The late John Hurt has been noted for a variety of roles, from his breakout performance as the horribly disfigured John Merrick in “The Elephant Man” to his various appearances in genre films such as “Alien,” the Harry Potter films, and Dr. Who. But two little-mentioned roles, in “A Man for All Seasons” and “1984” are defining examples of Hurt’s approach to the craft of acting.

First major film was 'A Man for All Seasons'

Hurt’s role as Richard Rich in “A Man for All Seasons” was his first major movie appearance. Rich, an ambitious young man, living during the reign of King Henry VIII, starts as a protégé to the main character, Thomas Moore.

Whereas Moore finds his downfall through his integrity, his refusal to bend to the King’s desire for a divorce from his first wife, Rich eagerly casts aside his ethics and turns on Moore by perjuring himself in court at the order of Thomas Cromwell. Moore recognizes Rich’s shortcomings in the beginning and tries to steer him into the safe but quiet career of a teacher. But Rich craves power and gets it, eliciting the line from Moore, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales, Richard?” Rich has traded the life of his former friend and mentor to become Attorney General for Wales. Moore may be going to the block, but Rich is going to Hell.

Played the doomed Winston Smith in '1984'

Speaking of Hell, Hurt returned to the theme of an individual trying to hold onto his integrity and even his individuality in the classic adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984.” Hurt’s Winston Smith lives a gray, miserable existence in a super state called “Oceana” as a functionary for the Ministry of Truth, whose job it is to dispense lies.

His attempts to grab some iota of happiness and autonomy in a society that demands absolute obedience to the State in the form of Big Brother inevitably brings him into the hands of the Thought Police. A series of horrific tortures in Room 101 breaks him as an individual and remakes him as just another part of the hive that has all the worst parts of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

John Hurt died of cancer at the age of 77. Thus he struts the stage and screen no more, the final curtain having dropped. But his performances mean that he will, in a sense, live on forever.

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