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Taking the Lead ~ William Hurt (1950-2022)

Updated: Mar 25

By Laurence Lerman / New York City


Expanding his mind in Altered States (1980)
Expanding his mind in Altered States (1980)

Actor William Hurt was the leading man in American cinema of the 1980s, shooting to stardom in his film debut in 1980 and appearing in an assorment of Hollywood films over the subsequent decade, many accompanied by critical or commercial success along with numerous awards and accolades.


Hurt died on Sunday, March 13, at the age of 71. The cause was complications of prostate cancer.


A Washington, D.C. native, Hurt graduated from the Juilliard School before joining New York City’s respected Circle Repertory Company, He acted in a handful of notable Off-Broadway productions prior to being cast as the lead in Altered States, a trippy, science fiction thriller directed by Ken Russell and written by Paddy Chayefsky from his 1978 novel of the same name.


In his role as a troubled Harvard scientist dangerously experimenting with expanding states of conscious via isolation tanks and psychedelic drugs, Hurt’s measured, cerebral rendering of his character’s heightened mumbo-jumbo dialogue serves as the perfect complement to Russell’s flamboyant visual style.


One early monologue in the film finds Hurt’s Ivy League egghead waxing messianic on the powers of the inner self:


“Everybody's looking for their true selves. We're all trying to fulfill ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God, we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningly horror of life. And I think that that true self—that original self, that first self—is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing. Tangible and incarnate. And I’m going to find the fucker.”


Heady stuff, huh? But it sounds great in Hurt’s very modern-sounding cadence.


A prolific film career as a leading man quickly followed, with a wave of well-received films, including the murder mysteries Eyewitness (1981) and Gorky Park (1983), the TV news dramedy Broadcast News (1987) and the romantic drama Children of a Lesser God (1986).


Getting sweaty with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981)
Getting sweaty with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat (1981)

Hurt worked with a number of the era’s leading filmmakers, including writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, with whom he collaborated four times on such movies as The Big Chill (1983), The Accidental Tourist (1988) and, most alluringly, 1981’s Body Heat. The latter, an erotically-charged neo-noir, found Hurt’s seedy lawyer falling in deep with femme fatale Kathleen Turner. It was one of the decade’s sexiest adult offerings.


Hurt garnered three Academy Awards nominations for Best Actor that decade, bringing home the prize for his portrayal of a gay inmate sharing a Brazilian prison cell with a revolutionary in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Hector Babenco from the novel by Manuel Puig. Hurt also won Best Actor honors for the role at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and British Academy Film Awards.

Cleaning up his act in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Cleaning up his act in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

That same year, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his one and only Broadway star turn in David Rabe’s darkly funny Hollywood takedown Hurlyburly.


By the late 1990s, following a spate of portrayals as professors, doctors, and other intelligent professionals, Hurt moved from leading parts to supporting roles in both films and prestigious television productions, where he flourished for the next two decades. These included juicy characters in Alex Proyas’s sci-fi noir Dark City (1998), Robert De Niro’s C.I.A chronicle The Good Shepherd (2006), Ridley Scott’s period adventure Robin Hood (2010) and David Cronenberg’s crime thriller A History of Violence (2005), for which Hurt picked up another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.


That was followed by a pair of Emmy nominations for his work in the TV series Damages (2009) and as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in the HBO production Too Big To Fail (2011).


Hurt also maintained an ongoing presence in the Marvel Comics Universe as General Thaddeus Ross in a handful of blockbusters, from The Incredible Hulk (2008) through last year’s Black Widow.


Creating new beings in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Creating new beings in A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

In his small but critical role in Steven Spielberg’s 2001 sci-fi drama A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Hurt portrays a forward-thinking scientist who creates a breed of complex but emotionally stunted humanoid robots. That’s okay, though, because just as he did in Altered States two decades earlier, Hurt makes the feelings real with his own modulated erudition.


 

Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.

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