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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Hugh Keays-Byrne, Mad Max villain extraordinaire

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Hugh Keays-Byrne, iMad Max/i villain extraordinaire
Photo: Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images

Hugh Keays-Byrne, best known for his work in Australian TV, and as the villain of two separate Mad Max films created 36 years apart, has died. A classically trained Shakespearean actor, and a fixture on Aussie TV, Keays-Byrne will nevertheless go down in mainstream movie history for two roles: Toecutter, the sadistic gang leader who completes Max Rockatansky’s transformation into Mad Max in the 1979 George Miller film of the same name, and The Immortan Joe, the messianic symbol of literally toxic masculinity that lords over the character’s most recent (and celebrated) outing, 2015's Fury Road. Per Variety, Keays-Byrne died yesterday, at the age of 73. No cause of death has been released.

Born in India while it was still under British rule, Keays-Byrne and his family moved back to the U.K. when he was still a child. There, he gravitated to the stage, eventually joining the Royal Shakespeare Company for a series of roles that led to him touring Australia in 1973—and there, he stayed. Possessed of considerable stage presence, a booming voice, and a knack for playing the charismatically deranged, Keays-Byrne established himself as a part of the Australian independent film scene in the 1970s, scoring a major role in Sandy Harbutt’s low-budget biker picture Stone in 1979. While not especially well known to wider audiences these days, Keays-Byrne’s turn as gang member Toad made an impression on at least one viewer: Aspiring director George Miller, who ended up casting three members of the film’s cast, Keays-Byrne included, in his debut film: 1979's Mad Max.

As Toecutter, Keays-Byrne is the villainous engine that sends Mad Max roaring off into the darkness, the harbinger of the joy found in a world where the rules no longer apply. Malevolently playful, Keays-Byrne is clearly having a blast with the part, quick of wit, ready with a smile—until it’s time to drop every trace of humanity out of his eyes and voice, and let the real menacing begin. Effortlessly loathsome, his character doesn’t get Miller’s most effective death—that’s still reserved for Tim Burns’ Johnny The Boy, hacksaw, exploding engine, and all. But as a template for a thousand charming psychopaths to follow, Toecutter remains indelible.

After the film’s literally record-breaking success, Keays-Byrne got back to what he spent the rest of his life doing: Being a respected actor in Australian film and TV. For American audiences, he popped up on their radar any time semi-American productions filmed in Australia, as with Patrick Stewart’s 1997 Moby Dick TV movie, or multiple appearances on cult sci-fi (and Syfy) series Farscape. (R.I.P., Grunchlk.) But then, of course, Miller came calling again.

It would be easy, on first glance, to dismiss Fury Road’s Immortan Joe as a triumph of prosthetics, not performance. And certainly, the look of the character is vital to his impact. But it’s in the physicality—the leaking weakness that his plastic, medal-strewn armor can’t hide—that Keays-Byrnes makes the character simultaneously magnetic and pathetic. With a tremble here and a slump of the shoulders there, the actor undercuts his own still-powerful voice moment-by-moment, creating a character that’s more dangerous because his absolute power is clearly a patch-job over a lifetime of weakness, than if he was merely a portrait of strength. Returning to the franchise 36 years after the fact, Keays-Byrne makes it clear that his casting was no mere nostalgic exercise; Miller knew exactly who he was bringing back for the part, creating one of the most memorable cinematic villains in recent memory. It would be Keays-Byrne’s final acting performance.

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