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An ode to the power of Clancy Brown’s voice

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Oct 20, 2020, 6:00 PM EDT

There are a lot of reasons that one falls in love with a particular actor. Sometimes, it's as simple as physical attractiveness — some performers are simply so good looking that it’s practically impossible to look away from them no matter what your personal aesthetic preferences might be. (Look, there’s a reason that Chris Evans is Captain America, is what I’m saying.)

Often, we realize that a performer we loved in our youths has adapted to a new era of their career in a particularly interesting or appealing way that makes us reconsider them with fresh eyes. (Hi, Keanu. May the John Wick franchise go on forever.) And still other times, there are those that you literally just can’t get out of your head, for whatever reason.

These are the Hey! It’s That Guy types, actors who show up often in the films and television properties you most enjoy. You may not know their names precisely, but you recognize their faces and know that — whatever their name is — they’re definitely talented in some particular way. Usually, it’s that they have a familiar face, or tend to play the same sorts of parts across platforms and genres. But, sometimes, it’s because they have a voice you would know anywhere.

Which brings us to Clancy Brown, one of the all-time best examples of this latter group.  

This is not to imply that Brown is somehow unattractive or uninteresting — far from it, in fact. Truthfully, for those of us with a certain established interest in silver foxes, he’s now situated squarely in our personal thirst wheelhouse at the age of 61. And, in all honesty, he’s making more interesting choices now as a performer than he ever has before. But, as an actor, he does have something of a track record in terms of picking the sort of dark, messy, character-driven parts that aren’t anything close to what you might call heartthrobs or heroes.

And that’s largely because of the power of that voice. 

Brown’s voice, which resonates at the sort of ridiculously deep and, quite frankly, often terrifying timbre that has kept him in constant work as a variety of video game villains and cartoon henchmen over the years, can generally be described by no word other than 'epic.'  

Credit: Nickelodeon

As a result, his catalog of voice work is positively massive, ranging from 20 years as Spongebob Squarepants’ money-obsessed employer Mr. Krabs, to nearly a dozen as the villainous Lex Luthor across a variety of DC animated properties. He’s had roles in franchises that range from Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Incredible Hulk to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars: The Clone Wars (where he, of course, voiced Darth Maul’s brother). 

In terms of pop culture impact, Brown is probably best known for his role in the award-winning film The Shawshank Redemption in which he plays Captain Bryon Hadley, a sadistic prison guard who delights in lording his power over Tim Robbins’ unfairly imprisoned Andy Dufresne. But outside of a few rare roles in which he gets to play the occasionally nice guy, like Sleepy Hollow’s poor doomed Sheriff August Corbin, you’re much more likely to have witnessed Brown playing a wide variety of terrible men. From Billions’ swaggering Attorney General Waylon "Jock" Jeffcoat to villainous antagonist The Kurgan in Highlander, Brown’s voice has helped him become a go-to guy when someone, anyone at all, needs a convincing baddie. 

Even Brown’s turn on the popular medical drama ER, where you’d think he'd at least get the chance to play a nice guy who dates a doctor or something, instead involved playing a sleazy corporate representative for a business that helps hospitals streamline operating costs (read: fire people). So, you’d be forgiven for basically automatically assuming that when Brown’s name appears in the credits, he’s probably playing a less-than-savory character. 

This is why his best television turn is actually found on a show most people probably haven’t seen — one that offered him not just a chance to show off his bombastic vocal range, but to use it as just one element of a complicated, multi-dimensional man (or monster, depending on what episode you watch).

The 2003 HBO drama Carnivale only ran for two seasons, but was something of a herald of the puzzle box prestige genre series that would come after it. The show forced its viewers to tackle complex storytelling and solidly gray characters with selfish and/or inscrutable motivations. Baically a battle between good and evil played out against the bleak backdrop of 1930s Dust Bowl America, the show follows the story of Ben Hawkins and Justin Crowe, two men gifted with powerful supernatural abilities. 

Credit: HBO

One is a carnival worker with the ability to heal the sick, and another is a Methodist preacher with the power to compel and manipulate others, largely through — you guessed it — his voice. Both are initially presented eerily, if not disturbingly similar, and Carnivale delights in suggesting at various points that though one man may technically be an avatar of light and the other one of darkness, they can often feel fairly interchangeable (at least, initially). Every prophet in his house and all. 

Rarely has the combination of role and actor worked so well as it does in Brown’s portrayal of Brother Justin, a man of frequently admirable intentions, but dangerously ruthless will. His fire and brimstone-laced tirades and ominous yet constant scripture quoting are wonderfully entertaining, but it is in Justin’s quieter moments — oddly, enough in the silence — that Brown’s performance truly shines.

Perhaps for a man who so often plays dark characters, there is something especially fascinating about getting the chance to portray one who wants so badly to be a champion of light and goodness (only to turn out to be the dark Usher of the Apocalypse in the end). The tragedy of Brown’s Justin is not that he is evil, but that he truly believes he has been sent to do good. 

The tragedy for us, of course, is that Carnivale was canceled before we ever got to see the end of Justin’s story, or how Brown’s performance would have evolved as the character slipped further into darkness (and, you know, was resurrected from the dead, but that’s neither here nor there). And though Brown’s career has continued along successfully ever since — his role in horror anthology film The Mortuary Collection is here just in time for the spooky season on streaming platform Shudder — it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened in a world where Carnivale was the hit it deserved to be.


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