William Hurt, Oscar-winning star of 1980s films, dies at 71


His son Alexander Hurt announced the death in a statement but did not give a cause. Mr. Hurt revealed in 2018 that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.

A Washington native who appeared in more than 100 screen roles, Mr. Hurt made his film debut in the 1980 psychedelic horror film “Altered States,” playing an obsessed scientist whose experiments with sensory deprivation lead him to turn into a primeval, apelike creature. The next year, he delivered his breakout performance in director Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir thriller “Body Heat,” as a South Florida lawyer seduced by Kathleen Turner and roped into murdering her husband.

The movie was a sultry, shadow-filled throwback to 1940s film noirs like “Double Indemnity.” And Mr. Hurt — tall, blond and blue-eyed, with a square jaw and charmingly laconic screen persona — was suddenly in great demand. He reunited with Kasdan to play a cynical, drug-addicted Vietnam War veteran in “The Big Chill” (1983), and received three consecutive Academy Award nominations for best actor, including as an idealistic teacher of the deaf in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) and a handsome but ethically compromised newscaster in “Broadcast News” (1987).

“His talent is to trust that less is more,” Kasdan told film critic Roger Ebert after directing Mr. Hurt in a third film, “The Accidental Tourist” (1988). “I don’t think anyone does that better in American acting. It’s to trust that the camera sees everything if you are feeling it and if you’re true — and Bill is true.”

Mr. Hurt won the Oscar for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985), a drama adapted from Manuel Puig’s novel of the same name. His performance, as a gay window dresser who trades stories with his prison cellmate (Raul Julia), secured his reputation for playing multilayered characters with a seemingly effortless charisma. Ebert wrote that Mr. Hurt “creates a character utterly unlike anyone else he has ever played — a frankly theatrical character, exaggerated and mannered — and yet he never seems to be reaching for effects.”

Before entering movies, Mr. Hurt built an extensive portfolio of theater roles, culminating in his Tony-nominated performance in David Rabe’s dark comedy “Hurlyburly,” which was directed by Mike Nichols and opened on Broadway in 1984. He described himself early on as a character actor trapped “in a leading man’s body,” and tended toward supporting roles later in his career, including in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” (2004), Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana” (2005) and David Cronenberg’s action thriller “A History of Violence” (2005), which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination, this time for best supporting actor.

Mr. Hurt was in some ways an unlikely film star. Cerebral and intense, balding by his mid-30s, he studied theology in college and continued to live on the East Coast even after he began making movies. By some accounts, he could be difficult to work with; he reportedly struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and his former girlfriend Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar starring opposite him in “Children of a Lesser God,” said in a 2009 memoir that he physically and emotionally abused her during their relationship in the 1980s. “My own recollection is that we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives,” Mr. Hurt said in a statement at the time.

He rarely spoke about his personal life in interviews, preferring instead to deliver impassioned monologues about consumerism, the relationship between church and state, the science of condensation or the “homogenized disruptive entities” that made acting difficult.

“Elliptical? Philosophical? I can be that way,” he told the New York Times in 1994, before turning to the meaning of life. “There’s fear or faith. If you’re living by fear, then you’re always looking for security. If you’re living by faith, then you’re always looking for freedom.” He added that when it came to achieving a faith-filled existence, “You just keep at it. Defeating fear is not a light switch. For most of us, it’s daily work.”

William McChord Hurt was born in Washington on March 20, 1950. His father worked on U.S. foreign assistance programs and was posted to Guam, where Mr. Hurt spent his early years before his parents divorced. He was 10 when his mother, who worked on business operations at Time Inc., married Henry Luce III, a son of the media company’s co-founder.

Mr. Hurt attended Middlesex prep school in Massachusetts and Tufts University outside Boston, where he studied theology and then drama — “the next rung down on the ladder of ego,” as he put it — and received a bachelor’s degree in 1972. He enrolled in the acting program at the Juilliard School in Manhattan but chafed at the school’s strict disciplinary requirements, leaving in 1975 to embark on a cross-country road trip.

His travels took him to Ashland, Ore., where he had his breakthrough as an actor while appearing in a local production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” “I had worked for years in complete darkness, complete doubt, complete confusion,” he later told New York magazine. “And then, one day, I walked out onstage and realized I had some craft. It was just there — and it felt so good.”

Returning to New York, he appeared in off-Broadway plays with the Circle Repertory Company, winning an Obie Award in 1977 for “My Life” and starring in the original production of Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July.” He considered Hollywood a “cultural wasteland,” but signed on to “Altered States” after reading the script, by acclaimed screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky; five days after filming ended, he returned to New York to star in a Circle Rep production of “Hamlet.”

Mr. Hurt was later featured in the movies “Eyewitness” (1981), as a janitor who teams with a TV news reporter (Sigourney Weaver) to solve a murder, and “Gorky Park” (1983), based on a mystery novel by Martin Cruz Smith about a Soviet detective. By the 1990s, he was appearing in more offbeat, independent films, declining a role in “Jurassic Park” to appear in movies like Wim Wenders’s “Until the End of the World” (1991) and Wayne Wang’s “Smoke” (1995).

He continued to work with major directors, appearing in Woody Allen’s “Alice” (1990), Nora Ephron’s “Michael” (1996) and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jane Eyre” (1996), while also joining big-budget projects such as “Lost in Space” (1998), a widely panned adaptation of the 1960s science-fiction series. Beginning with “The Incredible Hulk” (2008), he appeared in several Marvel movies as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, an Army general who becomes secretary of state.

Mr. Hurt also worked on television, appearing in the legal drama “Goliath” and earning Emmy Award nominations in 2009, for his guest role in the drama series “Damages,” and in 2011, for starring as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson in the TV movie “Too Big to Fail,” about the 2008 financial crisis.

His marriages to actress Mary Beth Hurt and Heidi Henderson ended in divorce. He also had a relationship in the 1980s with Sandra Jennings, who unsuccessfully claimed in court that she had been Mr. Hurt’s common-law wife and was entitled to a share of his earnings.

Mr. Hurt had four children, including a son, Alexander, from his relationship with Jennings; two sons, Samuel and William Jr., from his second marriage; and a daughter, Jeanne Bonnaire-Hurt, from a relationship with French actress and filmmaker Sandrine Bonnaire. Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Although Mr. Hurt delighted in talking about acting, he said he had little interest in the celebrity status that accompanied his success. Interviewed by the Times in 1989, he recalled that he once tried to escape out of a restaurant’s back door after realizing a photographer was waiting to snap his photo outside the main exit. The owner declined his request, saying, “You wanted to be the celebrity. You wanted this.”

“And I told him, ‘You don’t know what I wanted. How dare you tell me what I wanted? That’s not what I wanted.’ What I wanted to do was something very generous. And I still want that, and I get great joy out of it,” he said. “Because it’s something I can share. It’s my window. It’s what I look at beauty through.”



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