Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Hurt studied art at the St. Martin's School for Art, but turned to the stage in 1962. He performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is a member of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
His first film was 1962's The Wild and the Willing, but his first major role was as Richard Rich in 1966's A Man for All Seasons. However, it was his portrayal of the outrageous Quentin Crisp in the 1975 TV play, The Naked Civil Servant, that he shot to fame. The following year, Hurt gave a memorable performance as the emperor Caligula in the major BBC drama serial, I, Claudius.