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William Hurt, known for 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' 'Broadcast News,' dies at 71

The Oscar-winning actor deftly alternated between leading and supporting parts, from celebrated star turns in the 1980s to recent small roles in Marvel movies.

William Hurt, the Oscar-winning actor best known for his quietly commanding performances in "Body Heat," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Children of a Lesser God" and "Broadcast News," died Sunday.

He was a few days shy of his 72nd birthday.

Hurt's son, Alexander, said in a statement that his father died peacefully at home in Portland, Oregon, from complications from prostate cancer.

In a Hollywood career that spanned more than four decades, Hurt deftly alternated between starring and supporting roles. He was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning in 1986 for his performance as a gay prisoner in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Raul Julia, William Hurt, 1985,
William Hurt and Raul Julia, left, in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."Strand Releasing / Courtesy Everett Collection

In recent years, Hurt introduced himself to a new generation of viewers as U.S. government official Thaddeus Ross in five Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, including the 2021 spy thriller "Black Widow."

Hurt was capable of making a big impression even with a small part. He was particularly memorable as a sinister mob boss in David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" — a roughly 10-minute cameo that earned him an Oscar nod for best supporting actor.

Hurt was born on March 20, 1950, in Washington, D.C. He got his start in stage repertory companies before he made his feature debut in Ken Russell's sci-fi horror film "Altered States," released in 1980.

The decade that followed proved to be particularly fruitful for the tall and subtly authoritative performer. He shot to leading man status with his turn in Lawrence Kasdan's erotic neo-noir thriller "Body Heat" (1981), burning up the screen alongside Kathleen Turner.

He again teamed up with Kasdan two years later in the reunion dramedy "The Big Chill," standing out in a crowded ensemble as an emotionally scarred Vietnam War veteran and drug dealer.

Héctor Babenco's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" brought Hurt some of the most significant accolades and glowing reviews of his career. He played Luis Alberto Molina, who shares a Brazilian prison cell with Raúl Juliá's leftist activist.

Hurt's performance earned him the best actor Oscar as well as equivalent prizes from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and the National Board of Review.

"I am very proud to be an actor," Hurt said in his acceptance speech at the 58th Academy Awards.

He was nominated for an Oscar a year later for his leading role in the romantic drama "Children of a Lesser God," co-starring with Marlee Matlin. (He lost the Oscar to Paul Newman for Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money.")

Hurt received a third consecutive Oscar nomination as the charming and charismatic but intellectually limited TV news anchorman Tom Grunick in James L. Brooks' beloved romantic comedy "Broadcast News."

William Hurt In 'Broadcast News'
William Hurt in "Broadcast News."Archive Photos / Getty Images

Time magazine critic Richard Corliss praised Hurt for "never standing safely outside his character, always allowing Tom to find the humor in his too-rapid success, locating a dimness behind his eyes when Tom is asked a tough question — and for Tom, poor soulless sensation-to-be, all questions are tough ones."

Albert Brooks, who co-starred with Hurt in "Broadcast News," mourned his passing in a tweet Sunday. "He will be greatly missed," Brooks said in part.

Hurt collaborated with Kasdan again for the popular comedy "The Accidental Tourist" (1988). He worked at a steady clip in the 1990s, appearing in Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World" (1991), Alex Proyas' "Dark City" (1998) and various under-the-radar productions.

In that era, Hurt seemed to refashion himself as a character actor who did not necessarily need to dominate the multiplex marquee.

"It's difficult to say whether other factors, like Mr. Hurt's personal life or reports that he is difficult to work with, have contributed to his low screen profile in the 1990s so far," the New York Times reporter Anita Gates wrote in a 1994 profile.

"In person, Mr. Hurt doesn’t seem hostile," Gates went on to write. "He smiles, is polite and even gives an occasional playful answer." (The New Yorker, for its part, called him "notoriously temperamental.")

Hurt's reputation was damaged when his "Children of a Lesser God" co-star and former girlfriend Matlin, in her 2010 memoir, "I'll Scream Later," accused him of physical, sexual and emotional abuse during their two-year relationship.

In a statement at the time the allegations were made public, Hurt said in part: "My own recollection is that we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives."

Matlin’s publicist did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday. In a brief interview with Entertainment Tonight on Sunday, Matlin said: "We’ve lost a really great actor and working with him on set in ‘Children of a Lesser God’ will always be something I remember very fondly. He taught me a great deal as an actor and he was one-of-a-kind."

CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, from left: Marlee Matlin, William Hurt, 1986, © Paramount/courtesy
Marlee Matlin and William Hurt in "Children of a Lesser God."Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection

Hurt was comparatively more high-profile in the 2000s, appearing in Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" (2001), M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" (2004), Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (2005) and Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" (2007).

"Hurt has done a lot of good acting in a lot of intriguing roles," Roger Ebert wrote in September 2005, "but during his brief screen time in 'A History of Violence' he sounds notes we have not heard before."

Hurt occasionally showed up on television, including the second season of the FX series "Damages" and Amazon's "Goliath." He also portrayed the former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in the HBO financial crisis film "Too Big to Fail," which aired in 2011.