Everyone knows who Nancy Reagan’s favorite actor is, but recently word got out of a runner-up: a blue-eyed Aussie named Bryan Brown. Not so, announced the First Lady’s press secretary, Sheila Tate. Mrs. Reagan had seen Brown in the Australian film Breaker Morant (screened in the White House at son Ron’s request), but she was not about to reveal his ranking. Still, Brown, 34, isn’t feeling unwanted. Now starring in the six-part Masterpiece Theatre miniseries A Town Like Alice, Brown plays a POW in World War II Malaya who steals food for a comely woman prisoner (Helen Morse) and is crucified by the Japanese for his efforts. Miraculously, he survives and the two are reunited after the war in a meltingly romantic love story that nearly equaled Roots’ ratings in Britain and broke all viewing records Down Under. “Bloody good film,” boasts Brown, who is obviously delighted by his country’s emergence as a source of prizewinning movies. “You are seeing the results of persistence: People have knocked on doors for years to make the movies they wanted.”
Lately those people have been knocking for Brown. By all accounts, though, Bryan is happily accustomed to a low-key life. He dresses casually (“I buy two pairs of jeans a year”), has no interest in cars (“I don’t own one and I’m glad”), and displays an appetite as plain as the Outback (“I could eat sausage and mashed potatoes all my life”). No lady-killer, Bryan confesses to “a girlfriend in Sydney—she’s an actress,” but for the moment he’s not contemplating marriage. “Besides, I’d be coming to it from a broken family,” he says.
Born in a working-class section of Sydney, Bryan was only 3 when his salesman father walked out on his family. Bryan’s Irish Catholic mother was left to raise him and his younger sister, Kristine, on a government subsidy and by taking in ironing. “Her friends advised her to put the kids in a home, but she wouldn’t do it,” says Bryan admiringly. Brown didn’t plan on being an actor, despite his fondness for Yank stars like Alan Ladd, Clark Gable and Marlon Brando, and after high school he went to work as an actuary. “It was close to being the most boring job in the world,” he recalls, “but I had to make a living.” Three years later he took part in a company show. “Everyone told me I was terrific in it,” he remembers, “and it made me think: ‘If I feel this good about it, maybe I have a flair.’ ”
Determined to find out, he spent several years in amateur theatricals, then went to England in 1973 and joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic. Soon, homesick, he returned to Australia to try his hand with a touring group and eventually performed in some Aboriginal (black theme) theater. A film director noticed and offered him a part. Now, with a dozen movies in the can, he is Australia’s most prolific film actor. Although his contracts nowadays give him a percentage of each of his movies, he still lives in an ordinary three-bedroom house in a racially mixed area of Sydney. His sister, now a teacher, lives next door. Not long ago Bryan reached a kind of reconciliation with his father, whom he has seen only a dozen times in his life, and he remains affectionately close to his mother. “She still drops two bucks in my hand if I take her to dinner,” he says. “She’s done more for me than I could ever give her.”
To relax, aside from lifting a few pints with the blokes, Brown occasionally surfs and rides horseback. A rock ‘n’ roll fan with a weakness for Elvis, he recently bought 80 classic singles for his home jukebox, but he hasn’t much time for listening. He’ll make a political thriller, Far East, next, followed by an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo and then, maybe, an American film. But despite four trips to the U.S. this year, Brown has no intention of going Hollywood. “Fame means being seen by a lot of eyes, and that’s pressure,” he says of his growing international reputation. “How you handle pressure says what you are.”