Hurt was born on 22 January 1940 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, the son of Phyllis (née Massey; 1907–1975), an engineer and one-time actress, and Arnold Herbert Hurt (1904–1999), a mathematician who became a Church of England clergyman and served as vicar of Shirebrook, Derbyshire.
Hurt's father was also Vicar of St John's parish in Sunderland, County Durham. In 1937, he moved his family to Derbyshire, where he became Perpetual Curate of Holy Trinity Church. When Hurt was five, his father became the vicar of St Stephen's Church in Woodville, Derbyshire, and remained there until 1952.
Hurt had a strict upbringing; the family lived opposite a cinema, but he was not allowed to see films there. He was also not permitted to mix with local children because his parents saw them as "too common".
At the age of eight, Hurt was sent to the Anglican St Michael's Preparatory School in Otford, Kent, where he eventually developed his passion for acting. He decided he wanted to become an actor, and his first role was that of a girl in a school production of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck. He has stated that while he was a pupil at the school, he was abused by Donald Cormack (now deceased), then Senior Master of the school and later Headmaster until his retirement in 1981. Hurt said that Cormack would remove his two false front teeth and put his tongue in the boys' mouths, and would rub their faces with his stubble, and that the experience affected him hugely.
Hurt's father moved to St Aidan's Church in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, and Hurt (then aged 12) became a boarder at Lincoln School (then a grammar school) in Lincoln, because he had failed the entrance examination for admission to his brother's school. Hurt often went with his mother to Cleethorpes repertory theatre, but his parents disliked his acting ambitions and encouraged him to become an art teacher instead. His headmaster, Mr Franklin, laughed when Hurt told him he wanted to be an actor, telling him that he "wouldn't stand a chance in the profession".
Aged 17, Hurt enrolled in Grimsby Art School (now the East Coast School of Art and Design), where he studied art. In 1959, he won a scholarship allowing him to study for an Art Teacher's Diploma (ATD) at Saint Martin's School of Art in London. Despite the scholarship, paying his tuition fees and living expenses was difficult, so he persuaded some of his friends to pose naked and sold the portraits. In 1960, he won a scholarship to RADA, where he trained for two years.
Hurt's first film was The Wild and the Willing (1962), but his first major role was as Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons (1966). He played Timothy Evans, who was hanged for murders committed by his landlord John Christie, in 10 Rillington Place (1971), earning him his first BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His portrayal of Quentin Crisp in the TV play The Naked Civil Servant (1975) gave him prominence and earned him the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor.
The following year, Hurt won further acclaim for his bravura performance as the Roman emperor Caligula in the BBC drama serial, I, Claudius. In a much later documentary about the series, I Claudius: A Television Epic (2002), Hurt revealed that he had originally declined the role when it was first offered to him, but that series director Herbert Wise had invited him to a special pre-production party, hoping Hurt would change his mind, and that he was so impressed by meeting the rest of the cast and crew that he reversed his decision and took the role.
Hurt appeared in the 1978 Midnight Express, for which he won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (the latter of which he lost to Christopher Walken for his performance in The Deer Hunter). Around the same time, he lent his voice to Ralph Bakshi's animated film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, playing the role of Aragorn. Hurt voiced Hazel, the heroic rabbit leader of his warren in the film adaptation of Watership Down (both 1978) and later played the major villain, General Woundwort, in the animated television series version. As the deformed John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980), he won another BAFTA and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actor.
His other roles in the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s included Kane, the first victim of the title creature in the film Alien (1979, a role which he reprised as a parody in Spaceballs); would-be art school radical Scrawdyke in Little Malcolm (1974); and also had a starring role in Sam Peckinpah's critically panned but moderately successful final film, The Osterman Weekend (1983). Also in this period, he starred as the Fool opposite Laurence Olivier's King in King Lear (1983). Hurt also appeared as Raskolnikov in a BBC television adaptation of Crime and Punishment (1979).
Hurt voiced Snitter in The Plague Dogs, played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and starred in Disney's The Black Cauldron (1985), voicing the film's main antagonist, the Horned King. Hurt provided the voiceover for AIDS: Iceberg/Tombstone, a 1986 public information film warning of the dangers of AIDS, and played the title role, the on-screen narrator, in Jim Henson's television series The StoryTeller (1988). He had a supporting role as "Bird" O'Donnell in Jim Sheridan's film The Field (1990), which garnered him another BAFTA nomination and was cast as the reclusive tycoon S.R. Hadden in Contact (1997). During this time, Hurt provided narration on the British musical group Art of Noise's concept album The Seduction of Claude Debussy and narrated a four-part TV series The Universe (1999).
In the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), he played Mr Ollivander, the wand-maker. He returned for the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, though his scenes in that film were cut. He also returned for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Part 2. In the 2005 film V for Vendetta, he played the role of Adam Sutler, leader of the Norsefire fascist dictatorship and in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) he appeared as Harold Oxley.
He voiced the Great Dragon Kilgharrah, who aids the young warlock Merlin as he protects the future king Arthur, in the BBC television series Merlin (also 2008). In 2011, he narrated the BBC documentary, Planet Dinosaur, the first dinosaur-centred documentary completely shown through CGI.
More than thirty years after The Naked Civil Servant, Hurt reprised the role of Quentin Crisp in the 2009 film An Englishman in New York. This television film depicts Crisp's later years in New York. He returned to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, playing the on-screen Big Brother for the Paper Zoo Theatre Company's stage adaptation of the novel in June 2009. The theatre production premiered at the National Media Museum, in Bradford and toured during 2010. Hurt said, "I think Paper Zoo thought it would be quite ironic to have the person who played Winston having risen in the party. From the Chestnut Tree Cafe, he's managed to get his wits together again, now understanding that 2 and 2 make 5, and becomes Big Brother. So it tickled my fancy, and of course I looked up Paper Zoo, and they seem to me to be the sort of company that's essential in the country as we know it, and doing a lot of really good stuff."
At the 65th British Academy Film Awards Hurt won the award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema. In 2013, Hurt appeared in Doctor Who as a 'forgotten' incarnation of the Doctor, known as the War Doctor. His character first appears at the conclusion of the series seven finale "The Name of the Doctor"; his origins are given in the mini-episode "The Night of the Doctor"; he regenerates in the 50th anniversary episode "The Day of the Doctor", He reprised the role on audio for Big Finish Productions in a series of sets starting from December 2015.
During Terry Gilliam's eighth attempt at making his infamous development hell project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Hurt was set to star as Don Quixote alongside Adam Driver. However, his declining health and eventual death led to project to be cancelled yet again; he was eventually replaced by Jonathan Pryce.
Hurt was due to appear alongside Ben Kingsley in a film entitled Broken Dream, to be directed by Neil Jordan. In 2015, Hurt provided the voice of main antagonist Sailor John in the Thomas & Friends film Sodor's Legend of the Lost Treasure along with Eddie Redmayne (Ryan) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Skiff). At the time of his death he had completed filming two yet-to-be-released films: That Good Night, in which he played a terminally ill writer. Hurt was initially cast as former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in Darkest Hour. However, Hurt was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, and was unable to attend the read-throughs. After Hurt's death, Actor Ronald Pickup assumed the role of Chamberlain instead.
Hurt had an older brother, Br. Anselm (born Michael), a Roman Catholic convert who became a monk and writer at Glenstal Abbey; Hurt had contributed to his brother's books. Hurt also had an adopted sister, Monica. In 1962, Hurt's father left his parish in Cleethorpes to become headmaster of St. Michael's College in the Central American country of British Honduras. Hurt's mother died in 1975, and his father died in 1999 at the age of 95.
In 1962, Hurt married actress Annette Robertson. The marriage ended in 1964. In 1967, he began his longest relationship, with French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, sister of fashion photographer Jean-Claude Volpeliere-Pierrot. The couple had planned to get married after 15 years together; however, on 26 January 1983 Hurt and Volpeliere-Pierrot went riding early in the morning near their house in Ascott-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire; Volpeliere-Pierrot was thrown off her horse and injured. She went into a coma and died later that day.
In September 1984, Hurt married his old friend, American actress Donna Peacock, at a local Register Office. The couple moved to Kenya but divorced in January 1990.
On 24 January 1990, Hurt married American production assistant Joan Dalton, whom he had met while filming Scandal. With her, he had two sons: Alexander "Sasha" John Vincent Hurt (born 6 February 1990) and Nicholas "Nick" Hurt (born 5 February 1993). This marriage ended in 1996 and was followed by a seven-year relationship with Dublin-born presenter and writer Sarah Owens. The couple moved to County Wicklow, where they settled close to their friends, director John Boorman and Claddagh Records founder and Guinness heir Garech Browne. In July 2002, the couple separated. In March 2005, Hurt married his fourth wife, advertising film producer Anwen Rees-Meyers. He gave up smoking and drinking after his fourth marriage. He lived in Cromer, Norfolk.
In 2007, Hurt took part in the BBC genealogical television series Who Do You Think You Are?, which investigated part of his family history. Prior to participating in the programme, Hurt had harboured a love of Ireland and was enamoured of a "deeply beguiling" family legend that suggested his great-grandmother Emma Stafford had been the illegitimate daughter of a Marquess of Sligo. The genealogical evidence uncovered seemed to contradict the family legend, rendering the suggestion doubtful. The search revealed that his great-grandmother had previously lived in Grimsby, at a location within a mile of the art college at which Hurt had been a student.
On 16 June 2015, Hurt publicly announced that he had been diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer. He confirmed that he would continue to work while undergoing treatment and said that both he and his medical team were "more than optimistic about a satisfactory outcome". Following treatment, Hurt stated that his cancer was in remission on 12 October 2015. Hurt died at his home in Cromer, Norfolk, on 25 January 2017, three days after his 77th birthday. His death was announced two days later.
In 2004, Hurt was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). He was knighted in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to drama. On 17 July 2015, he attended an investiture ceremony at Windsor Castle where he received the accolade from Queen Elizabeth II.
In 2012, Hurt was among the British cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires.
In 2014, Hurt received the Will Award, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, along with Stacy Keach and Dame Diana Rigg. The John Hurt Centre opened in September 2016 and is an education and exhibition space located at Cinema City, Norwich.
Since 2003, Hurt was a patron of the Proteus Syndrome Foundation, both in the United Kingdom and in the US. Proteus syndrome is the condition that Joseph Merrick, whom Hurt played (renamed as John Merrick) in The Elephant Man, is thought to have suffered from, although Merrick's exact condition is still not known with certainty.
Since 2006, Hurt had been a patron of Project Harar, a UK-based charity working in Ethiopia for children with facial disfigurements. Hurt was announced as patron of Norwich Cinema City in March 2013.
In January 2002, Hurt received an honorary degree from the University of Derby. In January 2006 he received an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Hull. In 2012 he was appointed the first chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts.
On 23 January 2013, he was made an Honorary Doctor of Arts by the University of Lincoln, at Lincoln Cathedral.
Hurt's career spanned seven decades. He appeared in more than 129 films, and had dozens more television roles. The character he portrayed died in 40 of those productions (the exact count ranges from 39 to 42), commonly held to be the highest such mark for an actor in mainstream tv/film.