William Hurt, Oscar-winning leading man of the 1980s, dies at 71
By Lew Serviss and Neil Genzlinger
William Hurt, who became a hot Hollywood commodity with his performance as a hapless lawyer in “Body Heat” in 1981 and within a few years had won the best-actor Oscar for the 1985 film “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in which he portrayed a gay man sharing a Brazilian prison cell with a revolutionary, died at his home in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday. He was 71.
A son, Alexander Hurt, said the cause was complications of prostate cancer.
Hurt, tall, blond and speaking in a measured cadence that lent a cerebral quality to his characters, was a leading man in some of the most popular films of the 1980s, including “The Big Chill” (1983), “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), “Broadcast News” (1987) and “The Accidental Tourist” (1988).
“Children of a Lesser God” and “Broadcast News” earned him best-actor Oscar nominations as well, meaning he had the heady distinction of being nominated for that award in three consecutive years.
In later years, Hurt transitioned from leading man to supporting roles; he was nominated for another Academy Award, as best supporting actor, for “A History of Violence” (2005).
Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times in 1985 of the “brilliant achievement” of Hurt and his co-star, Raul Julia, in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
“Mr. Hurt won a well-deserved best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for a performance that is crafty at first, carefully nurtured and finally stirring in profound, unanticipated ways,” she wrote. “What starts out as a campy, facetious catalog of Hollywood trivia becomes an extraordinarily moving film about manhood, heroism and love.”
Before he broke into films, Hurt was an in-demand stage actor, working frequently at Circle Repertory in New York, among other theaters. In 1985 he was nominated for a Tony Award for best featured actor in a play for his work in “Hurlyburly,” a David Rabe play directed by Mike Nichols with a loaded cast that included Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Harvey Keitel and Jerry Stiller.
Despite Hurt’s successes as a leading man in Hollywood, he told the Times in 1990 that “theater is a language I speak better or am more tuned into than English.”
“Even one moment onstage is a glacier of comprehension,” he added. “That’s where the work is. And it’s as fascinating to study as any other science.”
But his screen work could be mesmerizing. His acting had an ease to it even as he was creating complex characters. His first major film role was in Ken Russell’s sci-fi thriller “Altered States” in 1980; then, in early 1981, came the crime drama “Eyewitness,” in which he again played opposite Weaver. Later that year he starred in the steamy “Body Heat” with Kathleen Turner.
“Once again, Mr. Hurt establishes himself as an instantly affable screen star, an actor who combines some of Dustin Hoffman’s best qualities with some of Jeff Bridges’s,” Maslin wrote in reviewing that film for the Times. “He seems thoughtful, wry and funny, yet he has a comfortable physical presence, too, and a friendliness that’s uncomplicatedly disarming.”
Later in his career he played roles large and small. In a 2009 interview with the Times, he explained: “I don’t have to be the star, physically. My greatest offering is my concept. It isn’t my face.”
In recent years he had worked more in television, including the FX series “Damages” and the British sci-fi drama “Humans.” He was also in the 2013 television movie “The Challenger Disaster,” which in a 2015 interview prompted The Guardian to ask him if he was interested in space travel.
“I’m interested in all horizons and what’s on the other side of them,” he said. “We know less about the ocean than we do about space. I like to swim, float and fly.”
William McChord Hurt was born March 20, 1950, in Washington, the son of Alfred Hurt, a career diplomat, and Claire Isabel (McGill) Hurt, who worked at Time Inc. When Bill was 6, his parents separated and his mother married Henry Luce III, the son of Time magazine’s founder.
Hurt attended Tufts University and went on to study acting at Juilliard. By the second half of the 1970s he was drawing notice on New York stages, notably appearing in the Lanford Wilson play “Fifth of July” at Circle Rep in 1978. In 1981, Frank Rich, reviewing “Childe Byron” at Circle Rep for the Times, singled him out.
“Maybe William Hurt has now been discovered by Hollywood (‘Altered States,’ ‘Eyewitness’), but he hasn’t lost any of that crazy intensity that makes him a joy to watch in the theater,” Rich’s review began. “What makes this talented actor so special — and, inevitably, a star — is his ability to create his own reality onstage. While he can create a powerful character when he wants to (as he did with Kenneth Talley in the original production of “Fifth of July”), he’s prepared to be fascinating without any help from a playwright.”
If his acting drew raves, Hurt’s personal life was rocky. He had a relationship with his co-star in “Children of a Lesser God,” Marlee Matlin, which she later described as abusive. A long-term relationship with Sandra Jennings, a dancer, landed in court in 1989, with Jennings contending, unsuccessfully, that they were in effect married. His marriages to Mary Beth Hurt and Heidi Henderson ended in divorce.
In addition to his son Alexander, who is from his relationship with Jennings, Hurt is survived by two sons from his marriage to Henderson, Samuel and William Jr.; a daughter from his relationship with Sandrine Bonnaire, Jeanne Bonnaire-Hurt; two brothers, James Hurt and Ken O’Sullivan; and two grandchildren.
Alexander Hurt, an actor, said in a phone interview that what he will remember about his father is “the pride he took in the work he did, and the pride we took — all of my siblings and I — in the work he did.”
“He had a pure spirit,” he added, “and that’s what we’re all going to miss the most, and the way he challenged us all.”