Marlon Brando’s legacy, like his life, has been fraught with complications and contradictions. In the six years since his death, dozens of lawsuits were filed against his estate — including ones from a personal assistant, a business manager and even a former daughter-in-law.
But his executors and the estate’s legal team have declared peace, as all the suits have been dismissed or settled — which is no small thing as they go about the business of Brando.
What that means is capitalizing on his legendary status, in what has been a growing and sometimes lucrative aspect of post-life stardom: the merchandising of deceased celebrities’ name and likeness.
For the estate’s corporation, Brando Enterprises, that has meant a deal with Indian Motorcyles, which has re-created a line of leather jackets Brando wore in “The Wild One”; a deal with Dolce & Gabbana for a line of jackets, T-shirts and tank tops; and, most prominently, a high-end resort on the actor’s private atoll in the South Pacific, Tetiaroa. The name will be, simply, the Brando.
The first thing that springs to mind is, Is this what Marlon would have wanted?
To say that is a loaded question is an understatement.
During his life he seldom struck endorsement deals, but one of his last projects was doing the voiceover for Paramount’s “The Godfather” videogame. He sought solace and isolation on the atoll, yet it was he who first built a resort there. Even the perception that he was somewhat of a recluse isn’t true, given that he called reporters from time to time to chat about the environment.
Brando wasn’t Elvis, but, according to his estate’s lawyers, he also had a business sense.
“He put no restrictions on how the trustees could use his name in the future,” said David Seeley, one of the attorneys representing the estate. “I think that says a lot.”
Much of the battle over Brando’s estate — worth a reported $22 million — stems from an action he took two weeks before he died. That’s when he signed a codicil appointing three new executors to his estate: producer Mike Medavoy, accountant Larry Dressler and Avra Douglas, a family friend. The action knocked out the two previous executors, Alice Marchak, his former personal assistant and named in his will as a beneficiary, and business manager JoAn Corrales. Both sued the estate for an array of reasons and eventually settled.
That certainly wasn’t all. One of the protracted suits was brought by Deborah Brando, who was once married to Christian Brando, and claimed she was assigned his rights as another beneficiary after the death of the actor’s oldest son in 2008. (The estate has eight beneficiaries.)
One of her more explosive allegations was that the codicil was forged.
But her efforts to reopen probate were denied, with the California Court of Appeal ruling last summer that she lacked standing. The court noted that Christian Brando was “neither an heir or beneficiary under that will.” As she continued her legal fight, the estate settled with her, too, for what its attorneys call a “nuisance settlement,” i.e. a small amount of money. But the estate’s reps also say they were prepared to present Brando’s thumbprint as evidence of the signing of the codicil, notarized by notary public Neil Dekter.
This only scratches the surface of the legal tangle, one that Seeley said made it difficult going forward “in the fact that we had to prove to various people that the trustees were legitimate and had the power to do what they needed to do.”
“We spent a lot of time and money putting representations and warranties out there proving that we were the right people moving forward on behalf of the beneficiaries,” he said.
A particular point of contention was the idea for the Brando.
In 2004 the estate struck a deal with Dick Bailey, a luxury hotel developer, to create an eco-resort on the island, which the actor had purchased in 1966. Scheduled to open on June 6, 2012, the development will feature 47 villas, each with its own plunge pool, as well as a spa and fitness center.
With a Hitchcockian logo that blends Brando’s profile with a gentle shoreline, the resort also will deploy some of Brando’s ideas. When Brando was alive, Bailey had discussed plans with him, including a “sea water air-conditioning system,” in which a deep-sea pipe pumps cold water from the ocean depths to chill the air in the hotel. Even though Bailey had extensive talks with the actor, they never came to a development agreement.
Critics like Marchak have questioned whether the estate’s reps, even the family member beneficiaries, really knew what Brando wanted. They doubted that meant a luxury resort on the island, much less branded in his name.
But the estate’s representatives note that Brando himself built a resort there during his lifetime, albeit one that was in a state of decay by the time he died, and that they are continuing his legacy of making the destination a center for research and education. This includes the creation of a non-profit foundation charged with protection of the atoll. The buildings will not go above the treelines, and none of the villas will be built over the lagoon, one thing that Brando was clear that he did not want, Seeley said.
“There’s some things where you would say, ‘I have a feeling Marlon would really object to this,'” Medavoy said that “Butin general we have to do what is best for the surviving members of his family and the ones he asked us to take care of, as long as it is not demeaning to Marlon the actor.”
Working with Brand Sense Partners, they have rejected some ideas, like a line of ashtrays. And much of their time is spent in what another attorney, Jeffrey Abrams, called “protecting the brand from being misused.” That includes pursuing legal action against what they say is the unauthorized use of his name, like its use in the Broadcast Center Apartments near CBS Television City in Los Angeles.
A longtime friend, Medavoy last spoke to Brando the night before he died. About a year before Brando’s death, Medavoy said that he had a conversation with the actor in which Brando brought up the topic of his passing, but Medavoy said thought he was “kidding around” and pushed the conversation to something else. Only after his death, he said, was he informed that he was named as an executor.
“In the final analysis, it was all his decision,” said Medavoy, gathered recently in his office along with the estate’s attorneys. “I have a feeling if I had called him and said, ‘Hey, I would like to be your executor,’ he probably would have told me I was nuts. And I have a feeling, looking down, he is probably laughing.”