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1883 introduced a whole new cast of characters to the Yellowstone universe. The prequel tells the story of the Dutton family as they trek from Texas to Montana. Sam Elliott’s character Shea Brennan is the tough-as-nails leader of their group. Although Shea can kill a man without so much as flinching, 1883 has also shown that he has a significant soft side. Elliott discussed his “complex” character in 1883.

Sam Elliott as Shea of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Shea wears a cowboy hat, jacket, and black button-down shirt.
Sam Elliott as Shea of the Paramount+ original series ‘1883’ | Emerson Miller/Paramount+

Sam Elliott plays Shea Brennan in ‘1883’

1883 fans probably recognized Sam Elliott, the man who plays Shea Brenna. Elliott has been acting in TV and film for quite some time. He fits right into the rugged Wild West of 1883, having already portrayed several similar characters.

Shea is a Civil War veteran who later becomes a Pinkerton Agent. The beginning of the series reveals that Shea’s family died of smallpox. He burns his home to the ground with the bodies of his wife and daughter inside. Then he embarks on a dangerous journey, helping a group of immigrants travel into the unknown.

Elliott calls Shea a ‘complex’ character

Elliott often portrays rough and tumble cowboy-type characters, but Shea has a lot going on beneath his hard exterior. “Well, number one, he’s a vet,” Elliott said in an interview with Esquire. “The three male leads in this thing are all vets. LaMonica, Thomas, and James—they’re all vets of the Civil War, so they carry that burden with them.”

“On top of that, Shea loses his family right off the bat, burns his house down, and then as you said, he’s got all these immigrants under his charge.” One of the very first scenes in 1883 shows Shea sobbing over the deaths of his wife and daughter.

It’s a different introduction than one might expect to the tough cowboy who rules over his group with an iron fist. Still, although he doesn’t know them well, Shea even grieves when the immigrants he is leading are killed.


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“He has a responsibility he feels to them, [but it’s also] a place maybe that he kind of hides and gives him some strength,” Elliott told Esquire. “So it’s a complex character. A fun character to play. That fact that he’ll cry over losing immigrants on the road for whatever reason, and the fact that he shoots some guy in the head for stealing somebody’s bacon? He’s a complex guy.”

In one scene in 1883, a girl gets bitten by a rattlesnake. She ends up dying, and Shea can be seen standing misty-eyed at her burial. He even helps a recently widowed woman take care of her horses and two sons, asking for nothing in return.

Shea Brennan is haunted by memories of the Civil War

Shea struggles to sleep at night, and 1883 Episode 4 explains the reason. When Shea finally drifts off to sleep, he is plagued by a nightmare from his days in the Civil War. It’s not just the death of his family and the immigrants that weigh on Shea.

After the river crossing, Shea remarks to Thomas that they are making too many widows and orphans on their journey. Thomas asks how this is different from sending soldiers over a hill in the war. “You knew they was gonna die. You never shed a tear for them,” Thomas tells Shea. “The hell I didn’t,” Shea replies.

New episodes of 1883 release Sundays on Paramount+.