A History of William Hurt -- The Oscar nominated actor talks about his film career

By Dave Karger
Updated February 17, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Should you happen to encounter William Hurt one day and it crosses your mind to mention that you enjoyed one of his memorably idiosyncratic performances, here’s a little piece of advice: Keep it to yourself.

”I don’t want to hear compliments,” scoffs the Oscar-winning actor. ”I’m not interested in you paying attention to me on the street.” But what if we adore the moment in Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God when Hurt and Marlee Matlin reunite at a school dance while the Pointer Sisters’ ”Jump (For My Love)” blares in the background? ”You can thank the Pointer Sisters, thank Randa, thank the editor, thank Marlee and me, and thank the guy who put those lights there,” he says. ”That’s the problem with film, that the principle of credit where it’s deserved is not followed.”

Whether he wants it or not, he’s getting some credit now: Almost two decades after he earned three consecutive Best Actor nominations (a feat since matched only by Russell Crowe), Hurt provided one of this year’s biggest nomination-day surprises by scoring his fourth career nomination for his simultaneously terrifying and goofy cameo in A History of Violence. ”The great thing about this nomination is that I’m playing a Philadelphia Mafia guy,” he says. ”And the first one was for a gay window dresser [in Kiss of the Spider Woman]. I am neither! And I’m glad that that point is being made. Because I believe in that point. I am a human being who thinks about and witnesses many different things about us.” Over a four-hour, five-course dinner at the Hotel Bel-Air, the twice-divorced, 55-year-old father of four reminisced about his own history on film.

After years of stage work, Hurt landed his first movie role in this trippy sci-fi drama based on the novel by three-time Oscar winner Paddy Chayefsky (Network). The film gained a cult following and made Hurt a reluctant new star.
I didn’t want to do films. I was a member of a repertory ensemble company; I was making 165 bucks a week. I could pay my rent, and I was happy. [But] Paddy was my hero. When I read the script, I couldn’t stop weeping for a half an hour and I couldn’t stand up for 45 minutes. The shoot was 156 consecutive shooting days. I didn’t want to be famous. I know that sounds pretentious, but I really didn’t want to be, because I knew I would have a hard time of it. I knew it would be very difficult for me to handle the pressure.

The first of four collaborations with writer-director Lawrence Kasdan paired Hurt with Kathleen Turner as lovers who plot a murder in sultry Florida. For many, the film’s labyrinthine plot was overshadowed by its graphic sex scenes.
My publicist at the time said, ”Don’t do this, this is porno.” I said, ”No, this is the best morality play I’ve ever read.” But people get stuck and call it a sexy movie rather than a morality play. I remember one night Larry and I were looking at Kathleen. It was the shot where she’s walking away in that white dress. And I whispered to him, ”She’s like a longbow.”