John Hurt was special. He was an icon of suffering and survival - a martyr of stage and screen.

He died all the time, and can't be dead. It sometimes felt like he was rasping his way to immortality. Hurt was always the one who got it worst in films; it hurt, being John Hurt.

Think of him in Alien (1979) as poor Kane, who was the one to have a slimy proboscis shoved down his throat, a hideous organism clamped to his face for days, and another one primed to burst through his abdominal wall in the grossest childbirth scene in film history.

Of course Hurt was the attempted escapee from a hellhole of a Turkish jail in Midnight Express (1978), who winds up sliding into a heroin stupor.

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Naturally he voiced Hazel, the main rabbit, in the unbelievably harrowing Watership Down (1978). Obviously he was Winston Smith, literature's ultimate loser, in the version of 1984 .

And yes, he was a vampire version of the murdered playwright Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), who faked his death back in 1593 but manages to die, hideously, from contaminated blood, centuries later.

Hurt's most celebrated film role is probably John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980). He's utterly astonishing.

Underneath that suffocating, prosthetic head he conveys a beautiful, yearning and grateful soul.

As for the last film, there look to be a half-dozen in post-production. Right now, he's there in Pablo Larrain's sensational Jackie, as an Irish priest trying to guide the widowed Jackie Kennedy through her despair.

We tended to trust John Hurt when he acted his way through dying.

He's caught up - too soon, even at 77 - with a life's project any actor could learn from. And it's such a moving legacy.