John Hurt: 10 key performances from Alien to Doctor Who

John Hurt, who died on Friday, was a brilliant and versatile actor who made memorable film appearances over five decades. Here we look at ten of the best

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Hurt’s first major film role was as the hapless Timothy Evans, executed for murders committed by his neighbour John Christie. Richard Attenborough, as Christie, set a world standard for creepiness, but Hurt excelled as the pathetic, wronged Evans.

The Naked Civil Servant

Hurt’s starmaking role arrived via an ITV adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s memoir; Hurt played the role of the flamboyant cross-dresser with sensitivity and pathos.

Midnight Express

Though it remains controversial for its less-than-flattering attitude towards Turkey, the Alan Parker directed prisoner-abroad film remains a benchmark for committed, angry performance, while Hurt scored a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for a memorable side role, as doomed junkie Max.


As the subject of the celebrated ‘chestburster’ scene, Hurt is on the receiving end of one of the most played clips ever. The extra dose of chicken giblets and offal that director Ridley Scott used to surprise the actors gave them all a nasty shock, not least Veronica Cartwright who played Lambert.

The Elephant Man

Hurt secured his reputation with David Lynch’s still-extraordinary portrait of London grotesque: the unfortunate Joseph Merrick, who was considered a freak of nature in the late 19th century. The inordinate amount of time needed to create Merrick’s features was well publicised; though was worth it as it earned Hurt a best actor nomination at the Oscars.


Hurt played Stephen Ward in this key entry in the British 1980s film revival: Ward was the fixer who was sacrificed by the establishment when the government minister-implicating sex scandal spiralled out of control.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Winston Smith was a role Hurt was, arguably, born to play and the Michael Radford version gave him his opportunity, opposite Richard Burton. Hurt’s performance had a pinched brilliance about it, in a sombre treatment of the source material.

Love and Death on Long Island

Hurt’s favourite, apparently, of his films: an adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novel about a stuffy writer who becomes obsessed with a hunky film star (played by Jason Priestley). One of the studies of frustration in which Hurt excelled.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Almost inevitably, Hurt was roped into British acting’s three-ring-circus-cum-pension-fund. Hurt played wand-maker Garrick Ollivander in the first Potter film and Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2. (His scenes were cut from Goblet of Fire.) As for many of the cast, it introduced Hurt to a whole new generation of filmgoers.

Doctor Who

Among his late performances, Hurt appeared in Tinker Tailor, Only Lovers Left Alive and Snowpiercer. But probably his most widely seen role was in the 50th anniversary Doctor Who series in 2013, as the War Doctor.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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