William Hurt, who was 71 years old, died March 13, at the age of 71. His remarkable performances throughout the years will be remembered. The 1985 groundbreaking drama featured a gay South American prisoner. “Kiss of the Spider Woman”(for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). A speech teacher who falls in love with a deaf janitor in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God”(for which he received a nomination for Best Actor). An in-over-his-head anchorman in James L. Brook’s 1987 comedy “Broadcast News”(Another Oscar nom).
“Altered States,” “Body Heat”, “The Big Chill,” “A History of Violence” — the list goes on and on.
But I didn’t meet Hurt on any of those great film sets. Instead, I got to watch him agonize over his acting choices in a picture that won’t make anybody’s best-of lists, least of all his own. That would be 1998’s “Lost in Space,”This big-budget, big screen adaptation of the 1960s CBS sci fi series is a huge-budget production. It’s famous for its plywood rocketships and monsters with visible zipper lines.
Except for me. I’ll remember that movie set forever.
I was writing for Entertainment Weekly at the time. This was a very sweet gig that saw me travel all over the globe to interview the cast and crew of movie productions. However, I was greeted by Shepperton Studios on the soundstage outside London. “Lost in Space”When I was filming, it was obvious that this was not your average set visit.
For one thing, it was a colossal affair, spreading over 11 soundstages filled with giant flying saucers, huge animatronic robots (controlled by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) and bizarre alien worlds teeming with the sort of weird botanical lifeforms you’d normally find crawling around the refrigerator’s crisper bin after a two-week vacation.
New Line was betting the house on the film — $80 million, real money at the time, and the most the now-defunct studio had ever spent on a movie before. Hurt was rumored to have been paid a bundle to star as Professor John Robinson, the space-faring family man who takes the wife and kids for a spin through the cosmos, gets lost, and — typical dad — refuses to ask for directions. Some of his castmates couldn’t have come cheap, either, like Matt LeBlanc, then one of the biggest TV stars on Earth, who played swashbuckling pilot Don West, and Gary Oldman, then on a winning streak playing whacked-out bad guys, as the deliciously sinister Dr. Smith.
But what really caught my attention wasn’t the huge amount of cash sloshing around the sets — I’d seen that before. What was different was the glint of fear and anxiety in everybody’s eyes, especially when they found out I was planning on interviewing Hurt. I was familiar with one actor from previous movie sets visits. He discreetly approached me at one point, whispering in my ear. “Watch out for William,”I went on to describe the three-day depression Hurt had caused in cast and crew by his endless ramblings about God and death. Even actors that I had never met were concerned for my wellbeing. “William can get a little wiggy,” Mimi Rogers, who played John Robinson’s biochemist wife, warned me. “He’s on his own wavelength.”
It was known that Hurt has always been a human being. “difficult” — it’s long been a prerogative of the truly gifted in Hollywood. His intensity was evident even in actors who would rather genuflect at his talent. “Lost in Space”Take a lot of pictures. “There were times when William would come up to me on the set for a little chat,”Oldman said it to me during a break between takes. “Matt would come up to me afterwards and ask, ‘So what’d you guys talk about?’ I’d tell him, ‘I have no idea.’”
Another indicator that I was entering into dangerous territory was my behavior as a unit publicist. This was my handler, who was supposed to lead me around the set during filming and help me prepare for interviews. “Whatever you do, don’t let him see you,”He snorted nervously as he opened the stage door. “Try to find some place inconspicuous to stand. And if Hurt does see you, don’t tell him you’re a journalist. Tell him you’re a friend of the producer. Come to think of it,”He stopped, and then he tiptoed back to the door. “maybe you’d better go in without me.”
And so it went for three days, as I skulked around the Jupiter 2 like a stowaway, peering from behind space boulders, trying to look like a pal of the producer — while Hurt blasted at swarms of interstellar spiders and barked orders at a hulking nine-foot robot.
By the time I finally did get to interview him, I felt a bit like Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard at the end of “Apocalypse Now,” when at long last he sits down with Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Hurt was standing in his trailer and unbuckling the ray gun from his spacesuit when the publicist, sweating heavily, introduced us briefly before quickly disappearing. My tape recorder was whirring as we sat together for more than an hour. After the days of silent warnings and days spent circling the set furtively, I found him to be surprisingly friendly. He was charming, intelligent and considerably more gracious than a lot of stars I’d interviewed with far less of a reputation for being difficult.
He got wiggy, but oh yeah.
“The total scene is consciousness, and consciousness is a relationship… because when you’re involved with a consciousness, which is looking at the world from a certain point of view, you have to engage with that consciousness,”When I asked him about acting in a space film, he replied. “The battle between technology and the family unit. Between artificial intelligence and natural intelligence. The notion of amorality as represented by the Dr. Smith character. These are the things that intrigue us all.” I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but even TV ads were fodder for his epistemological ruminations. “I think everybody who ever made a commercial owes a debt to Sophocles,” he declared. “You know what I’m saying?”
Truthfully, I didn’t have a clue. However, I had a lot of fun.
When I heard Hurt had passed away, I was shocked. “Lost in Space”It was re-watched on HBO Max. I’ll be honest — it kind of creaks. These special effects were once cutting-edge and could easily be replicated on an older iPhone today. But Hurt’s acting, even in a role with about as much depth as that mechanical bubble-headed booby that Dr. Smith keeps ordering around, is impeccable.
It was possible that I found the information he shared with me in his trailer so many years ago completely incomprehensible. But it clearly made sense to me. He did indeed operate on his own wavelength, and that’s undoubtedly what made him so very great at what he did, no matter what part he was playing.