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Hurt Hatfild (1918-98)
14 Jan 1999 :
Hurt Hatfield, the stage and screen actor died in his adopted county, Cork, on Christmas Day. John Flynn remembers a man who he greatly admired and unfortunately knew too briefly .

Hurd Hatfield (1918-98)

In late July 1995, while living at home in west Waterford, I saw for the first time on TV Albert Lewin's 1945 MGM version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I liked it a lot. Having heard Dave Fanning say on RTE's Movie Show that its star Hurd Hatfield lived in the Cork town of Fermoy, I phoned an aunt who lives there to ask about him. She said he actually lived in Rathcormac, a nearby village in east Cork. Prompted by the fact that no more than forty miles separated us, I wrote a fan letter to Mr. Hatfield, saying things like that in the film the lighting and his spare movements conveyed passive menace, a spectral effect.

On Saturday 5th August, at 6.45 p.m., I answered a knock at the front door of my parents' house. A thin old American in a Bogart hat stood there. Having asked was I John Flynn he said:

    "Do you know who I am?"

Hurd Hatfield, I replied, and shook his hand. He was accompanied by an American playwright called Maggie Williams who was waiting in the car and whose Son of Whistler's Mother he had toured internationally. They came in for tea and stayed for an hour. He had liked the letter. It was weird to see him sitting there, like a black-and-white ghost come to life, fifty years on. He asked if I would visit him the following Monday.

I got there at four on a hot afternoon. His home was Ballinterry House, some of it dating, he said, from 1725. Its shadowy interior contained varied treasures such as a Toulouse-Lautrec drawing and a Hogarth, plus assorted Hollywood memorabilia including artwork from the Dorian film and personal photos used to poignant effect when he played the grandfather to Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton and Sissy Spacek in Bruce Beresford's Crimes of the Heart in 1986.

Having played the Tsar under Sidney Lumet's direction in Anastasia on Broadway, it was unsurprising to see in the house of couple of photos of the stage legend Katharine Cornell. The contrast between the pictures seemed strangely to fit the Dorian context. There was a large black-and-white portrait which conveyed her exquisite beauty as a young woman and also a group shot taken in the 1950s in which she was old, fat and plastered in make-up. At least Hurd had still been instantly recognizable.

We had dinner in the open air in the back garden, with the tall trees filtering the evening sun. Maggie said the meal's recipe had been stolen from Adlai Stevenson's cook in a midnight kitchen raid decades before. From the start of this visit I had warmed to the old gentleman and lady as we talked about our contrasting experiences. Being the young man I'd been given a few bottles of beer before dinner, which I'd drunk at a decorous pace. Hurd said that as a young man he'd been very rarely drunk but on one of those few occasions he'd managed to turn on Greta Garbo and insult her.

His previous visitors had been Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He had a tape of The Left-Handed Gun, the Billy the Kid film scripted by Gore Vidal which he'd made with Newman in 1958. It was directed by Arthur Penn, who incidentally is on record as describing Hurd as America's least-known great actor, but we could not get the antiquated video recorder open, not to mind going.

Later that August I returned for another visit, when I made myself useful by getting on a ladder to prize open windows that had been painted shut by lazy tradesmen. I even helped him with his shopping. Driving into Cork city he would nonchalantly negotiate busy lanes and roundabouts despite being near eighty. I'm a New York driver, he said, by way of explanation.

He would tell anecdotes and give impressions of the old days. On being in Jean Renoir's Diary of a Chambermaid with Paulette Goddard in 1946, he said she was "like a shopgirl". Around then he had noticed a young blonde on the lot smiling at him continually and giving him the eye. Upon asking a stagehand who she was, he was given this answer.

    "That's Lana Turner."

When I looked at him he elaborated, saying that he used to hang out with the crowd who did the musicals because they were the more sophisticated folk in Hollywood.

Hurd said the only time he was "rich" was in 1961, when he played Pontius Pilate in the biblical epic King of Kings, about which he could only repeat its trade nickname a little bit mournfully: I Was a Teenage Jesus. He was also contracted that year to play a sizeable role in El Cid. only for Italian investors to come on board and insist on Raf Vallone for the part, which meant he got demoted to a nobody despatched with a sword early on. His consolation was his original salary for the six months' duration of filming. He said he had spent a lot of the money buying artworks and antiques in Spain.

In the autumn of 1995 he and Maggie headed off to Eastern Europe and I never saw him again. I moved to Dublin in 1996 but the last time I contacted him was in February of that year, after he drove his car over a thirty-foot cliff in Cloyne, having taken a wrong turn in the dark. He and his dog Igloo emerged largely unscathed. I wrote and asked had he been auditioning for James Bond. He recuperated at a friend's house, for which I did not have the number, and I never got a reply to my letter, which was no surprise, given that at the beginning he had said he never wrote to anybody but preferred to call in person, if it felt warranted.

John Flynn 15/1/99



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