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Actor William Hurt, star of 'Broadcast News' and 'Body Heat,' dies at 71

Updated March 14, 2022 at 10:43 AM ET

Actor William Hurt has died. He was 71 years old.

In widely circulated statement given to the AP, the actor's son, Will, wrote, "It is with great sadness that the Hurt family mourns the passing of William Hurt, beloved father and Oscar winning actor, on March 13, 2022, one week before his 72nd birthday. He died peacefully, among family, of natural causes."

Hurt burst into movies seemingly as a fully formed leading man, and he came by his chiseled patrician demeanor honestly. He was born in Washington, D.C., to a father who worked in the U.S. diplomatic corps and a mother who'd become an executive of sorts for Time Inc. His parents, Hurt told WHYY's Fresh Air, met in China.

"She was such a brilliant woman that she managed to work herself up from below the bottom rung of the Time Inc. ladder," Hurt said of his mother. "She was asked ... to go to Shanghai to help Chiang Kai-shek consolidate the retreat to Formosa and establish Nationalist China. She ... met my dad there, who was liaising between the Communists and the Nationalists for the Department of the Interior. And then when State and AID were being established in the early 50's, he became a prominent chief of AID eventually."

Following a cosmopolitan childhood spent all over the world, Hurt attended a private boarding school in Massachusetts. His parents divorced and his mother remarried. Hurt's stepfather was Henry Luce III, the son of her company's founder. Hurt studied theology at Tufts University before transferring to Julliard and making a name for himself in the New York theater scene.

Then Hollywood was quick to embrace William Hurt. From the start of his film career, he worked with top directors such as Ken Russell (in 1980's Altered States) and Lawrence Kasdan (in 1981's Body Heat.) His WASPY intellectual intensity and hulking blond good looks dominated such films of the era as The Big Chill, Gorky Park and Kiss of the Spider Woman, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar in 1986. Playing a queer character imprisoned in Brazil along with a political activist, Hurt said in 2010 he made a point of thinking of his character as transgender, rather than gay.

"I played him as a woman, and it was a big point for me during the rehearsal we had," he told Terry Gross. "There was something in that being's heart that was searching for the truth that really went beyond politics, if you want to call it that.

"He really is a woman. He's just caught in a man's body, like, you know, sometimes I'm an actor caught in a movie star's body," he said.

William Hurt and Heidi Henderson arrive at the Golden Globe Awards in 2012.
Chris Pizzello / AP
William Hurt and Heidi Henderson arrive at the Golden Globe Awards in 2012.

In 1986, Hurt starred in Children of A Lesser God with Marlee Matlin, with whom he became romantically involved when she was 19 and he was 35. In a memoir, she accused Hurt of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Later, Hurt would also be accused of physical abusein a palimony lawsuit brought by dancer Sandra Jennings, the mother of one of his childre. He was twice divorced, from Mary Beth Hurt and from Heidi Henderson.

On screen, Hurt could be genial or chilling, and sometimes both in the same film. He acted in numerous beloved and high-profile films, from Broadcast News to Tuck Everlasting. He played cerebral, conflicted patriarchs in Into the Wild and The Village, and made something of a late-career specialty in portraying professors, in movies such as A.I. Artifical Intelligence, Engdame and Marvel blockbusters such as The Incredible Hulk, where he found a new, younger audience as a military scientist who is the hero's nemesis. But Hurt's longtime fans adored most him for roles such his part in 2005's A History of Violence, directed by David Cronenberg. In 2010, Hurt bristled when Terry Gross referred to the role as "small."

"You can't measure things in terms of time - or at least the quality," he protested. "So-called main characters, what's that? We're all main characters. We're all main characters in our life."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.