William Hurt, the exacting Oscar winner who dominated a decade as few other actors have done with his turns in the 1980s classics Body Heat, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God and Broadcast News, has died. He was 71.
Hurt died Sunday at his home in Portland, Oregon, one of his three sons, Will, told The Hollywood Reporter. He did not divulge the cause of death.
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Trained on the stage, Hurt made his electric debut on the big screen as an obsessed psychopathologist who experiments with sensory deprivation and flotation tanks in the bizarre Paddy Chayefsky-scripted Altered States (1980), directed by Ken Russell.
A year later, he had his breakthrough when his patsy lawyer character becomes the boy toy of a manipulative wealthy woman (Kathleen Turner) out to murder her husband in the noir thriller Body Heat, helmed by Lawrence Kasdan in his directorial debut. (Christopher Reeve, his former classmate at the Juilliard School, had turned down his part.)
Next, Hurt stood out in an outstanding ensemble cast as an emotionally damaged Vietnam War veteran in The Big Chill (1983), directed by Kasdan as well. (The two would reteam twice more for 1988’s The Accidental Tourist and 1990’s I Love You to Death.)
Hurt received heaps of critical acclaim to go with his Oscar statuette for his portrayal of Luis Molina, a transvestite window dresser locked in a South American jail cell with a militant warrior (Raul Julia), in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), an art house sensation directed by Hector Babenco.
“We had to say something about not just gay rights, but about feminine and masculine relationships and the nature of courage and what it means to speak truth to a power so much greater than you are,” Hurt said in 2015. “We didn’t make any money while we were shooting, so there was no angling for gratuitous reward. This was just a glorious opportunity to do the right thing.”
Hurt was nominated for best actor again in each of the next two years for his work as James Leeds, a teacher at a school for the hard of hearing, in Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God (1986) and as the dim and hunky anchorman Tom Grunick involved in a love triangle in Broadcast News, directed by James L. Brooks.
A re-emergent Hurt collected his fourth Oscar nom, this one for supporting actor, for his performance as a sinister mob boss in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005).
Hurt had a reputation for being “difficult to work with.”
“Anybody’s who’s any good is called difficult at some point,” Kasdan said in a 1989 interview with The Washington Post. “Bill has absolutely unshakable integrity in his work. He cannot do something false. When your instincts are so strong toward what’s true, that’s an enormously powerful thing to have. For an actor, that’s everything.”
“To almost all of his roles, he brings along a sense of the ordinary, the sense that this is simply a person who happens to find himself in this place at this time,” Roger Ebert wrote about the actor in 1988. “That almost bland exterior in the opening scenes is what sets up the later emotional explosions, especially in movies like Altered States and Body Heat.
“When Hurt goes over the top, he appears to have started from a quieter place, and so he seems to have traveled a greater distance than a Mickey Rourke or a Robert De Niro. Only Jack Nicholson is his equal at seeming utterly ordinary.”
The thoughtful actor also showed up as military man Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross in the Marvel movies The Incredible Hulk (2008), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Black Widow (2021).
William McChord Hurt was born in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 1950. His father, Alfred, worked for the State Department’s Agency for International Development, and the boy spent his early years in Guam and Hawaii.
After his parents divorced when he was about 6, his mother, Claire, brought him and his two brothers to Manhattan. She took a job at Time Inc. and in 1960 married Henry Luce III, a son of the founder of the publishing giant.
Hurt acted for the first time in a play at the private Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts. After studying theology at Tufts University, he spent a year as a theater student in England with his then-wife, actress Mary Beth Hurt, before being accepted to New York’s Juilliard, where he studied acting for three years alongside the likes of Reeve, Robin Williams and Mandy Patinkin.
He departed in 1975 to portray Edmund in an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Back in New York, Hurt joined the Circle Repertory Company, won an Obie Award and starred in plays including Hamlet, Childe Byron, Richard II and My Life. And in 1977, he made his onscreen debut in a two-part episode of Kojak.
Hurt received the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the film grossed $17 million, huge for an indie at the time. (The drama took years to get into theaters, and Burt Lancaster was originally set to portray Luis.)
Winning the Academy Award was “very isolating,” Hurt told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “The instant they gave it to me, I thought, ‘God, what do I do now? How am I going to walk into a room and have any other actor trust me?’ ”
Only Hurt, Paul Muni, Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Russell Crowe have been nominated for the best actor Oscar in three consecutive years.
“Acting is building the tip of the iceberg,” Hurt said. “You have to build what isn’t seen and then play the tip. Only a little bit of the iceberg is ever seen, but it is massive. That’s sometimes hard to do in American movies, where the philosophy is to show the whole iceberg.”
He went on to play Prof. John Robinson in the feature version of Lost in Space (1998), the creator of a robot child (Haley Joel Osment) in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), the devastated father of Emile Hirsch’s wanderer in Into the Wild (2007) and the U.S. president in Vantage Point (2008).
His film résumé also included Eyewitness (1981), Smoke (1995), Dark City (1998), A Time of Destiny (1988), The Doctor (1991), Second Best (1994), Franco Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre (1996), The Big Brass Ring (1999), M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), Syriana (2005), Robin Hood (2010), The Host (2013) and Winter’s Tale (2014).
In 1984, Hurt found time to return to the stage to star in the long-running off-Broadway and Broadway production of the David Rabe-Mike Nichols hit Hurlyburly, receiving a Tony nom in the process.
He received an Emmy nom in 2009 for playing whistleblowing scientist Daniel Purcell on the second season of FX’s Damages, then received another one two years later for portraying Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson in Curtis Hanson‘s HBO telefilm Too Big to Fail.
More recently, he appeared on such TV series as Humans, Goliath and Condor.
Hurt was married to Mary Beth Hurt from 1971 until their 1982 divorce. He had one child with ballet dancer Sandra Jennings, with whom he later was involved in a bitter palimony suit, and another with French actress Sandrine Bonnaire.
He also had two kids with second wife Heidi Henderson, the daughter of bandleader Skitch Henderson (they met when both were in rehab), and was romantically involved with his Lesser God co-star Marlee Matlin.
(It was Hurt who opened the envelope onstage to announce that it was his girlfriend who was the winner of the best actress Oscar for her work in the film.)
But several years later, in a 2009 interview with Access Hollywood promoting her memoir, Matlin said she had been physically abused by Hurt during their relationship. In response, Hurt told E! News that “we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives. Of course, I did and do apologize for any pain I caused.”
Make no mistake, Hurt was dedicated to his craft. “I never explain my movies — it just ruins the emotion,” he told the Post. “I love saying that line. There is a point to explaining what I do, but at some point you just have to do it. The work is the best that I have to offer. That’s what I want to be eloquent at.”
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