John Hurt, a Reminisence

In the mid-90s I bought an audiobook read by John Hurt.

The book was Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I found the cassette one day at Big Lots, along with some others (Ian Fleming’s “The Living Daylights,” read by Anthony Valentine; Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Three Students,” reader unremembered), for about two dollars apiece.

The audiobook was abridged, naturally, as it ran all of about forty minutes. I would listen to it sometimes in the car while driving, captivated as much by Stevenson’s story of a man and his inner monster as I was by the sound of Hurt’s voice. Sometimes, on long trips by myself, such as on 29 between Lynchburg and Charlottesville, I would recite the story along with Hurt, imitating his voice as closely as possible — the accent, the timbre, the weight, the presence. Hurt’s voice had presence. I loved the way he enunciated his words, the way his voice could be all at once rough yet gentle, ancient yet innocent, stern yet mischievous. In short order, I developed a decent, if unremarkable, Hurt vocal impression. Of all the skills one can develop in life, a John Hurt impression shouldn’t rank high at all.

John Hurt — Sir John Hurt, now — died this week at the age of 77, following a two year battle with pancreatic cancer. A friend alerted me on Twitter yesterday evening; I was playing a game of Age of Empires II, and the news came as an unwelcome and unwanted blow.

I was gutted — am gutted — at Hurt’s passing. The way some of my friends were devastated last year by the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, that’s very much how I feel now about Hurt’s death. Even imitating Hurt’s voice-over from Merlin‘s opening sequence — “In a land of myth and a time of magic…” — makes my eyes fill with tears and my throat constrict.

I don’t even know when I became aware of Hurt. I have vague memories from childhood of seeing commercials on television for The Elephant Man, but I didn’t see that until I was in college. I saw Disney’s The Black Cauldron when it came out, but I have no lasting impression of it. My dad rented Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, Part 1 from Acme Video when I was about ten, but I wasn’t aware that Hurt voiced Aragorn until much more recently. I think it was Spaceballs where I first saw Hurt, and the joke of his cameo in the film went over my head. (Surprisingly, I didn’t see Ridley Scott’s Alien until the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set came out.)

Where I really noticed Hurt was in Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. It aired, going from memory here, on NBC on Sunday nights. Hurt, in heavy make-up, told stories — specifically, European folk tales — to a talking Muppet dog, and those tales were dramatized with more Muppet wizardry. I was in high school when it aired, and I watched the show with my family. When the series was released on DVD, circa 2003-ish, I bought it immediately from the Wal-Mart near my house on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. The DVD transfer was terrible — all nine, hour-long episodes were compressed onto a single DVD — but I didn’t care. I had The Storyteller.

I enjoyed seeing Hurt in things — the billionaire H.R. Hadden in Contact, Professor Bruttenholm in Hellboy, Indy’s old friend Ox in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I loved him as the voice of the Great Dragon in Merlin. He did radio drama, too; BBC Radio 4’s adaptation of War and Peace may have been a bit ponderous, but his portrayal of the irascible Prince Bolkonsky was a delight.

And, of course, John Hurt was the Doctor.

There came a point when I said to myself, “John Hurt should have been the Doctor. But it’s too late now. It’s a young man’s role, and he’s not a young man anymore.” But then he was, cast as the forgotten (or ignored) incarnation of the Doctor, the one who fought the Time War, for Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary special. I imagined, as a lark, what John Hurt’s era might have been like. Though I thought “The Day of the Doctor,” the anniversary special, was flawed and Hurt’s role underwritten, I couldn’t deny that he had done a marvelous job elevating the material, as if he had always been the Doctor, as though he were born for the role. When you ask me who my Doctor is, I used to say I didn’t have a favorite. Now, I say John Hurt is my Doctor.

There was some ineffable quality in Hurt that made him compelling, no matter his role. Maybe it was his fearlessness; he took roles, like Quintin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, that some said would destroy his career. In one of his greatest roles, John Merrick in The Elephant Man, he was buried so far beneath the make-up and the prosthetics, that you have to know it’s him. He could play villainous and depraved, he could play compassionate and sympathetic, and he could quite easily straddle the two, making his villains human and lending an hint of darkness or menace to his more heroic roles. You couldn’t miss him — the craggy, angular features of his face, the presence of a voice that could only be his — yet he made each role different and disappeared within it. He was always a fascinating actor to watch.

My favorite John Hurt story has nothing to do with acting, though.

Eric Clapton fell in love with George Harrison’s first wife, Pattie Boyd. Harrison’s marriage was shaky, Clapton penned the song “Layla” as an expression of his passion for Boyd, and somehow it was decided that the two men would have a guitar duel to determine which of them would “get” Boyd. (By “guitar duel,” I mean that they were going to settle the issue musically, with each man using their guitar and their music to make their case for he deserved Boyd’s love.) Hurt, who had been a friend of Harrison’s going back into the mid-1960s (they used to do various drugs, like acid, together, and Harrison produced one of Hurt’s early films, Little Malcolm), happened to be staying at Harrison’s mansion, and he was one of the judges for the guitar duel.

Harrison lost.

Hurt also appeared in the video for Paul McCartney’s song “Take It Away,” playing a Brian Epstein-esque band manager.

Hurt had good innings. He had a rich, full life and a career as varied as any creator could wish for. Our lives on Earth are short, and much of what we do will be forgotten, but John Hurt left behind a body of work that will be remembered and endure.

We should all be so lucky.

As for that cassette tape of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it was lost long ago. I have thought at times of trying to find one, but I fear it won’t be as wonderful as I remember it.

Second star on the right, sir, and straight on til morning.

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