It is a depressing statement on the banality of the film industry that the death of actor William Hurt, at the age of seventy-one, was marked by at least one obituary stating, “Avengers star dies.”

Hurt, who appeared in several Marvel films as the military character Thaddeus Ross in his latter-day career, did indeed appear in the mega-grossing Avengers films Infinity War and Endgame, and I very much hope that he received some tiny portion of the films’ enormous box office receipts in recognition of his appearance.

But to describe Hurt’s life and work as defined by...

It is a depressing statement on the banality of the film industry that the death of actor William Hurt, at the age of seventy-one, was marked by at least one obituary stating, “Avengers star dies.”

Hurt, who appeared in several Marvel films as the military character Thaddeus Ross in his latter-day career, did indeed appear in the mega-grossing Avengers films Infinity War and Endgame, and I very much hope that he received some tiny portion of the films’ enormous box office receipts in recognition of his appearance.

But to describe Hurt’s life and work as defined by his Marvel roles reminded me of the great Alan Bennett line about his sexuality: “It’s like asking a man who has just crossed the Sahara whether he would prefer Perrier or Evian water.”

Hurt’s greatest period came in the Eighties, after he left a promising stage career to take a role in Ken Russell’s mad, distinctive, science-fiction horror film Altered States. The actor’s Juilliard-trained charisma and presence lent both integrity and believability to his parapsychologist character, who finds himself drawn into ever-darker experiments in sensory deprivation. Its success led him to take on fascinatingly varied and bold leading roles, which encompassed everything from a dim-witted attorney in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and a Moscow detective in Gorky Park, to an Oscar-winning performance as a homosexual double agent in Kiss of the Spider Woman, and a deceptively cheery appearance as a photogenic but limited news anchor in Broadcast News. While most of his peers were miserably touting their wares in increasingly xenophobic action films, Hurt seemed to be the cerebral yet charismatic alternative.

Personal matters went awry in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Although he never stopped working, allegations of physical assault towards his former partner Marlee Matlin and a problem with alcohol meant that the roles became less impressive. He was a distracted Mr. Rochester in Zeffirelli’s Jane Eyre, indifferent in support in Nora Ephron’s Michael and, fittingly, lost in the would-be blockbuster Lost in Space (as the patriarch of the Robinson family). His most interesting role, as a detective in Alex Proyas’s Dark City, was only distinctive because of the intrinsic weirdness of the film, rather than the quality of the part.

Yet oddly enough, Hurt’s career revived after he turned fifty, with any idea that he was still a leading man long since disappeared.

He was excellent in a cameo as a visionary inventor in Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, strong in small roles in intelligent mainstream pictures like Changing Lanes and The Village, and mesmerizing in David Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence, in which he played the mobster brother of Viggo Mortensen’s hitman-turned-diner owner. Although he was in the film for barely ten minutes, Hurt brought a playful mischievousness to a character who a lesser actor might have made an unmemorable Mr. Big, and was deservedly nominated for another Oscar. He should have won.

Hurt worked solidly in film for the rest of his life, usually cast in roles that required an intelligent-seeming character actor, and if he was barely allowed to show off his comic skills, he was at least consistently employed.

Some of the more interesting roles he took on were on television, and included Ahab in Moby Dick, Victor Frankenstein’s mentor Professor Waldman, and the real-life spy and traitor Robert Hanssen. His recent performance as the mysterious Donald Cooperman in the Billy Bob Thornton legal series Goliath demonstrated that, despite a diagnosis of terminal cancer in 2018, he was able to maintain the consistency of excellence that had lasted throughout his forty-odd years.

Hurt was seldom anyone’s all-time favorite actor, and it is tempting to wonder what would have happened if his personal issues had not partially derailed what was, for around a decade, one of the most intriguing careers in modern Hollywood. But he was a hugely talented, often fascinating performer whose commendable refusal to promote films that he was not proud of — on the grounds that he was unable to lie publicly — demonstrated an integrity that most of his peers lacked.

His best performances will be remembered as long as cinema continues to exist — even if that category does not include General Thaddeus Ross.