Hugh Keays-Byrne, 1947-2020

Hugh Keays-Byrne, a member of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, and the villain in the original Mad Max and later in Mad Max: Fury Road, had passed away. Keays-Byrne was 73 years old.

Hugh Keays-Byrne was one of those extraordinary screen presences who didn’t land nearly enough substantial roles, but absolutely astonished when entrusted with the spotlight. The great English-Australian actor, who died this week aged 73, was less a performer than a visceral, wall-rattling force who seemed to summon his own weather conditions. You watched the guy, slack-jawed and kind of terrorised, uncertain whether his performances should be studied in film school or analysed by the Bureau of Meteorology.

The man was a tour de force every time he was in front of the camera, and according to his coworkers, Hugh was the kindest, warmest man you would ever want to meet.

One person understood this more than anybody: the director George Miller, who cast Keays-Byrne as the principal villain in not one but two Mad Max movies. First the 1979 original, with the actor chewing the scenery as a dastardly gang leader named Toecutter, and more recently the Oscar-winning Fury Road, returning him to the franchise as Immortan Joe – a beefy, bedraggled, pasty-white warlord attached to a respirator fitted with rows of horrible-looking horse teeth and squeezed inside semi-transparent armour.

I saw the original Mad Max when I was a freshman in high school. I begged my parents to buy me the VHS tape, and I watched it over and over again. Keays-Byrne’s character – The Toecutter – was the best part of the film. No offense, Mel Gibson.

Born in Kashmir, India, in 1947, Keays-Byrne’s resume is dotted with midnight movies but he came from a distinguished background, performing for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England for six years before resettling in Australia in 1973.

2020 has been killing all my Hollywood heroes. Sean Connery, David Prowse, and now Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Rest in peace, Hugh. Thank for for years of entertainment. You will be sorely missed.