This obituary was updated on July 5, 2004.
Hollywood is prone to exaggeration and hype, but the tributes to Marlon Brando over the weekend had the ring of truth: Colleagues, fans and obit writers unanimously tagged him as the best American actor of the 20th century.
The two-time Academy Award winner died Thursday at UCLA Medical Center of lung failure. He was 80.
Brando was perhaps the most famous proponent of the Method school, bringing an intensity that influenced all subsequent actors, with direct influences on such diverse talents as James Dean and Paul Newman and, later, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman — but his indirect influence is felt on others.
Though he made his film debut in Stanley Kramer’s “The Men” (1950), his impact had begun with his definitive 1947-49 stage (and 1951 screen) portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in which he combined the character’s brutish sexuality with vulnerability and unexpected humor.
New realism in acting
Brando turned America’s attention away from the British, classically stage-trained style that prevailed in American theater and film. Even with naturalistic film actors like Spencer Tracy or James Stewart, audiences knew they were watching rehearsed make-believe. Brando occasionally slouched, scratched, mumbled and looked around the room; it seemed the camera was capturing not a performance, but human behavior. His nasal, sometimes halting rhythms gave the impression that he was inventing his dialogue on the spot.
His best performances are models of great screen acting. Besides “Streetcar,” there was his Terry Malloy in 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” one of his most famous screen perfs, which brought him his first Oscar. Later, after a string of odd and unsuccessful films, he was virtually written off by Hollywood and the rest of the world until he delivered a performance of startling power in “The Godfather,” which earned him a second Oscar.
Beginning in the 1960s, Brando’s reputation as an eccentric began to eclipse his work. He moved to Tahiti, turned contemptuous of the public and his profession, became overweight and developed a reputation for being difficult to work with (he refused to learn his lines, would tape them up all over the set and expressed hostility to many of his directors).
On stage, he would vary his performance every night; in front of the camera, each take was different. Some co-stars loved the spontaneity; others felt it interfered with their own work.
But in his heyday, the actor demonstrated an astonishing versatility, which led him to take chances that sometimes paid off, as in 1972’s “The Godfather,” and at other times brought him to the brink of self-parody, as in “Apocalypse Now.” (He later spoofed his Don Corleone to great effect in 1990 comedy “The Freshman.”)
“Last Tango in Paris” represented a daring and personal outing as a sexually obsessed and tortured middle-aged man. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1973 film probably marked Brando’s last great performance.
After that pinnacle he worked infrequently, and except for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” rarely in films that matched his talents.
Still, there were sparks of his dazzling talent in such pics as “Don Juan DeMarco” in 1995 and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” a year later. Though the latter perf was widely mocked as over the top, Brando managed to take a stock character — the mad scientist — and offer a witty, troubling and totally original creation.
But those were flashes of glory in a career in which he renounced both past and current work: He openly derided his accomplished work in “Godfather” and “Last Tango” and took multimillion-dollar assignments in fluff such as “Superman” and “Christopher Columbus.”
Name in the news
In his later years, Brando’s scandal-plagued life kept his name before the public, particularly a homicide involving his son Christian, accused of killing Dag Drollet, the lover of Brando’s daughter Cheyenne. Christian was convicted of manslaughter; in April 1995, Cheyenne, reportedly despondent over the events, committed suicide.
Brando worked infrequently, reportedly just to pay bills such as Christian’s legal fees.
Marlon Brando Jr. was born in Omaha, Neb., on April 3, 1924. His father was a manufacturer of chemical feeds and insecticides, his mother an amateur performer. He grew up in Libertyville, Ill., and was a rebel from the start, so much so his that father put him in a military academy, from which he was expelled.
After flirting with entering the Protestant ministry and failing to get into the Army because of a trick knee, he followed sisters Frances and Jocelyn to New York, where they were studying acting.
He enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research and by the age of 20 was appearing in a small role on Broadway in “Bobino,” Stanley Kauffman’s musical children’s fantasy.
His first significant role was in John Van Druten’s “I Remember Mama,” in which he played the family’s 15-year-old son, Nels. During its run Brando began studying with Stella Adler, who was a major influence on his work. Adler persuaded director Harold Clurman to cast Brando in a disastrous production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Truckline Cafe.”
He appeared in Shaw’s “Candida” with Katharine Cornell and was removed out-of-town from “The Eagle Has Two Heads” when his acting style and personality clashed with those of star Tallulah Bankhead.
When John Garfield turned down the role of Stanley in “Streetcar,” friend and director Elia Kazan convinced the play’s producer, Irene Selznick, to cast Brando. No actor who has played the part since has been clear of Brando’s shadow.
Brando’s antipathy toward Hollywood started early, as he attacked the industry for its financial motives and dishonesty. But by 1949 he had turned his back on the stage and was in “The Men,” Stanley Kramer’s film about soldiers left crippled by World War II, which brought him his first Oscar nom.
The second came for “Streetcar”; he was the only principal not to win (some said it was because his contempt of Hollywood was so widely publicized, while others felt it was simply Humphrey Bogart’s year).
Aside from his influence on acting, he directly affected the portrayal of sexuality in films. In “Streetcar,” Brando helped strike a significant blow against the Production Code. There had not been a sexually threatening male star of his magnitude since Rudolph Valentino and the silents. He combined that with a core of vulnerability.
Over the next decade, Brando turned in one astonishing perf after another, gaining more Oscar noms for his Emiliano Zapata in Kazan’s 1952 pic “Viva Zapata” (written by John Steinbeck) and his Marc Antony in 1953’s “Julius Caesar,” which brought a distinctly American approach to Shakespeare.
He was not nominated as the motorcycle gang leader in “The Wild One,” but his rebellious stance came to define youth’s post-war disgust. When his character is asked what he’s rebelling against, his snappy retort is, “What’ya got?” Similarly, Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” spoke “for all our failed hopes,” said critic Pauline Kael. The struggling dockworker and would-be prizefighter is robbed of his chance at fame when he must testify against the mob. Malloy’s “I coulda been a contender” became one of Brando’s most quoted lines (along with “Stellaaaa!” and “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”).
He walked out on Fox’s “The Egyptian”; to avoid a $2 million suit, he agreed to play Napoleon in “Desiree” but gave a walk-through performance. He was better as the singing Sky Masterson in 1955’s “Guys and Dolls.”
Other roles in not always satisfying films were “Teahouse of the August Moon,” in which he played a Japanese peasant; James Michener’s “Sayonara”; his only other Williams adaptation, “The Fugitive Kind” (opposite his brooding female equivalent, Anna Magnani); and “The Young Lions.”
Brando tried his sole turn at film directing with moderate success in the 1961 Western “One-Eyed Jacks,” which was an overbudget B.O. flop.
The troubled 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty” left critics divided over Brando’s foppish Fletcher Christian and left MGM in a money sinkhole when the budget spiraled to a then-unheard-of $18.5 million.
The media generally blamed Brando for the delays and budget increases, though he defended himself by saying he had only been insisting on changes in the script that had been promised to him.
The next decade in his career was awash with mediocre projects like “Bedtime Story” and Charlie Chaplin’s misguided “The Countess From Hong Kong.” Brando experimented in films like “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and “The Nightcomers,” which was an odd prequel to Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw.”
Screen test required
His star had fallen so precipitously by the early ’70s that Paramount Pictures insisted Coppola lense a screen test with the actor for “The Godfather.”
The role of Don Vito Corleone is regarded as one of the great screen comebacks, but during filming, Brando showed no indication he felt any pressure: He enjoyed horsing around with co-stars like James Caan and mooning passers-by.
Singer Al Martino, who played Johnny Fontane in “The Godfather,” found Brando to be cooperative. “He wanted me to come off good, but that Method acting — to a newcomer — brought me to my knees. We had to do our scene in two takes — and for good reason — he slaps me and all my teeth shatter. If he had hit me a third time, I would have slapped him back.”
In 1972, when he won the actor Oscar, a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather came onstage and, on his behalf, rebuffed the award and publicly berated the film industry and the public for their treatment of American Indians. Over the years, Brando continued to lend support to Native American issues.
Brando then turned in another great piece of work in Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” a passionate, introspective and partly improvisational work that at the time was rated X. He was again nominated for an Academy Award.
He worked again for Coppola in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” It was daring work, though it garnered a mixed reaction. His acting in “The Missouri Breaks” with Jack Nicholson was eccentric in the extreme.
Brando gave a riveting but brief performance in 1989’s “A Dry White Season,” for which he received his eighth and final Oscar nom (and his first in the supporting category). He won an Emmy for playing white supremacist George Lincoln Rockwell in the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations.”
But mostly, he worked for money, earning about $16 million for his gross cut of “Missouri Breaks,” possibly as much as $9 million for “Apocalypse Now,” $3 million for a few days’ work in “Superman” and $5 million for “Christopher Columbus.”
His later appearances included New Line’s 1995 “Don Juan DeMarco” (in which he was playful as a psychiatrist, though unflatteringly photographed to highlight his weight gain), 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and 1998’s “Free Money,” which received minimal theatrical distribution. His last onscreen appearance was in 1998’s “The Score,” with De Niro and Edward Norton. Last month, he recorded vocal tracks for the animated film “Big Bug Man.”
In July 1994, he told Daily Variety‘s Army Archerd, “I’ve never felt as well and never been happier.” Archerd was visiting the set of “Don Juan,” and Brando outlined plans to lose weight, open a museum in L.A. dedicated to the American Indian, make films about Native Americans and preserve Tahitian culture on two of his Tetiaroa islands.
He also explained his antipathy toward awards. Pointing to a passing studio worker, he told Archerd, “Look at that man. He works 14-16 hours a day, drives an hour or two to his home. He doesn’t get any award. Everyone on a movie deserves an award — not just one person.”
In the early 1970s, Brando gave an interview to Playboy but declined to talk about acting. He found TV talkshows silly, saying no one would invite a plumber on TV to talk about his most challenging sink, or how he prepared for his work, and he found actors talking about acting to be equally frivolous.
Brando had always made headlines with tales of his tempestuous love life. But after moving to Tahiti in 1966, the negative stories increased, with stories about his weight fluctuations and strange behavior.
Things reached their low point starting in the 1990s, with his son’s manslaughter conviction and daughter’s suicide, plus the death of a daughter-in-law in a hit-and-run accident in Los Angeles, not to mention professional flaps (a bitter public feud with the producers of “Christopher Columbus” over mistreatment of employees and negative portrayals of Native Americans, a director being fired on “Dr. Moreau” and his refusal to speak with helmer Frank Oz during filming of “The Score”).
Though many doubted it would ever get written, his autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” was published in September 1994. Around the same time, a 1,000-page bio came out, written by Peter Manso.
Brando fathered children with four women, most recently his housekeeper. (Accounts vary on how many children he had; some say nine, others 11.)
His first wife was Anna Kashfi, with whom he became involved in an ugly and protracted custody battle over son Christian. He also was married to Mexican actress Movita, mother of his son Miko, and then Tarita Teriipia, the mother of Cheyenne and Teihoutu.
Funeral plans were being kept under wraps.