A Consummate Actor; 1950 – 2022.
Always beguiling, understated but also explosive… master of drama but also knew his way around the lighter side of life… Oscar winning actor William Hurt has died at age 71. The cause of death was undisclosed by his son Will, who confirmed the loss.
Hurt was a tremendously talented actor who no doubt felt increasingly awash in the shifting global cinematic landscape. He began with British highwire auteur Ken Russell, starring in the director’s unforgettable sensory deprivation freak-out Altered States. He ended up in the MCU in the reoccurring role of Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. It is his work in the 1980s, though, where he truly made his mark. Titles include Body Heat (1981), The Big Chill (1983), Broadcast News (1987), Children of a Lesser God (1986), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985; his Oscar winning role) and The Accidental Tourist (1988).
Hurt wasn’t too proud to take paycheck work, though being a true artist at heart, that showbiz norm had to take its toll. One got the distinct impression that he didn’t get into the movies to become famous, but rather, entirely for the craft. While I can’t say that this was for sure the case, it certainly looked like an accurate assessment based on observing him in person when he was in my hometown of St. Louis filming the reworked Orson Welles orphan screenplay, The Big Brass Ring. In my other, currently former career as an Art Department worker on professional film shoots (spanning from set dresser to decorator to buyer to art director), I had the honor of working on that modestly budgeted film. There, I was a lowly set dresser, generally spending my days putting up and tearing down various political events, as Hurt, the main character, was playing a presidential candidate. Now that everyone of significance in these recollections is now dead (including director George Hickenlooper and screenwriter and adored critic F.X. Feeney), I suppose I might as well share them.
According to a local radio interview with Hickenlooper, Hurt was drawn to The Big Brass Ring in part because he had been playing a lot of parts prior to it that didn’t hold any meaning to him. (1997’s Lost in Space? Highly likely. 1996’s Michael? Could be. 1998’s Dark City? Maybe, though I hope not). From the looks of things on set, however, this humble project didn’t seem to be cheering him up.
It was late summer 1998, and it was officially hotter than blazes. That afternoon, the crew would shoot a political rally under The Arch. We were there to set it up. Having strolled past the open door of the production trailer just after lunch, my colleagues and I overheard Hurt uncorking on a visibly worn Hickenlooper on the quality of the catering. “You are killing my kids!! You are literally killing my kids!!!” While definitely overblown, Hurt had a point about the quality of the food.
Not soon after and still in a huff, Hurt, studying his sides and already in wardrobe (a white businessman’s shirt and nice slacks), plopped down on an elevated manhole near the stacks and stacks of folding chairs that I was about to arrange. He looked over and saw me unfolding and setting, unfolding and setting, unfolding and setting (in direct noon sun, no less), slapped down his sides, came over, and asked me, “How many chairs per row?” Caught off guard, I hesitated before responding, “…It’s ten chairs per row, ten rows back from the platform…” Boom, he was on it. Suddenly, I was setting up folding chairs with William Hurt under The Arch. He kept at it until Hickenlooper arrived and saw him doing that. Then, he left to go do what he did best: true acting!
Another day, also on the riverfront, we were prepping a tourist attraction riverboat called the Becky Thatcher with all manner of patriotic bunting and whatnot. It was after supper and Hurt sat in a director’s chair on the cobblestone shore with a sketchbook, drawing the boat while his very young son (I think it might’ve been Will) ran amok onboard. I, tape and zip ties in hand, was scaling the outer edges of the guardrails, doing my thing. The kid was getting underfoot, but it was okay. It was kind of funny, really. That is, until he made his way into the pilot house and blasted the stacks loudly while I was precariously working right next to them. I darn near went in the muddy drink that time, I tell you. I chuckled to signal I was okay (if a bit rattled). Hurt chuckled then, also. His drawings of the Becky Thatcher were very good.
Finally, there was the all-night shoot inside City Hall. A scene of some fancy soirée. Being that my job entailed being on sets before shooting and after shooting, I typically wasn’t around for a lot of actual filming. When cameras were rolling, we set dressers were usually elsewhere dealing with a different location. But sometimes we had to stay, and this was one of those times. It was not an earthshaking scene by any means, though the A.D.s had their hands full, what with all the extras in milling around in formal attire. I sat there and watched Hurt, who was in a tux and a wine glass in hand, do take after take of flirting with Irène Jacob. The dialogue was nothing special, but holy cow, Hurt made them resonate. Watching this, I realized just how good this guy is. While visibly doing very little, he imbued the moment with minor mystery, curiosity, and just a hint of devilishness. It was like nothing, but it was everything. I was already a fan of his work in Altered States, Body Heat, and Dark City. But now I had a new understanding as to why. This is one of those actors who, as they used to say, could read the phone book to rapturous applause.
“If the opportunity arises, should I tell him?”, I openly contemplated one morning as we drove to whatever location we were about to work on. “Should I tell him how much I love Altered States?” It was a tough call, and even though our leadman James Harrison thought that if he was in the right mood, the compliment would probably be well received, I opted not to bother. It was early in my own career, before I’d locked in my smart policy of not engaging actors on shoots at all unless they approach me. William Hurt, of course, did just that when he decided to set up folding chairs. He wasn’t the best set dresser, but he truly was a world class actor… and truly an artist.