RIP Hugh Keays-Byrne, star de Mad Max et Fury Road

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Illustration from the article titled RIP Hugh Keays-Byrne, iMad Max / i Villain Extraordinary

Photo: Frank Trapper / Corbis via Getty Images

Hugh Keays-Byrne, best known for his work on Australian television, and as the villain of two Mad Max films created 36 years apart, is dead. Classically trained Shakespearean actor and member of Australian television, Keays-Byrne will nevertheless go down in the history of mainstream cinema for two roles: Toecutter, the sadistic gang leader who completes the transformation of Max Rockatansky into Mad Max in George Miller’s 1979 film of the same name and The Immortan Joe, the messianic symbol of literally toxic masculinity that dominates the character’s most recent (and celebrated) release, 2015 Road of fury. Through Variety, Keays-Byrne passed away yesterday at the age of 73. No cause of death has been revealed.

Born in India under British rule, Keays-Byrne and his family returned to the UK as a child. There he gravitated onto the stage, eventually joining the Royal Shakespeare Company for a series of roles that led him to a tour of Australia in 1973 – and there he stayed. Possessing considerable stage presence, a booming voice, and a knack for playing the charismatic deranged, Keays-Byrne established himself as a part of the independent Australian film scene in the 1970s, playing a major role in the image of budget biker from Sandy Harbutt. Calculation in 1979. Although little known to the general public these days, Keays-Byrne’s turn as a member of the Toad gang wowed at least one onlooker: aspiring director George Miller, who ended up throwing three members of the cast of the film, Keays-Byrne included, in his first film: 1979’s Mad Max.

As Toecutter, Keays-Byrne is the engine villain that sends Mad Max roaring in the dark, the harbinger of joy found in a world where rules no longer apply. Mischievously playful, Keays-Byrne is clearly having fun with the role, quick-witted, ready with a smile – until it’s time to let all traces of humanity drop from his eyes and voice, and to let the real threat begin. Effortlessly disgusting, his character doesn’t get Miller’s plus actual death – which is always reserved for Tim Burns’ Johnny The Boy, the hacksaw, the exploding engine, etc. But as a role model for a thousand charming psychopaths, Toecutter remains indelible.

After the film’s literally record-breaking success, Keays-Byrne returned to what he spent the rest of his life doing – being a respected actor in Australian film and television. For American audiences, semi-American productions shot in Australia have appeared on their radar at all times, such as with Patrick Stewart in 1997. Moby Dick Telefilm, or multiple appearances in cult science fiction series (and Syfy) Farscape. (RIP, Grunchlk.) But then sure enough Miller came calling again.

It would be easy, at first glance, to dismiss Road of furyImmortan Joe is a triumph of prosthesis, not performance. And certainly, the character’s appearance is critical to his impact. But it’s in the physicality – the leaky weakness his medal-studded plastic armor cannot hide – that Keays-Byrnes makes the character both magnetic and pathetic. With a shake here and a slump there, the actor undermines his own ever-powerful voice in every moment, creating a more dangerous character. car his absolute power is clearly a patch-job on a life of weakness, only if he were only a portrait of strength. Returning to the franchise 36 years after the fact, Keays-Byrne says his casting was not just a nostalgic exercise; Miller knew exactly who he was bringing in for the role, creating one of the most memorable movie villains in recent memory. This would be Keays-Byrne’s last acting performance.

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