From classic ensemble to a Russian spy thriller and Marvel, actor William Hurt was a ‘chameleon’


When news broke that American actor William Hurt had died over the weekend, movie industry heavyweights and fans alike agreed he could be cast in the lead, or appear for just 10 minutes, and “steal the show”.

He was known as a true character actor, who brought honesty and presence to every role.

In a statement on Sunday, his son Will said his father died on March 13, one week before his 72nd birthday.

“He died peacefully, among family, of natural causes,” he wrote.

Hurt played a string of award-winning roles in big hits throughout the 1980s, dabbled in TV roles in the 1990s, and found a new legion of fans playing US Army Secretary Thaddeus E ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in the Avengers classics.

One fan summed it up perfectly: “He was a chameleon of an actor”.

After breaking into Hollywood in 1980 with a Golden Globe nomination for sci-fi horror flick Altered States, he went on to dominate the mid-1980s with a string of hits.

From his Oscar-winning performance playing a gay prisoner in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), playing a troubled friend in the classic ensemble hit that defined a generation in The Big Chill (every movie fan still has the soundtrack) to the lead role as Detective Arkady Renko in Gorky Park, he was indeed the leading man.

His enduring performances included playing a teacher at a deaf school in Children of a Lesser God and a travel writer in The Accidental Tourist.

But it was his character performances, one with screen time of less than 10 minutes, that Hollywood is talking about, including in Robin Hood and, more recently, in his five-movie stint in the Marvel franchise.

Australian actor Russell Crowe remembers meeting him on the set of Ridley Scott’s 2010 big-budget Robin Hood, where Hurt was cast as William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke.

“On Robin Hood, I was aware of his reputation for asking character-based questions, so I had compiled a file on the life of William Marshal.

“He sought me out when he arrived on set. I handed him the stack. Not sure if I’ve ever seen a bigger smile.”

One fan, novelist Paul Neville, remembers his appearance in The History of Violence, for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 2005: “I think he was on the screen for less than 10 minutes … and he stole the film.”

Another wrote: “To me, his brief yet devastating role as Professor Hobby in Spielberg’s AI will be the one I will always remember him for.”

The ‘reluctant, albeit bankable movie star’

Although his performances throughout the 1980s defined his star status, “becoming something of a cerebral sex symbol and a reluctant, albeit bankable, movie star”, according to Variety, he cleverly transitioned into big-screen projects and TV roles.

By the 2000s, Hurt became well known to a younger generation of movie lovers and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his portrayal of the “beloved” General Thaddeus Ross in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk.

He later reprised the role in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, then Avengers: Endgame and finally Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson.

Marvel Studios posted on Twitter on Monday: “Rest In Peace to an amazing talent William Hurt, beloved Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross in our Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Hulk in the franchise, said his death was “another major loss to the acting community”.

Horror author Stephen King (The Shining, Misery) revealed yet another little-known side to his career: “He did a classic reading of my story Low Men in Yellow Coats from Hearts in Atlantis.

“I loved hitchhiking on his immense talent.”

As did US actor Ben Stiller (Night at the Museum franchise), revealing Hurt’s love of live theatre, and where he started his career after leaving The Juilliard, a performing arts academy in New York City.

His father Jerry was in the 1985 Broadway production of dark comedy Hurlyburly.

“A brilliant actor, who put everything into his work. I had a chance to spend time with him when I was younger. My father worked with him in a play called Hurlyburly by David Rabe. They were both amazing in it.”

Actors Billy Bob Thornton, William Hurt, Maria Bello, Olivia Thirlby and Tania Raymonde speak onstage at a Goliath panel discussion in 2016. Photo: Getty

An on-set accident, and moving with the times

Deadline recalls Hurt was on the scene of one of the worst on-set accidents in recent history in 2014.

He was starring as Gregg Allman in Randall Miller’s biopic, Midnight Rider, when a train smashed into the set on a trestle in rural Georgia, killing camera assistant Sarah Jones and injuring several others.

Hurt was on the trestle but unharmed.

“The actor later said he repeatedly expressed concern that cast and crew, loaded with gear, were safe on the trestle should a train come and was assured by assistant director Hillary Schwartz that they were.

“It’s the sorrow of my professional life and one of the great sorrows of my personal life,” Hurt later said.

“It was simply impossible to imagine anything like that could happen. The one other thing I could have done was say, ‘This isn’t good enough for me, I’m walking off the set’. But it was our very, very first day with a crew that had worked together before.”

Deadline reported that shortly after the accident, the director and producer Miller tried to move forward with the production but Hurt quit rather than return to the film.

By 2016, he had shifted to acting jobs on streaming platforms, including starring alongside Billy Bob Thornton in Amazon’s legal drama TV series Goliath as corporate law firm chief Donald Cooperman.

In a revealing, often combative interview at the time with Decider, he revealed exactly how he becomes that chameleon.

“As an actor, my primary vehicle is my body. And so what I do is I watch people. And I watch the relationship between their body language and all the evolution, all the culture, all the worlds that got them to those gestures.”

Hurt revealed in 2018 that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer that had spread to the bone, although at the time he credited an alternative form of chemotherapy with saving his life, according to media reports.

He is survived by four children.

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