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January 28, 2017 10:40 AM

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 1980 issue of PEOPLE.

His Roles May Veer Far from the Straight and Narrow, but John Hurt Acts on a Fast Track

Only one part is now out of the question: Husband.

A depraved Roman emperor, a brilliantly outrageous homosexual, an eccentric junkie convict, a tortured student murderer, a pitiable sideshow freak, an astronaut who has his chest ripped open from the inside by an alien monster… Hardly everyday folk, but 40-year-old British actor John Hurt—who has portrayed them all—is no mundane talent. “I don’t believe there is any such thing as an ordinary person,” he declares. “I’m not ordinary, nor is anyone I meet.”

Indeed, Hurt’s recent pace and accomplishments have been so extraordinary that he might seem to be in training for the film bios of Britain’s great knights of acting. Since earning an Oscar nomination last year for Midnight Express, he has played the tortured Raskolnikov in PBS’ four-part adaptation of Crime and Punishment, completed director Michael Cimino’s much anticipated Heaven’s Gate with Kris Kristofferson and Christopher Walken and finished a cameo as Christ in Mel Brooks’ upcoming History of the World, Part I. But perhaps Hurt’s most impressive current achievement is his movie portrayal of the hideously misshapen 19th-century Englishman John Merrick in The Elephant Man.

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During filming Hurt submitted to a seven-hour makeup session that began at 5:30 every other morning because of the strain. Shooting continued until around midnight, and because of his character’s deformed mouth he had to subsist on eggs mixed into orange juice and sipped through a straw. To speak, he had to form each syllable individually and painfully. Says Hurt: “The role stretched me to the limits.”

So far in fact that he decided that “I had to stop or I was going to go batty.” John awarded himself a several-month sabbatical in his pleasantly rundown 17th-century Oxfordshire house, but not soon enough to prevent a temporary split with his companion of 13 years, ex-model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot. Hurt spent the separation with Claire Rimmer, 26, a West End actress fresh from the London chorus of Evita, but it was a troubled time.

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“It’s been painful,” admits Claire. “He doesn’t want to hurt anyone.” Subsequently, John and Marie-Lise, who he admits is “good at putting up with me,” reconciled. Though he refers to her as his “common-law wife,” Hurt says they have no intention to wed, tracing his reluctance to a “crippling” two-year marriage at 22 to actress Annette Robertson.

Known as moody and mercurial, Hurt grew up in Derbyshire, the youngest of three children of an Anglican vicar. At 9, John had his stage baptismal at his boarding school production of Maeterlinck’s The Bluebird—playing the girl. “After getting over the nerves, I loved it,” Hurt remembers. “I felt this is where I should be.” Later the captain of his cricket, rugby and soccer teams, he recalls being “good when I bothered and distinctly lazy when school didn’t interest me.”

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At 20, after four years of art school (“Because my parents wanted me to have other qualifications”), Hurt won a full scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Even before graduation, he acquired a part in a TV play and an agent, Julian Belfrage, who advised him: “Let’s just look for good work, regardless of the medium, and by 40 you’ll hit it.” Adds Belfrage: “He has.” Hurt now lists dozens of TV roles among his credits and just started shooting his 20th film, Disney’s Night Crossing, about a balloon escape from East Germany.

Though not as bizarre as some of his characters, Hurt proclaims that he can be “a vagabond and roguish when it’s necessary.” He has an exercise machine that he rarely uses, seldom reads and doesn’t drive a car.

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He claims, “I never passed the test,” but does tool around on a Yamaha 100 Deluxe motorbike. A wiry 5’9″ and 140 pounds, Hurt smokes up to three packs of cigarettes a day and has a passion for cricket and church architecture. He does not practice the faith of his father, and nothing else quite summons the intensity he brings to his craft.

“The greatest compliment to any actor is to be told ‘You convince me.’ You must do that first, then maybe add the clever bits. My approach is almost to defy an audience not to believe me and to be almost aggressive in saying, ‘Come my route,'” says Hurt. “I keep quiet about the times it doesn’t work.”

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