The late Hugh Keays-Byrne enjoyed a long and fruitful career, ranging from Shakespearean stage acting to screen performing and directing. To most of us, however, he will always be best known for two key roles – Mad Max bad guys Toecutter and Immortan Joe – that he played at the beginning and end of his career.
Keays-Byrne played Toecutter in the original 1979 Mad Max and Immortan Joe in 2015’s fourth instalment Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s no official link between Toecutter and Joe, though Keays-Byrne’s involvement in both parts has ever since left fans speculating why director George Miller would choose the same actor to play two very different Mad Max villains.
Hugh Keays-Byrne was born 18 May, 1947 in Srinagar, in what was then British-ruled India, though his British family soon returned to their homeland, where Hugh would become a professional stage actor by his early twenties. Then, in 1973, while touring the country in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Keays-Byrne found a home in Australia.
Keays-Byrne decided to remain in Australia and soon found work in TV, as well as in the burgeoning ‘Ozploitation’ film industry. It was his performance in 1974 biker movie Stone that brought Keays-Byrne to the attention of George Miller, at the time a medical professional and aspiring filmmaker who was working on his first feature, Mad Max.
Keays-Byrne was cast as the Toecutter, leader of a rampaging biker gang who kill the wife and child of Mel Gibson’s cop Max Rockatansky. As might be surmised from the title, this drives Max a bit mad, turning him from an honest lawman to a vengeful one-man army.
While Gibson was the film’s breakout star, George Miller would later describe Hugh Keays-Byrne as “the glue that held the first ‘Mad Max’ movie together… I learned [about] acting from him, probably more than anybody else that I worked with.”
1981’s Mad Max 2 and 1985’s Beyond Thunderdome followed, but Keays-Byrne did not return, Toecutter having perished in the first film’s climax. The actor continued to work in TV and film afterwards, but none of his subsequent work had the same popular impact. Then in the late 90s, George Miller started trying to get a fourth Mad Max movie off the ground.
Initially, Mel Gibson was to reprise the title role in Mad Max: Fury Road, and it was to be a proper reunion, with a “pleasantly surprised” Hugh Keays-Byrne invited back to play a new villain named Immortan Joe. (“I thought, didn’t Toecutter drive in front of a moving truck and die?”, Keays-Byrne told Insider about his surprise at being given a new character to play in a Mad Max sequel.)
Various issues kept Fury Road from getting underway. In the interim, Miller was hired by Warner Bros to make superhero movie Justice League: Mortal; here the director found another role for Keays-Byrne, in Martian Manhunter. Alas, this film also stalled, and was cancelled altogether in 2008.
Not one to fall in the face of adversity, Miller got back to Mad Max: Fury Road, although while Keays-Byrne remained as Immortan Joe, it was decided that Gibson should be replaced with a younger (and less controversial) actor as Max, with Tom Hardy ultimately landing the role.
Shot in the deserts of Namibia, Mad Max: Fury Road had an infamously difficult shoot, with the cast and crew struggling against the elements and massive tension between Hardy and co-star Charlize Theron. Keays-Byrne, however, had a knack for lightening the mood, despite the terrifying nature of his character.
Getting into the fact that his character, Immortan Joe, was revered as god-like in the movie, Keays-Byrne cheekily demanded the cast and crew address him as “Daddy” throughout the shoot.
Co-star Nicholas Hoult recalls, “Hugh… would put photos of himself all around the stunt gym where the War Boys [Immortan Joe’s most fanatical followers] trained.”
While Keays-Byrne may have been fooling around, his presence on set did inspire some genuine awe. Actor Nathan Jones, who plays Joe’s son Rictus Erectus in Fury Road, recalls how Mad Max’s Toecutter “scared the hell out of me [as a kid]… And now he’s my dad.”
Director George Miller said of Keays-Byrne during Fury Road, “Out there in the desert, during the arduous shooting, there was no better person to be out there with. He’s very collaborative.
“The relationship he had with all the actors and stunt crew, who were the War Boys, was very strong. On set, he would always tease them up in a very playful way. All those actors responded to him.”
Once Mad Max: Fury Road made it to screens in 2015, it was almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, landing ten Oscar nominations (six of which it won) and finding an enthusiastic audience even among those who were unfamiliar with the original Mad Max movies.
For the long-time Mad Max fans, however, the presence of Hugh Keays-Byrne provided a most agreeable nod back to the franchise’s low-budget beginnings – and it left some pondering whether Keays-Byrne might be stealthily playing the same villain a second time.
A Reddit discussion on the subject proposes the idea that Immortan Joe could indeed be Toecutter, suggesting the biker gang leader survived his injuries in the first film, and that these are to blame for the extensive health problems suffered by Immortan Joe in Fury Road.
However, there is nothing to indicate that Toecutter survived Mad Max, nor is there any indication in Fury Road that old foes Max and Immortan Joe recognise one another. It’s unlikely, then, that Toecutter and Immortan Joe being the same person is anything more than a fan theory.
The original Mad Max doesn’t reveal a great deal about Toecutter’s backstory. However, supplemental material has been made available for Mad Max: Fury Road, which doesn’t imply a direct link between Toecutter and Immortan Joe, beyond some shared character traits (namely megalomania).
According to the backstory Miller invented, Immortan Joe was originally Col Joe Moore, a military hero of the wars waged after the events of the original Mad Max. If Toecutter had lived, it doesn’t seem likely the crazed biker would go on to a decorated military career (although, like Toecutter, Joe is said to have later become leader of a biker gang).
Screen Rant point out that Toecutter does make an appearance in Fury Road, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flashback shot from the original Mad Max. SR also suggest that Immortan Joe’s ultimate face-ripping demise echoes one of Toecutter’s lines from the 1979 film: “When you lose the face, you’ve got nothing.”
Keays-Byrne seemed to enjoy his brief return to the limelight with Mad Max: Fury Road. Asked whether it might kickstart a career resurgence, Keays-Byrne remarked, “I’m always open for business,” whilst musing, “I don’t know what’s coming next, it’s impossible to tell. But that’s the joy of this life isn’t it?”
Sadly, Immortan Joe proved to be the final role of Hugh Keays-Byrne, who passed away on 2 December, 2020, aged 73. No cause of death was made public, but his passing was said to be peaceful.
Mourning his old friend and collaborator, George Miller celebrated Keays-Byrne’s “natural charisma… To think that presence is no longer available to the world is very sad.” However, the director noted, “I’ve been told he was really accepting of his mortality and I’m told his last days were full of his usual humor and playfulness.”