However, unflattering tales emerged of battles with drink, directors and women. it’s been a challenge, let’s put it that way,” admits Hurt.
“It’s a privilege and a responsibility, and I’m not sure I carried the responsibility well at times, which is embarrassing.
“The only thing I really want to do these days is go back to school,” he says.
The Challenger, made in conjunction with the Open University and the Science Channel, dramatises the workings of the Rogers Commission, the committee of experts set up by President Reagan to find out what caused the space shuttle disaster of 1986.
For Hurt, the disaster “was as huge in its own way as 9/11. While Feynman was indisputably a one-off, it’s not too fanciful to see some similarities between him and Hurt.
The handsome, Nordic-looking actor, was one of the most compelling in Hollywood during the Eighties, a commanding presence in films such as Body Heat, The Big Chill, Broadcast News and Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which he won an Oscar).
And I’ve had to look and be disappointed in myself occasionally for how I behaved in some circumstances.” But middle age has changed Hurt; now 62, he lives quietly in Oregon, where his late mother grew up, with two of his four children.
Like many film stars, he has found good, satisfying work in television in recent years, notably as a whistleblower in the complex legal thriller Damages.
“In my eye was just horror, thinking which one of those contrails was [the astronauts].” Challenger was intended to introduce civilian flight into space by taking 37-year-old teacher Christa Mc Auliffe on-board; she perished with the others.Hurt plays Feynman, the late Nobel Prize-winner who demonstrated at a public hearing how the failure of one component, the O-rings on the solid rocket booster, led to the shuttle’s disintegration 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts on-board.“Feynman was one of my heroes when I was young,” says Hurt.An interview with William Hurt is one wild ride, with loops and detours and an uncertain destination.My very first question – whether he wanted to play the American physicist Richard Feynman in this week’s BBC Two film The Challenger because he admired him – makes him start wrestling with semantics. “All you’re ever going to do is a mock-up, an inspiration.