NFSA Curator Heather Gill pays tribute to a leading figure in Australian cinema.
For many, the name Hugh Keays-Byrne is synonymous with the Mad Max franchise, in which he played two key roles: Toecutter in Mad Max (George Miller, Australia, 1979) and Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia-USA, 2015).
His ability to play charismatic yet unhinged leaders – often all the more menacing and disturbing for that combination – was employed by a number of directors. An example beyond Mad Max is his turn in Kangaroo (Tim Burstall, Australia, 1986), portraying the leader of a paramilitary group with fascist leanings in 1920s Australia.
Other notable Australian film roles for Keays-Byrne in the 1980s included The Chain Reaction (Ian Barry, 1980), Ginger Meggs (Jonathan Dawson, 1982), Strikebound (Richard Lowenstein, 1983), Where the Green Ants Dream (Werner Herzog, 1984), Burke and Wills (Graeme Clifford, 1985) and Les Patterson Saves the World (George T Miller, 1987).
These feature films roles were intermingled with work for television. Later, his rich and distinctive voice was featured in Farscape (2001–04) as Grunchlk.
Hugh Keays-Byrne came to Australia with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973, remaining here when the tour finished. He made his feature film debut in the Australian biker film Stone (1974) playing the role of Toad.
Besides his memorable gallery of film roles, Keays-Byrne also directed two productions. The telemovie Madness of Two (1982) was based on a study of the psychiatric condition folie à deux or shared psychosis. Resistance (co-directed with Paul Elliott, 1992) was a film set in the near future during a military dictatorship. The action takes place in the Australian wheat belt region at harvest time, focusing on the story of a group of itinerant women labourers who lose their jobs and the resulting resistance.
His last role saw him reunite with both director George Miller and cinematographer John Seale to bring the Mad Max franchise into the 21st century. In this excerpt from his NFSA oral history interview with Lorna Lesley in 2019, Hugh Keays-Byrne reflects on his Immortan Joe costume in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and how it contributed to the character:
For more Hugh Keays-Byrne and Mad Max: Fury Road, watch the Brian Trenchard-Smith Trailer From Hell (2015) episode or listen to another excerpt from his oral history interview, in which he compares working on Mad Max: Fury Road to the original Mad Max (1979). You can also view clips from other films in which he appeared on australianscreen.