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Remembering William Hurt's most memorable genre roles: From the MCU to 'Dark City'

Remembering the legendary actor's contributions to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

By Matthew Jackson
William Hurt Thunderbolt Ross Captain America: Civil War SCREENGRAB

Over the weekend, Oscar-winning actor William Hurt passed away at the age of 71, leaving film fans to reflect on a career that included more than four decades of screen acting across dozens of film and television appearances.

Though he was perhaps best known for his work in films like Kiss of the Spider Woman (which earned him an Oscar) and Broadcast News (still one of the greatest films of the 1980s), Hurt's endless versatility also placed him in some memorable pieces of genre cinema over the course of his long and varies career.

He began his film acting work in science fiction cinema in the 1980s, and for younger viewers became best known for his work in the superhero films of Marvel Studios, bookending a fascinating career with work in the realms of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. So, let's take a look back at some of Hurt's most memorable genre roles. 

1. Altered States (1980)

Hurt's feature film debut earned him a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year, and a place in cult cinema history. As Edward Jessup, a driven young scientist convinced he can access other states of consciousness through the right combination of chemical enhancement and sensory deprivation, Hurt's intensity is on full display in this early role. Even when director Ken Russell isn't throwing every trick in the book at the film's more hallucinatory sequences, Hurt's work is magnetic. 

2. Until the End of the World (1991)

One of those films that's almost as famous for the story of how it was made as for the story within the film itself, Until the End of the World is Wim Wenders' legendary effort to make the ultimate road movie, and Hurt is one of the most compelling things about it. As a man on the run who invented a camera that allows blind people to see and can even record memories, he throws film noir influence and soulful subtlety into the mix of this apocalyptic sci-fi epic. If you have the time, watch the longest cut possible. 

3. Dark City (1998)

Director Alex Proyas packed his legendary neo-noir classic with fascinating actors, and Hurt is of course no exception. As a police inspector in the title city who comes around to the idea that something might be very wrong with his surroundings, Hurt gives a memorable supporting performance in a film full of unforgettable imagery, standing out in a film dominated by Proyas' visual style. 

4. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Steven Spielberg's A.I. features Hurt as Professor Allen Hobby, the creator of David (Haley Joel Osment), the artificial child at the center of the film. As he often did with supporting roles, he makes quite a meal out of a very limited amount of screen time. The scene in which Hobby and David reunite and discuss David's ability to have dreams and desires is packed with emotional layers, demonstrating Hurt's gift for infusing power into a relatively small amount of screen time. 

5. The Village (2004)

For the character of Edward Walker in The Village, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan needed an actor who could convey both benevolence and deceit, a compelling voice in the title community who would also eventually be revealed as someone who'd kept an incredible secret from everyone he cared about. He found that in Hurt, whose often understated performance helps sell the film's still-palpable atmosphere.

6. A History of Violence (2005)

Though it's more crime film than outright horror, there's an undercurrent of dread running through David Cronenberg's A History of Violence that places it among his most visceral works, and Hurt is a big part of that. As Philadelphia crime boss Richie Cusack, he once again makes a meal out of a very small amount of screen time, giving a performance that's at once subtle and frightening. 

7. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-2021)

Like many prominent character actors, Hurt caught the eye of a whole new generation of fans when he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe to play Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, a prominent figure in the American defense and intelligence community who's eventually a key player in the exploits of the Avengers. Though his screentime was limited in each installment, Hurt ultimately appeared in five different MCU productions, beginning with The Incredible Hulk, and each time he put in memorable work, lending gravitas and authority to a growing superhero world.