William Hurt, Oscar-winning American actor with troubled personal life, dies aged 71

His career ranged from an Oscar win to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

William Hurt is pictured in The Challenger Disaster. Photograph: Patrick Toselli

William Hurt, who has died at the age of 71, was one of the key American actors to emerge in the 1980s.

Winner of an Academy Award for Kiss of the Spiderwoman in 1985, he exuded a smooth patrician elegance that, if the director desired, could be finessed into something more sinister.

Few actors had quite such an impressive run through the Reagan years. He broke through as a “psychopathologist” drugging himself towards apocalyptic visions in Ken Russell’s Altered States from 1980.

A year later, he was cast somewhat against type as the weak-minded lawyer who falls for Kathleen Turner’s femme fatale in Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir Body Heat. The same director then cast him as one of several baby boomers reuniting for a funeral in the much-admired The Big Chill.


Three consecutive Oscar nominations followed: for Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Children of a Lesser God in 1986 and Broadcast News in 1987. He could easily have received a fourth for The Accidental Tourist in 1988.

No actor could maintain that level of success, but Hurt never went away. He received a fourth Oscar nod for David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in 2005. He could also be seen in Stephen Gagham’s Syriana and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

Hurt was born into a comfortable Washington DC home. His mother worked for Time Inc. His father was with the United States Agency for International Development and State Department. He became interested in theatre in school and, after a brief spell studying theology, made for the Julliard School in New York where he studied acting alongside the likes of Christopher Reeve and Robin Williams. He worked busily off-Broadway before the famously eccentric Russell propelled him towards fame in Altered States.

His personal life was not without its traumas. He was married to Mary Beth Hurt from 1971 until 1982. He lived with the deaf actor Marlee Martin, his co-star in Children of a Lesser God, for two years in an apparently troubled relationship.

In 2009, Matlin published a memoir in which she described physical and emotional abuse by Hurt during their relationship: arguments that turned violent, leaving her with bruises and cuts and, on at least one occasion, fearing for her life.

“My own recollection is that we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives,” he said later. “Of course, I did and do apologize for any pain I caused. And I know we have both grown. I wish Marlee and her family nothing but good.” Another marriage to the French actor Sandrine Bonnaire lasted from 1992 until 1997.

In recent years, like so many of his generation, he got sucked into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, playing Thaddeus Ross in a number of the studio’s superhero epics. ‘My competition these days isn’t another actor,” he said in 2015. “It’s a computer-generated image at Pixar.”

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist