For every iconic actor, there’s a role that every generation identifies them with.
Sir John Hurt was – is – no exception to this. When I asked my mother which performance she thought of first, her answer was instantaneous, filled with fondness – The Elephant Man. As a teenager, she saw it in cinemas upon its release in 1980, and Hurt’s prowess stuck with her long enough for her to recall it to me on a Sunday evening.
My memories of John Hurt start when I was a child, far younger than my mother’s adolescent introduction. In 2001, I was six years old, and in 2001, John Hurt became Mr. Ollivander, wandmaker of Diagon Alley, in the Harry Potter franchise. It didn’t matter that he didn’t appear in all of the films – because in the Philosopher’s Stone he cemented himself as that character for an entire generation of now twenty-somethings who look back on their Potter filled childhood with pure happiness. Every book I read that Mr. Ollivander was in – John was there in my mind’s eye. He bookended my love affair with the films – I first saw him as a child, but I saw Mr. Ollivander last as an adult, having been given a lifetime of good memories by his role.
But this was far from all that Hurt gave us. With roles in almost 130 films and a few dozen TV performances to boot, John’s career was beautiful in its versatility. From seminal roles in Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Naked Civil Servant and The Elephant Man, to blockbusters like Alien and V For Vendetta, Hurt turned his hand to virtually every existing genre and excelled in them all.
He was loved by adults and children alike – his familiar voice scored Saturday night television as The Great Dragon in BBC’s Merlin for years upon end, and he guest-starred in Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary special as The War Doctor, effectively placing himself within the legacy of the Doctor’s regenerations. He worked with David Lynch, Laurence Olivier and Steven Spielberg. He was nominated for four BAFTAs, winning two, was nominated for two Academy Awards, and was knighted in 2015 for services to drama. He was a cultural icon, a charity patron, and a unendingly gifted actor.
One of the beauties of film is that we see people, for a moment, captured in time. John himself once said, “we’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly”, but we’ve been afforded the ability to watch his work over and over, from our first glimpses to our hundredth re-run. While his chair may no longer be occupied, he will remain, through his remarkable work and his vast legacy, one of Britain’s finest actors and a key part of millions of lives.
Goodbye, Mr. Ollivander.
Words by Jess Ennis