John Hurt: "I'm sure you could Oliver, but where's the fun in that?"
(reported by Michael Thornton in The Mail)
Yes, he was a heavy drinker- but unlike his contemporaries- Harris, Burton, Reed, O'Toole- he never let it get in the way of the work. About all of those damaged archangels hangs the faint miasma of unfulfilled promise, but he- equally damaged, equally gifted- amply fulfilled his potential. He was never exactly a film star. The industry used him extensively for character work but rarely asked him to carry a project- which meant he never had a legend to live up to- or, perhaps- more money than he knew what to do with. When he took a starring role it was almost always as an outsider- buried in prosthetics to play John Merrick the Elephant Man or primped and permed into near-unrecognisability as Quentin Crisp. If his employers asked him to don toga and sandals it was to play mad, sadistic Caligula, if they required him to wear leather and carry a gun it was as the weary, burned out War Doctor- the one who doesn't get a number. He wasn't hero material- or at least not Hollywood hero material. Burton may have been too old, too raddled and too heavy to be running around with a machine gun alongside the young Clint Eastwood- but his aura of superstardom cancelled out the implausibility; Hurt would never even have been considered for the part. He was weedy, haunted, more than a little otherworldly- and these qualities were his professional salvation. He wasn't offered the sort of roles that invite an actor to phone it in.
He worked very hard. His last appearance- while still alive- as a wise old father confessor in Jackie- won him great reviews- and he died with three unreleased movies in the can.