John Hurt became famous with American audiences (he already was in his native Britain) after one of the most memorable (and also terrifying and disgusting) scenes in movie history in Alien, which led to his Oscar-nominated turn as The Elephant Man. Both of these are great performances, and get to what Hurt is always able to convey—an empathy, a vulnerability—whether hidden under tons of rubber make-up or giving virtual birth to an alien. There is always a double-edge to Hurt's roles, a mixture of fragility and steel, sometimes quite lethal.
One of my favorite Hurt movies is Cry of the Penguins, a little-known film about a smart-aleck skirt chaser who ends up studying penguins in the Antarctic in order to impress a girl. He ends up changed, and the filming of the penguins in their natural habitat is right up there with recent crowd favorite March of the Penguins. I also remember Hurt in a PBS miniseries Crime and Punishment, where he played the despicable and pathetic Raskolnikov. It was truly a love/hate to watch the actor as Dostoyevsky's anti-hero. One of my all-time favorites of Hurt's and one of the hippest gangster movies ever, is The Hit, which also stars Terence Stamp and Tim Roth.
Happily for all, as evidenced by his resume on imdb, Hurt works constantly. It would be easy and delightful to construct a John Hurt-athon. A movie buff could keep busily entertained for weeks with such movies as Scandal, Dead Man, The Osterman Weekend, V for Vendetta, Love and Death on Long Island, The Field, White Mischief ...
If a lighter mood is called for, one could watch him in Spaceballs (spoofing his role in Alien), or as the Storyteller in Jim Henson's The Storyteller. That series is one of the best things done by Henson & Co. It's a wonderful mix of animation and puppetry and great acting. Besides Hurt, Brenda Blethyn, Miranda Richardson, Jonathan Pryce, Jane Horrocks and Sean Bean also appear. And of course, even the youngest in the house recognize Hurt these days as Mr Ollivander, Harry Potter's inimitable purveyor of wands and owner of "Ollivander's, Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C."Even in that small role Hurt is able to convey kindly and creepy, with the slightest inflection. He just makes me smile to watch him, whether his character is being good or very, very bad.
The only downside to Hurt's extensive list of roles is that it's hard to know where to start ... Do I dig out the Potter dvds? The Storyteller? I, Claudius? A fabulous problem.