For more than 40 years, William Hurt has been one of the most dependable actors in the business, taking on leading roles and supporting roles with equal gusto, and always bringing gravitas aplenty to any film or TV show he appears in.
Hurt never seems to have coveted the Hollywood spotlight, but even so, he’s an Oscar winner and has appeared in some hugely successful films (as well as turned down the lead in one of the biggest blockbusters of all time).
As William Hurt turns 71, here are some facts about the seasoned actor you might not have known.
10. His classmates at Juilliard included Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve
William McChord Hurt was born March 20th 1950 in Washington, D.C., and enjoyed acting from an early age. After briefly studying theology, Hurt decided to pursue a career as an actor, and wound up attending the illustrious Juilliard School of the performing arts in New York City.
9. He performed in 60 stage plays before he made his first movie
While some actors can’t wait to get into the movies, William Hurt was in no hurry. Once he broke through in film with the lead roles in 1980’s Altered States and 1981’s Body Heat, the actor had already worked extensively on the stage.
Hurt recalls, “Nothing came fast for me. I had done 60 plays before I did a movie. I took it slow – I wanted it to be deep, didn’t want it to be superficial so I slowed down instead of speeding up.”
8. He was a Best Actor Oscar nominee three years in a row from 1986 to 1988
- Credit: Oscars.org
Hurt was only six films into his big screen career when he landed his first Oscar nomination, and won. The actor took home the gold for his lead performance in the drama Kiss of the Spider Woman (at the 1986 Academy Awards), and his name would make the Best Actor Oscar shortlist the next two years in a row.
Hurt was also nominated for Children of a Lesser God in 1987, and Broadcast News in 1988. It would be another 18 years before Hurt landed his fourth and to date final Oscar nomination, in the Best Supporting Actor category, for A History of Violence.
7. He was abducted during the production of Kiss of the Spider Woman
Kiss of the Spider Woman was shot in Brazil, and in order to help the film get made, Hurt agreed to work for the minimum wage allowed by the Screen Actors Guild. This would not be the only price Hurt paid on the film, however, as he was briefly a victim of kidnapping during production.
On a day off from film, Hurt and the woman he was dating at the time were stopped in the car by a group of men and held at gunpoint for several hours, before they were ultimately let go.
6. He turned down the role of Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park
William Hurt has always been a bit reluctant to take on lead roles in big mainstream movies. He was Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the role of Dr Alan Grant in 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park – but the actor turned the part down without even reading the script.
After Harrison Ford also passed on the role, Sam Neill was ultimately cast as Grant, and Jurassic Park became the biggest box office hit ever at the time. Still, Hurt would wind up working with Spielberg on 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
5. He’s one of the longest-serving actors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Despite his disinterest in blockbusters, Hurt is part of the most prominent and profitable movie franchise of our time: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The actor took the role of the shady General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, only the second film made as part of the MCU.
Hurt went on to reprise the role of Ross in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War and 2019’s mega-blockbuster Avengers: Endgame; he will shortly make a fourth appearance in the role in Marvel’s delayed 2020 production Black Widow.
4. Ex-girlfriend Marlee Matlin has accused him of abuse
- Credit: Ron Galella/Getty Images
For a time, Hurt dated his Children of a Lesser God co-star Marlee Matlin, who made history at age 21 by being both the youngest ever winner of the Best Actress Oscar and the only deaf recipient of an Oscar in any category, as well as one of the few people to win an Oscar for her first film. However, Matlin states in her 2009 autobiography that Hurt (who was nominated but didn’t win) belittled her for her early success, and was both verbally and physically abusive during their relationship.
Shortly after Matlin’s autobiography was published, Hurt issued a statement declaring, “My own recollection is that we both apologised and both did a great deal to heal our lives. Of course, I did and do apologise for any pain I caused. And I know we have both grown. I wish Marlee and her family nothing but good.”
3. He was cast in an Allman Brothers biopic that was aborted after a crew member was killed
- Credit: Amy Sussman/Invision/AP
In early 2014, Hurt began work on Midnight Rider, a biopic of rock band The Allman Brothers in which the actor had been cast as Greg Allman. However, production on the low-budget film was abruptly halted when camera assistant Sarah Jones was hit by a train and killed, after the crew had been shooting on a railway bridge.
It came to light afterwards that Hurt himself had brought up how obviously unsafe the shooting conditions were, but the actor says “No one backed me up.” Midnight Rider was abandoned, and legal action was taken against the filmmakers.
2. He’s been married twice and has fathered four children
- Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Hurt tied the knot for the first time in 1971, to actress Mary Beth Hurt. They divorced in 1982, and following his relationships with Sandra Jennings and Marlee Matlin, Hurt married second wife Heidi Henderson in 1989; this marriage would also end in divorce in 1992.
Hurt has four children with three women: one with Jennings, two with Henderson, and a fourth with his subsequent partner Sandrine Bonnaire.
1. He struggled with alcohol at the height of his success
Hurt’s discomfort with fame probably had a role to play in the drinking problem he struggled with throughout the 80s. This fuelled his troubled relationships, both with Marlee Matlin and Sandra Jennings, the latter of whom once declared that Hurt was “a violent drunk who was prone to religious hallucinations” (which sounds uncannily like a description of his character in Altered States).
After several stints in rehab, Hurt kicked the habit by the 90s, and reportedly hasn’t touched alcohol since.