Mandalorian guest star W. Earl Brown reflects on his most famous roles
When you've been in as many films and TV shows (and video games and podcasts) as W. Earl Brown has, you get to cover a lot of ground. The 57-year-old Kentucky native, best known for his role as saloon mixologist Dan Dority on Deadwood, has killed and been killed. He has loved and been loved. He's been a father, a brother, and a son. He's been a demon named Menlo and a regular Joe but, oddly, never a man named Joe. He's been a cop (a lot) and a crook (also frequently). A Meat and a Loaf. (Okay, that was one part.) He's been two different men named Jimbo. But thanks to The Mandalorian, he's finally been something he's always wanted to be: A Weequay. Granted, the dream was more generally to be part of the Star Wars franchise but, Brown is stoked that the leathery barkeep he played in the first episode of the second season of the Disney+ space western is from a species that was initially spotted in the Star Wars 'verse in Return of the Jedi.
"They were a mercenary race, so they were warriors," explains Brown excitedly of his character, whose menacing features you may recall from the Sarlacc pit. Given Brown's long resume, EW decided to sidle up to the bar to reminisce with the actor on just a handful of the memorable characters he's played over the course of his 30-year career, starting with:
The Mandalorian (2020)
As a childhood fan of the franchise, Brown could not say yes fast enough when he heard that his old buddy, executive producer and director Jon Favreau, had asked for him for the role. "We started out as actors at the exact same time in Chicago," recalls Brown. He laughs as he ticks off the names of the "big boy brigade" to which he and the future Swinger and Disney bigwig belonged including Chris Farley, Jeff Garlin, Andy Richter, and Jim O'Heir (Parks and Recreation). "I'd see him at every beer and truck commercial audition," says Brown of Favreau.
The pair kept in touch over the years, crossing paths from time to time. But when he first got the call from his agent about an unnamed "prosthetics gig," Brown was wary. Until he heard who and what it was for. He signed up for a torturous day in the make-up chair, his inner 13-year-old fanboy giddy.
"I didn't know about Baby Yoda, because I started work the day before the show started streaming," he says. "So, when I saw [Baby Yoda] on set, I saw it on the prop cart. I just saw one of them. And my initial thought was 'Oh, that's so sweet. The prop guy made a Baby Yoda.' Just thinking it was just for fun, you know? Not knowing that that's The Child in my scenes. My wife works for Disney in the streaming division and she had to sit and listen to me for three weeks, 'Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars!' She never said a word."
Given the shroud of secrecy surrounding all things related to the galaxy far, far away, it's not a surprise to hear that Brown was given only his own scenes. But he was excited to work with another old pal in Pedro Pascal (who plays the title character), and reunite with Deadwood amigo Timothy Olyphant, who guest starred as Cobb Vanth, in their familiar roles as sheriff and drink-slinger.
Asked if viewers will see his character again, he replies, "I don't know if I'm at liberty to say." But when asked if he wants to return, even though the make-up and prosthetics were so elaborate that it was actually hard for him to hear, Brown laughs and says, "Jon at the end goes, 'I'm so sorry this day has taken so long. I really appreciate it. Would you be open to the possibility of doing this again?' And as beat as I was, I went, 'Dude, A) it's you. B) it's f---ing Star Wars."
American Crime (2015)
In the acclaimed ABC ensemble drama, he played Tom Carlin, a father desperate to help his troubled daughter. "That was difficult," recalls Brown. "I was in Austin, Texas and it's a pretty big, broad ensemble. I was working one day a week. But it was really heavy. And being away from home, and living by myself, it wore on me psychologically and emotionally." That said, he's proud of the work he did on the show and the accolades it received for delving into issues of race, class, and gender roles. He goes so far as to call it, "the greatest show that nobody watched. If that show had been on HBO or some other premium channel, or now streaming, as it is, I think it would have just taken off. It's a demanding show. You can't just easily pop in and pop out and be entertained. You have to invest. And it challenges your every assumption."
The Last of Us (2013)
"I didn't realize until I did that video game just how enormous gaming is," says Brown of the action-adventure romp. He plays a smuggler named Bill, who, as it turns out, had a very familiar description: "My agent called me and said 'There's a Sony video game, and there's a breakdown for it, and you're listed as the prototype. Do you want to do it?' I'd never done motion capture or video game voiceover stuff, and I said, 'Yeah man, I'll be in it.'" He adds with a laugh, "I had to audition for the role that I was the prototype for."
Brown cherishes his time working on the beloved 19th-century HBO western in which he played Al Swearengen associate Dan Dority. "Another of my life's great teachers is David Milch," says Brown reverently of the creator who previously worked on such acclaimed series as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. In addition to his acting role on the series and its 2018 follow-up film, Brown also served as a writer. "Working with David, I've never met another human being like him. I've met a few people that may have that level of intelligence — like, literally genius level of intelligence. Almost invariably, there's an emotional disconnect. But his emotional intelligence is every bit as equal to his intellectual intelligence. David's able to see through people. He sees who you are. He sees your cracks. And Dave, being Dave, wanted to repair them. But then you ladle on top of that, David was the antithesis of a sandal-and-bead-wearing guru. He could be a prickly pear. So working with him was the most exhilarating time. I would not trade those three years for anything."
Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back (1999)
In the VH1 film, Brown transformed himself into the larger-than-life rock star, with whom he'd spent time before filming. "ML is a capital K character," he says with a laugh.
Brown was shooting on the same lot as the first Charlie's Angels film featuring his There's Something About Mary costar Cameron Diaz and The Salton Sea, in which Meat Loaf (real name: Marvin Lee Aday) was appearing. "Now, he had not seen me in the suit, and with the wig on," says Brown of the classic ruffled shirt, black blazer, and sweaty mane familiar from the singer's Bat Out of Hell period. "And so I'm walking [on the lot]. I see him in the Salton Sea make-up trailer and I started to say something and the PA stops me and says, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Aday doesn't want to be bothered.' So I keep walking. And I hear behind me, 'Earl.' I turn around, and it's Meat Loaf. I wish I had a photo of the look on his face when he saw me [dressed as him]. So later that day — mind you, Charlie's Angels is shooting there too — I'm on stage filming the 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light' concert segment. I look out. Standing behind the cameras is Meat Loaf and Cameron Diaz. So, you want to talk about performance anxiety? Yeah."
There's Something About Mary (1998)
With his fruitless search for his baseball and his interjections about "Franks and beans!" Red ear-muffed Warren stole the hearts of many viewers of this bawdy Peter and Bobby Farrelly comedy starring Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz.
"When we started, I didn't know that Warren was actually a real person," says Brown, who discovered that the character, who has a developmental disability, was based on a friend of the Farrelly brothers, Warren Tashjian, when he came to set. "The real Warren plays Freddie in the movie. In the scene where we're out on the beach playing football, the guy standing in line right in front of me where he goes, 'Mary, will you marry me?'"
Although the film was a huge hit, it didn't immediately result in more work for Brown. "Mary was kind of a double edged sword," he recalls. "It exploded, and I thought, 'All right baby, here we go.' And then, nothing. My career did not change one iota in the immediate success of that movie, because everybody believed me." (Perhaps a window into the challenges faced in the industry for actors with developmental disabilities.)
It may not have immediately translated into work, however, it did pay massive dividends in ways less quantifiable but likely more rewarding. One was an encounter he had while working with Robin Williams, a childhood hero, on the 2005 film The Big White. When Williams realized that Brown had played Warren, he was taken aback. "So my character became one of his characters that he would break into: 'Have you seen my baseball?' Because he was always constantly entertaining. It was one of those pinch-me moments of my career, like, walking onto Tatooine [on the set of The Mandalorian]. I had that big grin on my face at one point, and Robin turns to me and goes, 'What, what, what?' I said, 'Well, in the seventh grade, I bought [Williams' comedy album] Reality...What a Concept and I memorized all of side one. I used to go to school and steal your jokes, and pretend that they were mine. Well now, watching you steal from me is pretty damn cool.'"
Brown has also been approached over the years by viewers with stories like this one: "It was several years after Mary, but I was out at [an L.A. nightclub] at a concert and this girl comes up and tells me her brother has Down syndrome. She said, 'My mom was wanting to see the movie and I didn't know how my mom would take it.' And so when she finally pressed play, she said, 'My brother, that scene where you're at the high school and you're trying to find your baseball, he stood up, and he walked directly to the TV, and he points at you, and he turns to us, and he goes, 'He's special. He's just like me.' That was one of the nicest compliments I've ever been paid. It was so heartwarming to me. Everybody wants to and deserves to see their story told. So, I could not be more proud of that film and my involvement in it."
While Brown claims he "didn't do much" in this influential mid-'90s horror comedy classic, his character — Kenny, cameraman for Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) — came to a memorably gruesome close. Brown himself certainly made an impression on director Wes Craven, who had first cast him a few years earlier in both the Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn and Wes Craven's New Nightmare. "He was the first marquee person to take me under his wing," he says of the famed director. The actor's fondest memory was of the film's budget. "This and [There's Something About] Mary were a treat to make, because they were studio films, so there was enough money coming in, that we didn't have to cut every single corner. But they were off the radar, so there were no studio execs breathing down our necks with high-money expectations. So both of those were just the perfect situation to create something that was new and have fun while doing it."
The live-action Star Wars series follows a lone Mandalorian gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy.