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Hurt began his career in stage productions. From 1977 to 1989, he was a member of the acting company at Circle Repertory Company. He won an Obie Award for his debut appearance there in Corinne Jacker's My Life, and won a 1978 Theatre World Award for his performances in Fifth of July, Ulysses in Traction, and Lulu. In 1979, Hurt played Hamlet under the direction of Marshall W. Mason opposite Lindsay Crouse and Beatrice Straight.
His first major film role was in the science-fiction film Altered States (1980), where his performance as an obsessed scientist gained him wide recognition. His performance opposite newcomer Kathleen Turner in Lawrence Kasdan's neo-noir film Body Heat (1981) elevated Hurt to stardom. Kasdan and he became frequent collaborators: Hurt co-starred in Kasdan's acclaimed comedy-dramas The Big Chill (1983) and The Accidental Tourist (1988), both of which were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and he later had a supporting role in the ensemble comedy I Love You to Death (1990).
Hurt appeared in the thriller Gorky Park (1983) opposite Lee Marvin. He received the Best Male Performance Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Actor for his turn as a prisoner in Hector Babenco's drama Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1985. He received three additional Oscar nominations: Best Actor for Children of a Lesser God (1986) and Broadcast News (1987; he was thus nominated for Best Actor for three consecutive years) and Best Supporting Actor for A History of Violence (2005). Broadcast News, a romantic comedy directed by James L. Brooks, is possibly Hurt's most acclaimed film and is included at the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
After this run of particularly prominent roles in the 1980s, Hurt began to appear more frequently in supporting roles. Some of his notable roles include performances in Dark City (1998), Lost in Space (1998), Sunshine (1999), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Tuck Everlasting (2002), The Village (2004), A History of Violence (2005), and Syriana (2005). Hurt received particular acclaim for his role A History of Violence, where despite less than 10 minutes of screen time, he received an Academy Award nomination.
In June 2007, Marvel Studios announced that Hurt would portray General Thaddeus Ross in the 2008 film The Incredible Hulk alongside Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, and Tim Roth. Hurt reprised his role in four additional Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films: Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), and Black Widow (2021).
Other later film roles included Into the Wild (2007), Mr. Brooks (2007), Vantage Point (2008), The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), and Robin Hood (2010).
Hurt had several roles in television and theatre. Hurt starred in the Sci Fi Channel miniseries adaptation Frank Herbert's Dune in 2000, playing Duke Leto Atreides; it was one of Syfy's highest-rated series ever. He was in the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes, in a piece titled Battleground (known for its complete lack of dialogue). He appeared in the cast of Vanya, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, at the Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon. In 2009, Hurt became a series regular on the FX series Damages playing a corporate whistleblower opposite Glenn Close and Marcia Gay Harden. For his role in the series, he earned a 2009 Primetime Emmy Award nomination in the "Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series" category. In September 2010, Hurt played United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson in the HBO film Too Big to Fail, an adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin's book. He also starred as Captain Ahab in the 2011 television adaptation of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.
In 2018, Hurt was cast as the lead in The Coldest Game (2019), but after he was injured in an off-set accident, he was replaced by Bill Pullman. In one of his final roles, Hurt played opposite F. Murray Abraham in a standalone episode of Mythic Quest in 2021. Hurt had been set to appear in the series Pantheon and films The Fence, Men of Granite, and Edward Enderby before his death in March 2022, though he ultimately only appeared in Pantheon.