NOT SINCE THE SWASHBUCKLING DAYS of Errol Flynn has anyone played the charming rogue—bamboozling someone here, bedding someone there—more appealingly than Australia's Bryan Brown. Although he has sheared sheep with his shirt off (The Thorn Birds), endured a Japanese prison camp with his shirt off (A Town Like Alice) and just made sure he took his shirt off (FX2), offscreen Brown, 43, is a sturdy sort of boyo who keeps his clothes on and his values starchy. He's a loving husband to actress Rachel (Sharky's Machine) Ward, 32, and the devoted father of their daughters, Rosie, 6, and Mathilda, 4.

Brown laughs modestly about such alluring roles as a bartender opposite Tom Cruise in Cocktail. If women find him attractive on the screen, fine, he says, relaxing in jeans and an old gray T-shirt at the family's rustic Malibu home. But, he adds, "I certainly don't have to worry, like Tom does, about 20-year-old girls racing up the street trying to pull my pants off."

Maybe not. But those burning blue eyes and that scalawag smile have a kangaroo kick that this month enlivens two new films. In FX2, the sequel to 1985's FIX, Brown, as special-effects wizard Rollie Tyler, teams up again with surly ex-cop Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy). In Sweet Talker—filmed in Australia at Brown's insistence to give his fellow Aussie actors a shot at commercial Hollywood roles—he is by turns producer, coscreenwriter and star. He plays con man Harry Reynolds, who fills the heads of small-town citizens with dreams of riches even as he empties their bank accounts. In the end, the wheeler-dealer has to choose between love and money when he falls for a divorcée (Karen Allen) and takes a liking to her son (Justin Rosniak).

Separation and its effect on children is something that Brown can play to with conviction. When he was just 3 years old, growing up in a working-class suburb of Sydney, his salesman father left home, never to return. His mother, Molly, worked as a housecleaner and a piano player for a local ballet theater to support Bryan and his younger sister, Kristine (who now works in Sydney developing reading programs for people who speak English as a foreign language).

As a boy, Brown attended parochial school and did odd jobs to help make ends meet. He declined a scholarship to Sydney University, and then dismayed his mother by announcing that he intended to become an actor. "She was dead scared of that," he says. "I think she said a lot of prayers."

They must have been heard. In 1973 he went to England to knock on stage doors and wound up joining the National Theatre at the Old Vic. He bounced back and forth between England and Australia for several years, racking up minor screen credits until he earned raves for his 1980 portrayal of raffish Lieutenant Hand-cock in Breaker Morant.

Filming the 1983 TV epic The Thorn Birds in Hawaii, Brown met English actress Ward. "There was something in her eyes that was bloody interesting," he says with a grin. "I felt something might happen when she just begged me to take her out."

That's not quite the way Ward remembers it, but there's no denying that she and Brown fell hard for each other. They were married in 1983 in a chapel at Cornwell Manor, Ward's 1,800-acre family estate. (Her father is the Hon. Peter Alistair Ward, and her uncle is the Earl of Dudley.)

Despite his own less aristocratic upbringing, Brown knows when to keep a stiff upper lip. "If he's stressed out when he comes home," says Ward, "he doesn't lay his work problems on his family. He's incredibly unself-indulgent." According to Sweet Talker executive producer Taylor (An Officer and a Gentleman) Hackford, Brown is also stubbornly unpretentious. "He had the choice to lose that Australian accent and try to make it as a mainstream American actor," says Hackford. "But he decided, 'This is who I am, and if I make it, fine, and if I don't, fine.' "

Brown and Ward have worked hard at establishing a stable family life amid the chaos of twin careers in a business that thrives on organized madness. The couple bought the home in Malibu in 1984 for use during California locations. In rural Australia, home is a 300-acre cattle ranch, where they spend a few months each year. Whenever possible, their daughters join Mom or Dad, or both, on location. Ward says that when she's away, Brown manages to fulfill his fatherly duties with a lot of help from neighboring mothers. "They drop little homemade dinners off on our doorstep," she says with a laugh. "When it's the other way 'round, no one calls me with little homemade dinners!"

That's 'cause you keep your shirt on, Rachel.

MARK GOODMAN
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Kristina Johnson.