You might know Clancy Brown for memorable performances in The Shawshank Redemption and SpongeBob SquarePants, but even now the actor is arguably still most recognised for his breakthrough role in Highlander. The 1986 fantasy adventure cast the then 26-year-old Brown as The Kurgan, a villainous warrior who does battle with Christopher Lambert’s Connor MacLeod and Sean Conney’s Ramirez.
While Brown’s profile was significantly raised by the film, the actor was never sufficiently financially compensated for his work in it. Brown has said he was paid “nothing” for Highlander, calling the film’s producers “buzzards” and “scavengers” for failing to even secure him residual checks for playing The Kurgan.
Clancy Brown was just a few years into his acting career when he appeared alongside rock star Sting in 1985’s The Bride, an adaptation of Frankenstein in which the suitably hulking Brown (a 6’3″ former college track and field athlete who specialised in discus) was cast as the Monster. Soon afterwards, Sting was at a party with director Russell Mulcahy, who had previously worked on music videos for the likes of Elton John and Duran Duran (although not Sting or his band The Police).
In conversation, Mulcahy mentioned he was having trouble casting the role of Highlander’s villain, after their first choice – Arnold Schwarzenegger – turned them down, as he didn’t want to play any more villains after The Terminator.
According to Brown, Sting then told Mulcahy: “I just worked with this big American bloke named Clancy Brown on a movie called The Bride. He seems like a pretty good actor, a pretty good guy, why don’t you check out him?”
Soon enough, Mulcahy and producers Peter S Davis and William N Panzer went to meet with Brown to pitch him the role of The Kurgan; Brown was immediately interested, telling the filmmakers, “’I think it’s a great story, yeah, I would love to play it. How much are you going to pay me?'”
It was then that Brown learned “they don’t want to pay me anything. And I don’t have a quote or anything… so they pay me nothing. And they’re thrilled because they pay me nothing.” Apparently Brown’s contract didn’t even include the residual payments actors can generally expect to make from re-releases, home entertainment and television screenings.
Brown reflected in a 2014 Reddit post, “it was a strange set. You know, we were all trying to make a good movie, and the producers were trying to, you know, make money any way they could, so there were a lot of things we had to work around, do on the cheap because of those producers… I wasn’t getting paid anything, Sean was getting paid a lot, so you have to decide if you’re going to have fun or not.”
True enough, Connery was paid $1.5 million for a mere five days of work on Highlander. Initially he had been offered $500,000 for three days of shooting, but when technical issues pushed the film behind schedule the producers agreed to give the Bond actor an extra $500,000 for each additional day.
Brown did his best to enjoy his time making Highlander in part by making his character larger than life, ad-libbing heavily with director Mulcahy’s approval: “I had to do something to make it interesting for myself, and Russell was having fun, so he let me get away with whatever I wanted to do.” Mulcahy confirms Brown was responsible for The Kurgan’s “warped sense of humor… The whole shaving his head and getting a tattoo on it was his idea. He went through a real process to become The Kurgan.”
One thing Brown and Mulcahy disagree on, however, is the rumour that he came close to decapitating Sean Connery for real whilst filming the fight scene in which The Kurgan kills Ramirez. Mulcahy has given two different takes on this incident, once claiming Brown “swung his sword across the candelabra and nearly took off Sean’s head,” but elsewhere stating the actor “struck [a wooden table] with the flat of the blade and it broke. A shard shot over Sean’s head.”
Brown denies this completely, wryly remarking in 2016, “I didn’t almost decapitate Sean. That’s a good rumour though, let’s keep it going.”
Though a box office flop (earning $12 million on a $19 million budget), Highlander proved a bigger hit at home, and wound up spawning a franchise including four sequels, two live action TV shows and an animated series. But whilst Connery and Lambert returned for Highlander II: The Quickening and Lambert appeared in two further films, Brown never returned. The actor says he has no regrets there: “I didn’t want to do any more after that anyway. Those producers were not fun to work for.”
Brown has gone on to build an impressive body of work with over 315 screen credits, with his best known roles including Captain Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption, Sgt Zim in Starship Troopers and Mr Krabs on TV’s SpongeBob SquarePants. Over the years Brown’s association with Highlander has endured, however; he appeared in an episode of 80s-set sitcom The Goldbergs which centred on the film.
A Highlander reboot has been in development for many years, and is currently set to be made by John Wick director Chad Stahelski, with Henry Cavill in the lead. Dave Bautista had previously been linked to The Kurgan, but it’s unknown at present who will take the role. Brown, however, has made it clear he has no interest in playing the role again all these years later.
Brown told ComicBook.com in 2020: “I’m looking forward to the reboot. I hope it gets done. I can’t wait. I would love to see it, but I don’t have any aspirations to be part of that franchise… There’s no reason for me to [return], I did my time. I did my bit. It’s time for other people to have fun with it.”