William Hurt was tall, blond, and attractive, and the product of a prep-school education and training at Julliard. For someone whose first movie came out in 1980 — the year Ronald Reagan was elected and “The Official Preppy Handbook” was published — he could have had a much different career as an actor, one that was blander, less eccentric, and less daring.
But the approachable exterior camouflaged a complicated, difficult artist, one who constantly challenged himself, even when dealing with his own inner demons. As Mark Harris noted on Twitter upon hearing of Hurt’s death at the age of 71, “Hurt always seemed profoundly uncomfortable being a good-looking leading man, which may be one reason that his performance in ‘Broadcast News’ is absolutely perfect — he understood that he was playing someone who was miscast.”
Before making his way to the screen, Hurt had already established his bona fides on the New York stage, taking on challenging roles ranging from Hamlet to the gay paraplegic Vietnam veteran in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July.” (Even after achieving big-screen fame, Hurt returned to Broadway as part of the company of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” in a legendarily explosive production directed by Mike Nichols.) He hit the ground running in Hollywood: Hurt managed to survive the tempestuous creation of his first film, 1980’s “Altered States,” even as screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky took his name off the film and original director Arthur Penn (who hired Hurt in the first place) was replaced by Ken Russell.
Hurt and Sigourney Weaver made an appealing couple in “Eyewitness” (1981), a thriller that was vastly overshadowed by “Body Heat” in the same year. Lawrence Kasdan’s noir throwback paired Hurt and Kathleen Turner to scorching effect, turning this intense and serious actor into the kind of sex symbol he was never particularly interested in becoming. (Two years later, Hurt would play an impotent Vietnam vet turned drug dealer as part of the ensemble of Kasdan’s “The Big Chill.”)
The mid-1980s was a peak period for Hurt, who won three back-to-back Best Actor nominations for his work in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985) — he won for his portrayal of a gender-non-conforming, old-movies-obsessed prisoner in an unnamed Latin American nation — “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), and “Broadcast News” (1987). But in the middle of it all, at Christmas of 1986, Hurt checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic because of his ongoing struggle with alcoholism.
“I was utterly miserable and, finally, I had been miserable enough, long enough, and I said, ‘I’m finished, I can’t hack it, can’t do it,’” he told the Washington Post in 1989. “The most important day in my life was the day I asked for help.”
Hurt continued to rack up memorable performances over the next several decades, from his reteaming with Kasdan on “The Accidental Tourist” (1989) to his brief (under 10 minutes) turn as a mob boss in David Cronenberg’s 2005 “A History of Violence,” a role that earned him another Oscar nomination as well as Best Supporting Actor awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle. More recently, he continued to tackle a broad variety of roles everywhere from TV to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he played General “Thunderbolt” Ross.
Like many of the greatest actors, William Hurt could explode or simmer, seduce or stalk, depending on what the role required. He was clearly intelligent, but he could believably, memorably play dumb (“Broadcast News,” “I Love You to Death”). He could garner sympathy, or act as an audience conduit into a strange new world or, with just a few muttered sentences, leave you fearing for your life.
He leaves behind a rich legacy of unforgettable moments: smoothly hosting a news segment with Holly Hunter’s voice in his ears in “Broadcast News”; panting with raw, erotic desperation over Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat” before throwing a patio chair through her window; leading Solveig Dommartin on a globe-trotting chase in Wim Wenders’ “Until the End of the World”; bonding with Harold Perrineau in Wayne Wang’s “Smoke.” Funny, romantic, terrifying, intense, absurd; Hurt could be all of this and more over the course of a landmark screen career.