W. Earl Brown (THE MA ’89) is lying in a pool of fake blood in a New Mexico desert when he experiences a surreal flashback. The cast and crew of “The Lone Ranger” fade away as Brown’s memory leads him back to his Kentucky childhood. “We’re using my mom’s picnic table as a train – it’s a train robbery. And we would jump off the picnic table onto our moving horses,” Brown recounts. “And I’m lying there doing the exact same thing 43 years later, except this train is real, the horses are real, the pistol on my hip is real.”
It was a heady, “pinch me” moment, even for an actor as successful and established as Brown, who honed his acting chops at Murray State before heading to DePaul for graduate school. “I soaked it all up,” Brown says. “The Theatre School made me a much, much better actor, and it made me much more prepared for a career in this industry.”
His career almost took a different turn. During his first quarter, Brown was invited to audition for The Second City Touring Company. He was up against an unknown named Chris Farley, and Farley won the spot. “It was my first lesson in crushing disappointment in show business,” Brown shares. “And it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me as an actor. Because going back and focusing at DePaul made me better at what I do.”
After graduating, Brown picked up local work, with roles in “Backdraft” and “Rookie of the Year” among others, but he was desperate to make it to Los Angeles. A temporary move in 1993 soon became a 20-year stay. “Wes Craven took me under his wing, casting me in three films,” Brown remembers. “‘Scream’ was the first project I had billing on – with my name at the front of the movie – that did well.” Two years later, Brown entered the pop culture lexicon when he delivered several memorable lines as Warren, the beloved special needs brother of Cameron Diaz’s character in “There’s Something About Mary.”
While Warren remains close to Brown’s heart, his favorite role came later, when he was cast as Dan Dority in HBO’s “Deadwood.” The critically acclaimed show debuted in 2004 and won seven Emmys® throughout its run. During the second season, Brown joined the writing staff. “So it was my life 24/7,” he says. He still enjoys watching reruns of the show and eagerly anticipates the chance to work with producer and writer David Milch again.
Brown is grateful for the shape his career has taken. “I’ve created characters that have become famous – but I’m not famous. That’s a plus in that it makes disappearing into roles much easier, but the payday is nowhere near what fame delivers,” he notes wryly. Nonetheless, Brown has found professional success doing what he loves. “For any artist, the joy of creation can never be taken away from you,” Brown says. “Are you always going to have a big audience or a big paycheck? No. But you always have the opportunity to create.”