From Warren in “There’s Something About Mary” to Dan Dority in “Deadwood,” the veteran actor inhabits the roles he plays.
It’s been 25 years since Kentucky native W. Earl Brown moved to Los Angeles to find out if he could make a career of acting.
“I’ve been able to make a living at this since ’91,” says Brown, sounding a little surprised himself. “That was my goal. I wanted to make a comfortable living and raise a family, and that’s what I did.”
His success has gone well beyond keeping the bills paid and enjoying life with his wife of 27 years, Carrie, and their daughter, Anna.
Even if Brown’s name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, you’re no doubt familiar with his work. The veteran character actor has a way of disappearing so completely into his roles that it’s easy to overlook the hard work and sheer talent that goes into each portrayal.
He gets recognized, although it’s mostly as “that guy from … ,” and he’s fine with being known by a role and not by name. In fact, he says he finds it “odd” when someone asks, “Aren’t you W. Earl Brown?”
“It’s weird to me when they know my resume,” he says with a laugh.
After small roles in films such as “The Babe,” as well as on “Seinfeld” and other television shows and T.V. movies, Brown caught an early break when Wes Craven cast him as Kenny in the original “Scream.” A breakout role playing Mary’s brother, Warren, in “There’s Something About Mary” followed.
He followed that up with a part in “Being John Malkovich” and more prominent television work — even playing Meat Loaf in the T.V. biopic “Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back” — but it’s his portrayal of menacing henchman Dan Dority on the HBO series “Deadwood” that will likely strike a chord with most fans.
And it’s “Deadwood” that comes up most often when chatting with Brown. Being cast on the show and getting to work with creator/director (and four-time Emmy winner) David Milch was a pivotal moment for the “artistic redneck kid” from Land Between the Lakes, he says.
Brown gives credit to his Kentucky background and two famous fellow Western Kentuckians for cementing his friendship with Milch.
Milch, a Yale graduate and former professor at the university, had worked as a research assistant for Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren of Todd County and literary critic Cleanth Brooks of Murray. Warren and Brooks founded “The Southern Review,” authored college textbooks on literature and contributed to the rise of mid-20th century New Criticism.
“When David found out where I was from, I think that was one thing that kind of bonded us,” Brown says. “He lays all the success of his life and what he learned at the feet of Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.”
Milch is known for his unorthodox and exacting writing style. “ ‘Deadwood’ was written in iambic pentameter,” Brown notes.
So when the actor improvised a line in the first episode, you can bet Milch took notice.
“I thought, ‘Aw man. Have I just shit the nest?,’ ” Brown recalls with a laugh.
Instead, Milch praised him for a “great twist of phrase” and went so far as to officially make the change in the final script.
“That was the seed that led to me being invited to come to the writers’ room,” Brown says.
Brown was nominated for both Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America awards for his work on the series.
Post-“Deadwood,” Brown teamed up with fellow Murray State University graduate Shane Dax Taylor of Henderson for “Bloodworth.” Brown has sole writing credit for the adapted screenplay. Taylor directed and produced.
They still collaborate, and also are neighbors. “He’s rented the house two doors down,” Brown says. “We have two different projects that we hope to get going at some point,” one of which is a “family adventure set in Mammoth Cave,” that Brown penned. “That place has always intrigued me,” Brown says.
Even though the Browns have been California residents for some time, Kentucky is by no means in their rearview mirrors.
“All of our families are back there,” Brown says. “We’re the only two to ever leave.”
I grew up hunting and fishing in Land Between the Lakes. I have so many great memories of camping with my mom over at Redd Hollow.
Brown’s roots are in western Trigg County and Golden Pond, one of the communities appropriated by the federal government in 1969 when Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area was formed.
Remnants of the town are long gone, but Brown says LBL still feels like home, and he usually makes time for a hike around Hematite Lake Trail or other spots when he’s back.
“I grew up hunting and fishing in Land Between the Lakes. I have so many great memories of camping with my mom over at Redd Hollow,” he says.
Golden Pond was a rough-and-tumble hub for moonshining during Prohibition. (One of Brown’s grandfathers did time.) Other extended family members were rough and tumble, too, and Brown says that comes through in his acting.
In “numerous roles I’ve played, I just pretended I was my uncle,” Brown says.
“I like playing the bad guys,” he adds. “It’s a way of exercising and exorcising my own personal demons.”
Coming into Milch’s orbit has helped the actor stay busy in recent years. His recent film credits include “Black Mass” (with fellow Kentuckian Johnny Depp), “The Master,” “Wild,” and “The Sessions.”
On the small screen, he just completed his turn as Sheriff Amos Root in AMC’s “Preacher.” There’s a sci-fi pilot in play for 2017 with WGN America called “Roadside Picnic.” And a Showtime series called “I’m Dying Up Here,” about two competing 1970s-era LA comedy clubs, is currently in production.
Brown also recently played “the bad guy of the week” on a yet-to-air CBS show, “Training Day,” for the opportunity to work with Bill Paxton for the first time. His other co-star is Louisville native and University of Louisville graduate Justin Cornwell.
“If the writing is good, I’m there,” Brown says of how he chooses projects, and “if it’s something I’ve never done before, I’m up for that, too.”
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