all the wonder of an awestruck 11-year-old, and when Ollivander explains the connection between Harry’s wand and Lord Voldemort’s with trembling respect for the latter’s power, we all got serious chills.

The Potter fandom has always held the actors associated with the franchise close to their hearts, and John Hurt is no exception. When news of his death broke, huge crowds of fans turned out at Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter to honor him, gathering outside Ollivander’s shop in Diagon Alley to raise their wands in unison -- a gesture that has become synonymous with love and mourning. The man who armed our favorite wizards may be gone, but his memory will be cherished by fans worldwide. Always.


John Hurt as The Great Dragon Kilgharrah in Merlin

We move swiftly from one magical world to another -- in this case, the BBC TV fantasy-adventure “Merlin,” a creative reimagining of Arthurian legend that ran from 2008-2012 and became a firm favorite with fans worldwide. In this series, John Hurt provides the voice for the cantankerous old dragon Kilgharrah, who strikes up a friendship with the young Merlin and becomes one of his magical mentors (the other, of course, being the clueless-but-caring Gaius, played to perfection by Richard Wilson).

Merlin’s key scenes with Kilgharrah are among the best in the series, thanks to Hurt’s gravitas and, although his advice might sometimes seem contradictory or confusing, we all know Kilgharrah always had Merlin’s best interests at heart. That time he told Merlin to kill the young druid Mordred? He was only trying to look out for Arthur. Plus, he really did have a point with the whole let-Uther-die thing. And sure, Kilgharrah might have tried to destroy Camelot once freed, but who wouldn’t want to crack a few skulls after being imprisoned for 22 years, just for being magical? Hurt’s Kilgharrah might just be our fave dragon of all time… well, maybe (in fairness, it’s a tough category).


John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man

CBR knows that no list of memorable John Hurt roles would be complete without mentioning David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” the iconic 1980 historical drama charting how Joseph Merrick’s physical disfigurements led to a life of mistreatment and exploitation by selfish and ignorant people; i.e., the real monsters. It’s worth pointing out that this role was a feat of endurance as well as a test of Hurt’s acting abilities: the incredible prosthetics featured in the movie required three hours of make-up to apply and encased most of Hurt’s face, severely limiting his movements and facial expressions (which are, y’know, usually kind of necessary to acting).

Although Hurt was afraid that “nothing [he] was doing was coming through on screen,” he needn’t have worried: his portrayal of a sensitive, quietly refined Merrick who remains kind-hearted despite ongoing ridicule and cruelty, won the hearts of its audience. When Merrick sobbed that he was “not an animal” but a “human being,” those hearts collectively broke. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that, although the film was nominated for eight Oscars, Hurt lost out in the Best Actor category to Robert De Niro’s (admittedly epic) performance in Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.”


John Hurt as Kane in Alien

Yup, in at number #1 is John Hurt’s performance as Executive Officer Kane, the man responsible for bringing the Alien aboard the USCSS Nostromo in Ridley’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic “Alien.” It doesn’t matter how many times you view it, Kane’s death scene is as squirm-inducing as it was the first time, and Hurt makes you believe it’s really happening, even though doing so requires a serious suspension of disbelief by the audience.

Hurt was rightly proud of the fact that this scene has become “part of the show-business mythology,” but that doesn’t mean he took himself too seriously. In Mel Brooks’ 1987 sci-fi parody “Spaceballs,” John Hurt made a cameo appearance as Kane, moaning “Oh no, not again!” when the Alien bursts out of his abdomen before breaking into a vaudeville-style performance of “Hello! Ma Baby” as Hurt’s corpse looks on. Clearly, John Hurt was a man who knew how to laugh at himself, but none of that changes the fact that he was one of the world’s greatest actors.

We really have lost a legend.

Can you think of any more John Hurt roles that should have made the list? Let us know in the comments!

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