As the blockbuster continued its unstoppable ascent in the 1980s, an antidote of sorts could be found in many of the films of the actor William Hurt, who died aged 71 of cancer. He exhibited a cerebral presence and an enviable range with his floppy blond hair, high forehead, and droll, methodical voice. He could seem erudite, threatening, or sophisticated, though he was at his most interesting playing men who were demonstrably less intelligent than he was.
These included a dim-witted but charismatic TV anchor in Broadcast News (1987) and a ferocious gangster hunting his brother in A History of Violence (2005).
He was Oscar-nominated for both those films and his performance as a teacher at a school for deaf students in Children of a Lesser God (1986). He won the best actor award only once for playing an extravagantly camp gay inmate spinning stories in a South American prison in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). His victory left him feeling torn. “When they called my name out, I thought, ‘Oh no, no, no, no, don’t put that target on my chest, don’t do this,’” he said in 2010.
Having established himself in the 70s as a stage actor, Hurt initially turned down all movie offers. This inbuilt reluctance made his film work, when it finally came, feel fascinatingly conflicted, as though he was regarding the medium itself with skepticism. Reviewing his debut film, Altered States (1980), in which he starred as a scientist dabbling in genetic regression experiments, the critic Pauline Kael identified his “cool, quivering untrustworthiness… [he plays] the kind of cunning maniac who’s always watching to see how people react to his mania.”
As he matured, his appearance changed from preppy to scholarly, and he became a regular fixture in the sorts of films he had once provided an alternative. If younger modern audiences knew him at all, it was from his recurring role as a US general in Marvel superhero adventures such as Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), and Black Widow (2021).
He was born in Washington DC to Claire (nee McGill), a business manager at Time, and Alfred Hurt, a diplomat who worked in US foreign assistance. After the couple divorced when William was six (his mother remarried in 1960, becoming Claire McGill Luce), he traveled with his father during his various postings, living in Khartoum and Mogadishu. He was educated at the Middlesex School in Massachusetts, where he first began acting, then at Tufts University in the same state, and the Juilliard School in New York, where he studied drama.
His work with that city’s Circle Repertory Company, a performer from 1977 until 1982, brought him particular acclaim. In 1978, he happened to bump into the producer Howard Gottfried, who was having trouble finding an actor to play the lead in a film that Paddy Chayefsky had written about a scientist obsessed with the origins of life. After intensive meetings with the director Arthur Penn, Hurt eventually agreed to participate in the Altered States.
By the time shooting began, Penn had been replaced by the controversial British filmmaker Ken Russell; relations between Russell and Chayefsky became so volatile that the writer took his name off the film. Nevertheless, Hurt’s intensity gave the movie an emotional grounding during its more outlandish passages.
He quickly became the face of the slow-burning, adult-oriented thriller. He was a lawyer drawn into a passionate affair with a woman (Kathleen Turner) who persuades him to murder her husband in the modern noir Body Heat (1981). He was superb as an orderly who lies about his proximity to murder to ingratiate himself with a TV journalist (Sigourney Weaver) in Eyewitness (1981), released in the UK as The Janitor.
In the sad, cold war mystery Gorky Park, scripted by Dennis Potter, a Russian police inspector. He had a chance to show a lighter side in The Big Chill (also 1983), an ensemble comedy-drama about a group of former college activists (the cast included Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Berenger) who have fallen short of their youthful ideals.
Lawrence Kasdan, who directed Body Heat and The Big Chill, cast Hurt in two other films: The Accidental Tourist (1988), where he was a grieving travel writer reawakened by his relationship with a dog-trainer (Geena Davis), and the slapstick comedy I Love You to Death (1990), in which he and Keanu Reeves played the stoners hired to kill a philandering restaurateur (Kevin Kline).
Hurt also continued working in theatre. He received a Tony nomination for his performance in Mike Nichols’s 1985 David Rabe’s Hurlyburly. He returned to the Circle Repertory Company in 1989 for the first time in seven years to star in Joe Pintauro’s play Beside Herself.
Once that decade was over, Hurt’s luster seemed to fade. He had a small role in Woody Allen’s Alice (1990) and took the lead in Wim Wenders’s sprawling science-fiction odyssey Until the End of the World (1991). He was ideally cast as Mr. Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Still, Nora Ephron’s sentimental fable Michael (also 1996), in which he was a journalist sent to report on a real-life angel (John Travolta), was a misstep.
He looked out of place in the intergalactic romp Lost in Space (1998) but did sympathetic work as a paternal scientist in Steven Spielberg’s AI Artificial Intelligence (2001). He was intriguing and faintly sinister as a pastor visited by the son he disowned in The King. His Oscar nomination for A History of Violence heralded a comeback: he appeared with George Clooney and Matt Damon in the political drama Syriana (also 2005), with Damon again in Robert De Niro’s thriller The Good Shepherd (2006), and as the father of a young man who goes off-grid in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007).
He had a recurring role in 2009 in the legal drama Damages. In the same year, he starred in the television film Endgame as the philosophy professor Willie Esterhuyse, who was instrumental in secret talks to end apartheid in South Africa. “He hits the half notes in a role that could too easily have been conventionally righteous,” said the New York Times. Later films included Ridley Scott’s version of Robin Hood (2010), starring Russell Crowe.
Hurt was honest about his struggles with alcoholism earlier in his life and did not dispute the physical and sexual abuse allegations made against him by Marlee Matlin, his former partner and co-star in Children of a Lesser God, in her 2009 autobiography I’ll Scream Later. “I did and did apologize for any pain I caused,” he said.
He married Mary Beth Supinger (the actor Mary Beth Hurt) in 1971; they divorced in 1982. His second marriage, in 1989, to Heidi Henderson ended in divorce in 1992. However, he denied similar allegations made by an earlier partner, Sandra Jennings.
His four children survive him: Alexander, from his relationship with Jennings; William Jr and Samuel, from his marriage to Henderson; and Jeanne, with the actor Sandrine Bonnaire.