Hauer’s career began in 1969 with the title role in the Dutch television series Floris and surged with his leading role in Turkish Delight (1973), which in 1999 was named the Best Dutch Film of the Century. After gaining international recognition with Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980), he moved into American films such as Nighthawks (1981) and Blade Runner (1982), starring in the latter as self-aware android Roy Batty. His performance in Blade Runner led to roles in The Osterman Weekend (1983), Ladyhawke (1985), The Hitcher (1986), The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), and Blind Fury (1989), among other films.
From the 1990s on, Hauer moved into low-budget films, and supporting roles in major films such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Batman Begins (2005), Sin City (2005) and The Rite (2011). Hauer also became well known for his work in commercials. Towards the end of his career, he made a return to Dutch cinema, and won the 2012 Rembrandt Award for Best Actor in recognition of his lead role in The Heineken Kidnapping (2011).
Hauer supported environmentalist causes and was a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He also founded the Rutger Hauer Starfish Association, an AIDS awareness organization. He was made a knight in the Order of the Netherlands Lion in 2013.