William Hurt Left Us Some Fine Acting. Oh, and a Warning About Technology
Among the many things William Hurt intellectualized was the craft of acting.
That’s okay. He was still really good at it.
Hurt, who died Sunday from complications of prostate cancer at the age of 71, was instantly recognizable on screen, an impressive feat for someone who played a rainbow of characters with widely different prominence.
He won his Oscar as a troubled gay man in Kiss of the Spider Woman and he was known to a generation that never heard of Spider Woman as Thaddeus Ross, the military and political leader in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who created The Hulk and hunted Black Widow.
He played a sex-blinded patsy to Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, a shallow talking head in Broadcast News and a cynical wounded Vietnam veteran in The Big Chill. As he got older he segued into more roles where he played slick and sleazy, including the TV series Goliath.
His signature in almost all of these and other roles was that at some point there would be scenes where he seemed to be measuring and assessing his words before allowing them to be spoken.
On some level, he may have been. As an actor whose college career at Tufts began with the study of theology, he was a lover of words and a guardian of their impact.
“I see my profession as the art of the concept,” he said in 2015, in a tone that both recognized and brushed aside the fact that some fans, upon hearing a declaration like that, would grown and mutter, “Shut up and act.”
He didn’t and he did.
Specifically in that case, he was discussing one of his lower-profile role: Dr. George Millican in the AMC drama Humans.
George Millican was a scientist who had helped develop an advanced generation of robots called Synths. Synths were programmed with artificial intelligence capacity so they could function as surrogate humans, which is to say they could not only vacuum the living room, but provide caretaking and companionship.
George, whose memory and other faculties were fading as he grew older, had a Synth named Odi he used as a backup for what he no longer remembered or could no longer implement.
George had developed a paternal fondness for Odi, and Hurt described their relationship as appropriate and valuable, particularly as Odi increasingly became the repository for George’s memories of his late wife.
But other Synths had more problematic situations, and Hurt said that was one of the reasons he was drawn to the relatively modest role. When robots employ algorithms to help guide their actions, he noted, they now in a sense have minds of their own — a level that’s not science fiction, but is already employed by hundreds of millions of real-life people with the likes of Siri or Alexa.
“What could happen when robots analyze information and make decisions is what people are afraid of,” Hurt said, “and to some extent that fear is justified.
“What’s not justified is panic. But we do need to start creating software to make that analysis and those decisions ethical. The ratio of people who are creating software to just make robots work faster versus the number who are creating software to make their analysis more ethical is thousands and thousands to maybe six. That’s what we should be focusing on, and I don’t understand why we’re not.”
Humans, he suggested, could remind viewers this is indeed a dilemma.
“It breaks things down into everyday points that people can understand,” he said, noting one family in the show where an attractive female-designed Synth becomes an object of intense affection from the family’s teenage son.
“The transfer of a 16-year-old’s lust to a mechanical object designed to look beautiful,” he said, raises questions that need attention.
Another concept he admired in Humans, he said, was the fact that even though George Millican is in his 60s or 70s, he still has, in the words of the Traveling Wilburys, something to say.
“George looks like an old fuddy-duddy,” said Hurt. “He’s not. He’s kind of a perfect contrast between how impotent a person can look and how potent he can be.
“When you’re 45 or 55 or 65, you can apply experience We sometimes forget that. We extend people’s lives, but sometimes it seems like it’s only so they can suffer chronic disease. We don’t use their value.”
Hurt used his value to the end. He was signed up for three more films at the time of his death.
He had a ragged personal life, replete at times with wives, partners and drugs. He didn’t deny that he could be high maintenance on a shooting set.
A short conversation made it clear he was intense as well as smart, and that combination doesn’t always add up to tranquility.
It did add up to some serious and impressive acting.