Marlon Brando was born in 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Marlon Brando, Sr., a pesticide and chemical feed manufacturer, and his wife, Dorothy Julia (née Pennebaker). Brando had two older sisters, Jocelyn (1919–2005) and Frances (1922–1994). Brando’s ancestry included German, Dutch, English and Irish. His patrilineal immigrant ancestor, Johann Wilhelm Brandau, arrived in New York in the early 1700s from the Palatinate of Germany. Brando was raised a Christian Scientist. Brando’s mother, known as Dodie, was unconventional for her time; an actress herself, she smoked, wore trousers and drove cars – all unusual for women at the time – and was even a theatre administrator, helping Henry Fonda begin his acting career. However, she was an alcoholic and often had to be brought home from Chicago bars by her husband. In his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando expressed sadness when writing about his mother, “The anguish that her drinking produced was that she preferred getting drunk to caring for us.” Dodie eventually joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Brando harbored far more enmity for his father, stating, “I was his namesake, but nothing I did ever pleased or even interested him. He enjoyed telling me I couldn’t do anything right. He had a habit of telling me I would never amount to anything.” Brando’s parents moved to Evanston, Illinois as his father’s work took him to Chicago, but separated when the boy was 11 years old. His mother took the three children to Santa Ana, California, where they lived with her mother. In 1937, Brando’s parents reconciled and moved together to Libertyville, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago.
Brando, whose childhood nickname was “Bud”, was a mimic from early childhood. He developed an ability to absorb the mannerisms of kids he played with and display them dramatically while staying in character. In the 2007 TCM biopic, Brando: The Documentary, childhood friend George Englund recalls Brando’s earliest acting as imitating the cows and horses on the family farm as a way to distract his mother from drinking. His sister Jocelyn Brando was the first to pursue an acting career, going to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York City. She appeared on Broadway, then films and television. Brando’s sister Frances left college in California to study art in New York. Brando had been held back a year in school and was later expelled from Libertyville High School for riding his motorcycle through the corridors.
He was sent to Shattuck Military Academy, where his father had studied before him. Brando excelled at theatre and did well in the school. In his final year (1943), he was put on probation for being insubordinate to a visiting army colonel during maneuvers. He was confined to his room, but sneaked into town and was caught. The faculty voted to expel him, though he was supported by the students, who thought expulsion was too harsh. He was invited back for the following year, but decided instead to drop out of high school. Brando worked as a ditch-digger as a summer job arranged by his father. He tried to enlist in the Army, but his induction physical revealed that a football injury he had sustained at Shattuck had left him with a trick knee. He was classified as a 4-F, and not inducted.
Brando decided to follow his sisters to New York, studying at the American Theatre Wing Professional School, part of the Dramatic Workshop of the New School, with influential German director Erwin Piscator. In the 1988 documentary, Marlon Brando: The Wild One, Brando’s sister Jocelyn remembered, “He was in a school play and enjoyed it…So he decided he would go to New York and study acting because that was the only thing he had enjoyed. That was when he was eighteen.” In the A&E Biography episode on Brando, George Englund said Brando fell into acting in New York because “he was accepted there. He wasn’t criticized. It was the first time in his life that he heard good things about himself.”
Brando was an avid student and proponent of Stella Adler, from whom he learned the techniques of the Stanislavski System. This technique encouraged the actor to explore his own feelings and past experiences to fully realize the character being portrayed. Brando’s remarkable insight and sense of realism was evident early on. Adler used to recount that when teaching Brando, she had instructed the class to act like chickens, and added that a nuclear bomb was about to fall on them. Most of the class clucked and ran around wildly, but Brando sat calmly and pretended to lay an egg. Asked by Adler why he had chosen to react this way, he said, “I’m a chicken—What do I know about bombs?” Despite being commonly regarded as a Method actor, Brando disagreed. He claimed to have abhorred Lee Strasberg’s teachings:
“After I had some success, Lee Strasberg tried to take credit for teaching me how to act. He never taught me anything. He would have claimed credit for the sun and the moon if he believed he could get away with it. He was an ambitious, selfish man who exploited the people who attended the Actors Studio and tried to project himself as an acting oracle and guru. Some people worshipped him, but I never knew why. I sometimes went to the Actors Studio on Saturday mornings because Elia Kazan was teaching, and there were usually a lot of good-looking girls, but Strasberg never taught me acting. Stella did – and later Kazan.”
Brando used his Stanislavski System skills for his first summer-stock roles in Sayville, New York, on Long Island. His behavior had him kicked out of the cast of the New School’s production in Sayville, but he was discovered in a locally produced play there after which he made it to Broadway in the bittersweet drama I Remember Mama in 1944. In A&E’s Biography Patricia Bosworth observes, “Actors emoted in those days. They were very phoney and extravagant and very theatrical and he was very quiet and realistic and he mumbled and…this was new. Totally new.” Critics voted him “Broadway’s Most Promising Actor” for his role as an anguished veteran in Truckline Café, although the play was a commercial failure. In 1946, he appeared on Broadway as the young hero in the political drama A Flag is Born, refusing to accept wages above the Actor’s Equity rate. In that same year, Brando played the role of Marchbanks with Katharine Cornell in her production’s revival of Candida, one of her signature roles. Cornell also cast him as The Messenger in her production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone that same year.
Brando achieved stardom as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. Brando sought out that role, driving up to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Williams was spending the summer, to audition for the part. In a letter dated August 29, 1947, Williams confided to his agent Audrey Wood,
“It had not occurred to me before what an excellent value would come through casting a very young actor in this part. It humanizes the character of Stanley in that it becomes the brutality and callousness of youth rather than a vicious old man…A new value came out of Brando’s reading which was by far the best reading I have ever heard.”
Brando based his portrayal of Kowalski on the boxer Rocky Graziano, whom he had studied at a local gymnasium. Graziano did not know who Brando was, but attended the production with tickets provided by the young man. He said, “The curtain went up and on the stage is that son of a bitch from the gym, and he’s playing me.”
(In 1947, Brando did a screen test for an early Warner Brothers script for the novel, Rebel Without A Cause (1944), which bore no relation to the film eventually produced in 1955. The screen test is included as an extra in the 2006 DVD release of A Streetcar Named Desire.) Brando’s first screen role was the bitter paraplegic veteran in The Men (1950). He spent a month in bed at the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys to prepare for the role. The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote that Brando as Ken
“is so vividly real, dynamic and sensitive that his illusion is complete” and noted “Out of stiff and frozen silences he can lash into a passionate rage with the tearful and flailing frenzy of a taut cable suddenly cut.”
By Brando’s own account, it may have been because of this film that his draft status was changed from 4-F to 1-A. He had had surgery on his trick knee, and it was no longer physically debilitating enough to incur exclusion from the draft. When Brando reported to the induction center, he answered a questionnaire by saying his race was “human”, his color was “Seasonal-oyster white to beige”, and he told an Army doctor that he was psycho neurotic. When the draft board referred him to a psychiatrist, Brando explained that he had been expelled from military school and had severe problems with authority. Coincidentally, the psychiatrist knew a doctor friend of Brando. Brando avoided military service during the Korean War.
Early in his career, Brando began using cue cards instead of memorizing his lines. Despite the objections of several of the film directors he worked with, Brando felt that this helped bring realism and spontaneity to his performances. He felt otherwise he would appear to be reciting a writer’s speech.
Brando brought his performance as Stanley Kowalski to the screen in Kazan’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). The role remains one of his most iconic and imitated. The critical reception of Brando’s performance was so overwhelmingly positive that Brando quickly became the main male sex symbol in Hollywood. Brando’s animal magnetism and raw power, best evident in the scene where he stands on the street and yells “Stella!”, was so convincing to audiences that years later Brando stated, “Even today I meet people who think of me automatically as a tough, insensitive, coarse guy named Stanley Kowalski. They can’t help it, but, it is troubling.” The role earned Brando his first Academy Award nomination in the Best Actor category.
He was also nominated the next year for Viva Zapata! (1952), a fictionalized account of the life of Emiliano Zapata, Mexican Revolutionary. It recounted his peasant upbringing, his rise to power in the early 1900s, and death. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and co-starred Anthony Quinn. In the biopic, Marlon Brando: The Wild One, Sam Shaw says, “Secretly, before the picture started, he went to Mexico to the very town where Zapata lived and was born in and it was there that he studied the speech patterns of people, their behavior, movement.” Most critics focused on the actor rather than the film, with Time and Newsweek publishing rave reviews. Years later in his autobiography, Brando remarked,
“Tony Quinn, whom I admired professionally and liked personally, played my brother, but he was extremely cold to me while we shot that picture. During our scenes together, I sensed a bitterness toward me, and if I suggested a drink after work, he either turned me down or else was sullen and said little. Only years later did I learn why.”
Brando related that, to create on-screen tension between the two, “Gadg” (Kazan) had told Quinn—who had taken over the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway after Brando had finished—that Brando had been unimpressed with his work. After achieving the desired effect, Kazan never told Quinn that he had misled him. It was only many years later, after comparing notes, that Brando and Quinn realized the deception.
Brando stunned critics when he appeared in Julius Caesar (1953) as Mark Antony. While acknowledging Brando’s talent, some critics felt Brando’s “mumbling” and other idiosyncrasies betrayed a lack of acting fundamentals and, when his casting was announced, many remained dubious about his prospects for success. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and co-starring British stage actor John Gielgud, Brando delivered an impressive performance, especially during Antony’s noted “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech. Gielgud was so impressed that he offered Brando a full season at the Hammersmith Theatre, an offer he declined. In his biography on the actor, Stefan Kanfer writes, “Marlon’s autobiography devotes one line to his work on that film: Among all those British professionals, ‘for me to walk onto a movie set and play Mark Anthony was asinine’—yet another example of his persistent self-denigration, and wholly incorrect.” Kanfer adds that after a screening of the film, director John Huston commented, “Christ! It was like a furnace door opening—the heat came off the screen. I don’t know another actor who could do that.” During the filming of Julius Caesar, Brando learned that Elia Kazan had cooperated with congressional investigators, naming a whole string of “subversives” to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. By all accounts, Brando was upset by his mentor’s decision, but he worked with him again in On The Waterfront. “None of us are [sic “is”] perfect,” he later wrote, “and I think that Gadg has done injury to others, but mostly to himself.”
In 1953, Brando also starred in The Wild One, riding his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle. Triumph’s importers were ambivalent at the exposure, as the subject matter was rowdy motorcycle gangs taking over a small town. The film was criticized for its perceived gratuitous violence at the time, with Time stating, “The effect of the movie is not to throw light on the public problem, but to shoot adrenaline through the moviegoer’s veins.” Brando allegedly did not see eye to eye with the Hungarian director Lazlo Benedek and did not get on with costar Lee Marvin. The film may have been Brando’s first cinematic failure but the images of Brando posing with his Triumph motorcycle became iconic, and are the basis of his wax figure at Madame Tussauds. The film also contains one of the most famous exchanges of the era: when a lady asks Brando’s character Johnny, “What are you rebelling against?” and Johnny replies, “Whaddya got?”
To Brando’s expressed puzzlement, the movie inspired teen rebellion and made him an icon to the nascent rock-and-roll generation and future stars such as James Dean and Elvis Presley. After the movie’s release, the sales of leather jackets and blue jeans skyrocketed. Reflecting on the movie in his autobiography, Brando concluded that it had not aged very well but said,
“More than most parts I’ve played in the movies or onstage, I related to Johnny, and because of this, I believe I played him as more sensitive and sympathetic than the script envisioned. There’s a line in the picture where he snarls, ‘Nobody tells me what to do.’ That’s exactly how I’ve felt all my life.”
Later that same year, Brando starred in Lee Falk’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man in Boston. Falk was proud to tell people that Brando turned down an offer of $10,000 per week on Broadway, in favor of working in his production in Boston, for less than $500 per week. It was the last time Brando acted in a stage play.
In 1954, Brando starred in On the Waterfront, a crime drama film about union violence and corruption among longshoremen. The film was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg; it also stars Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger and, in her film debut, Eva Marie Saint. When initially offered the role, Brando – still stung by Kazan’s testimony at the HUAC – demurred and the part of Terry Malloy nearly went to Frank Sinatra. According to biographer Stefan Kanfer, the director believed that Sinatra, who grew up in Hoboken, would work as Malloy, but eventually producer Sam Spiegel wooed Brando to the part, signing him for $100,000. “Kazan made no protest because, he subsequently confessed, ‘I always preferred Brando to anybody.'”
Brando won the Oscar for his role as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. His performance, spurred on by his rapport with Eva Marie Saint and Kazan’s direction, is universally praised as a tour de force. For the famous I coulda’ been a contender scene, he convinced Kazan that the scripted scene was unrealistic. Schulberg’s script had Brando acting the entire scene with his character being held at gunpoint by his brother Charlie, played by Rod Steiger. Brando insisted on gently pushing away the gun, saying that Terry would never believe that his brother would pull the trigger and doubting that he could continue his speech while fearing a gun on him. Kazan let Brando improvise and later expressed deep admiration for Brando’s instinctive understanding, saying
“what was extraordinary about his performance, I feel, is the contrast of the tough-guy front and the extreme delicacy and gentle cast of his behavior. What other actor, when his brother draws a pistol to force him to do something shameful, would put his hand on the gun and push it away with the gentleness of a caress? Who else could read ‘Oh, Charley!’ in a tone of reproach that is so loving and so melancholy and suggests the terrific depth of pain?…. If there is a better performance by a man in the history of film in America, I don’t know what it is.”
Upon its release, On the Waterfront received euphoric reviews from critics and was a commercial success, earning an estimated $4.2 million in rentals at the North American box office in 1954. In his July 29, 1954, review, The New York Times critic A. H. Weiler hailed the film as a masterpiece, calling it “an uncommonly powerful, exciting, and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals.” Film critic Roger Ebert lauded the film, stating that Brando and Kazan changed acting in American films forever and added it to his “Great Movies” list. In his autobiography, Brando was typically dismissive of his performance: “On the day Gadg showed me the complete picture, I was so depressed by my performance I got up and left the screening room…I thought I was a huge failure.” After Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor, the statue was stolen. Much later, it turned up at a London auction house, which contacted the actor and informed him of its whereabouts.
Brando’s first six films – The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One and On the Waterfront – laid a foundation of authenticity and influence that would sustain him throughout his career and establish a new standard that other actors—and Brando himself—would have difficulty attaining. As the decade continued, Brando remained a top box office draw but some critics felt his performances lacked the intensity and commitment found in his earlier work, especially with Kazan. He portrayed Napoleon in the 1954 film Désirée. According to co-star Jean Simmons, Brando’s contract forced him to star in the movie. He did not approve of the script, consequently putting little effort into the role and later dismissing the entire movie as “superficial and dismal” and admitted to being astonished by the great success it turned out to be. Brando was especially contemptuous of director Henry Kostner and, according to the book Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando, the actor “made a policy of forgetting his lines or reciting them with a nasal pseudo-British intonation and creating havoc between takes, passing around a football, squirting extras with a fire hose, and mocking the Anglo-Indian intonations of his costar Merle Oberon.”
Brando and Simmons were paired together again in the MGM film adaptation of the musical Guys and Dolls (1955). Guys and Dolls would be Brando’s first and last musical role. Time found the picture “false to the original in its feeling”, remarking that Brando “sings in a faraway tenor that sometimes tends to be flat.” Appearing in Edward Murrow’s Person to Person interview in early 1955, he admitted to having problems with his singing voice, which he called “pretty terrible.” In the 1965 documentary “Meet Marlon Brando” he revealed that the final product heard in the movie was a result of countless singing takes being cut into one and later joked, “I couldn’t hit a note with a baseball bat; some notes I missed by extraordinary margins…They sewed my words together on one song so tightly that when I mouthed it in front of the camera, I nearly asphyxiated myself”. Relations between Brando and Sinatra were also frosty, with Stefan Kanfer observing, “The two men were diametrical opposites: Marlon required multiple takes; Frank detested repeating himself.” Upon their first meeting Sinatra reportedly scoffed, “Don’t give me any of that Actors Studio shit.” Brando later famously quipped, “Frank is the kind of guy, when he dies, he’s going to heaven and give God a hard time for making him bald.” The film was a smash, however, costing $5.5 million to make and grossing $13 million.
Brando played Sakini, a Japanese interpreter for the U.S. Army in postwar Japan in The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Pauline Kael was not particularly impressed by the movie, but noted “Marlon Brando starved himself to play the pixie interpreter Sakini, and he looks as if he’s enjoying the stunt—talking with a mad accent, grinning boyishly, bending forward, and doing tricky movements with his legs. He’s harmlessly genial (and he is certainly missed when he’s offscreen), though the fey, roguish role doesn’t allow him to do what he’s great at and it’s possible that he’s less effective in it than a lesser actor might have been.” In Sayonara (1957) he appeared as a United States Air Force officer. Newsweek found the film a “dull tale of the meeting of the twain” but fans disagreed and the movie became a nationwide hit. According to Stefan Kanfer’s biography of the actor, Marlon’s manager Jay Kanter negotiated a profitable contract with ten percent of the gross going to Brando, which put him in the millionaire category. The movie was controversial due to openly discussing interracial marriage but proved a great success, earning 10 Academy Award nominations, with Brando being nominated for Best Actor. The film went on to win four Academy Awards. Teahouse and Sayonara were the first in a string of films Brando would strive to make over the next decade which contained socially relevant messages, and he formed a partnership with Paramount to establish his own production company called Pennebaker, its declared purpose to develop films that contained “social value that would improve the world.” The name was a tribute in honor of his mother, who had died in 1954. By all accounts, Brando was devastated by her death, with biographer Peter Manso telling A&E’s Biography, “She was the one who could give him approval like no one else could and, after his mother died, it seems that Marlon stops caring.” Brando shocked many who knew him by appointing his hated father to run Pennebaker. In the same A&E special, George Englund claims that Brando did it because “it gave Marlon a chance to take shots at him, to demean and diminish him” while biographer David Thomson speculates that “Brando was psychologically daunted by his father.”
In 1958, Brando appeared in The Young Lions, dyeing his hair blonde and assuming a German accent for the role, which he later admitted was not convincing. The film was based on the novel by Irwin Shaw and Brando’s portrayal of the character Christian Diestl was daring and controversial for its time. He later wrote, “The original script closely followed the book, in which Shaw painted all Germans as evil caricatures, especially Christian, whom he portrayed as a symbol of everything that was bad about Nazism; he was mean, nasty, vicious, a cliché of evil…I thought the story should demonstrate that there are no inherently “bad” people in the world, but they can easily be misled.” Shaw and Brando even appeared together for a televised interview with CBS correspondent David Schoenbrun and, during a bombastic exchange, Shaw charged that, like most actors, Brando was incapable of playing flat-out villainy; Brando responded by stating “Nobody creates a character but an actor. I play the role; now he exists. He is my creation.” The Young Lions also features Brando’s only appearance in a film with friend and rival Montgomery Clift. Brando closed out the decade by appearing in The Fugitive Kind opposite Anna Magnani. The film was based on another play by Tennessee Williams but was hardly the success A Streetcar Named Desire had been, with the Los Angeles Times labeling Williams’s personae “psychologically sick or just plain ugly” and The New Yorker calling it a “cornpone melodrama”.
By the dawn of the seventies, Brando was considered “unbankable”. He had not appeared in a hit movie since The Young Lions in 1958, the last year he had ranked as one of the Top Ten Box Office Stars, which was also the year of his last Academy Award nomination, for Sayonara. Brando’s performance as Vito Corleone, the “Don” in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 best-selling novel The Godfather was a mid-career turning point, putting him back in the Top Ten and winning him his second Best Actor Oscar.
Paramount production chief Robert Evans, who had given Mario Puzo an advance to write The Godfather so that Paramount would own the movie rights, hired Coppola after many major directors had turned the movie down because he wanted an Italian-American director who could provide the movie with cultural authenticity. Coppola also came cheap. Evans, who was Jewish, was conscious of the fact that Paramount’s last Mafia movie, The Brotherhood (1968) had been a box office bomb, and he believed it was partly due to the fact that the director, Martin Ritt, and the star, Kirk Douglas, were Jews and the film lacked an authentic Italian flavor. The studio originally intended the movie to be a low-budget production set in contemporary times without any major actors, but the phenomenal success of the novel gave Evans the clout to turn The Godfather into a prestige picture.
Coppola had developed a list of actors for all the roles, and his list of potential Dons included the Oscar-winning Italian-American Ernest Borgnine, the Italian-American Frank DeKova (best known for playing Chief Wild Eagle on the TV sit-com F-Troop), John Marley (a Best Supporting Oscar-nominee for Paramount’s 1970 hit movie Love Story who was cast as the movie producer Woltz in the picture), the Italian-American Richard Conte (who was cast as Don Corleone’s deadly rival Don Barzini), and Italian movie producer Carlo Ponti. Coppola admitted in a 1975 interview, “We finally figured we had to lure the best actor in the world. It was that simple. That boiled down to Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando, who are the greatest actors in the world.” The holographic copy of Coppola’s cast list shows Brando’s name underlined. Evans told Coppola that he had been thinking of Brando for the part two years earlier, and Puzo had imagined Brando in the part when he wrote the novel and had actually written to him about the part, so Coppola and Evans narrowed it down to Brando. (Ironically, Olivier would compete with Brando for the Best Actor Oscar for his part in Sleuth. He bested Brando at the 1972 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.) Albert S. Ruddy, whom Paramount has assigned to producer, agreed with the choice of Brando. However, Paramount studio heads were opposed to casting Brando due to his reputation for difficulty and his long string of box office flops. Brando also had One-Eyed Jacks working against him, a troubled production that lost money for Paramount when it was released in 1961. Paramount Pictures President Stanley Jaffe told an exasperated Coppola, “As long as I’m president of this studio, Marlon Brando will not be in this picture, and I will not longer allow you to discuss it.” Jaffe eventually set three conditions for the casting of Brando: That he would have to take a fee far below what he typically received; he’d have to agree to accept financial responsibility for any production delays his behavior cost; and he had to submit to a screen test. In order to skirt the humiliation of having Brando submit to a screen test, Coppola convinced Brando to a videotaped “make-up” test, in which Brando did his own makeup (he used cotton balls to simulate the puffed-cheek look). Coppola had feared Brando might be too young to play the Don, but was electrified by the actor’s characterization as the head of a crime family. Even so, he had to fight the studio in order to cast the temperamental actor. Brando had doubts himself, stating in his autobiography, “I had never played an Italian before, and I didn’t think I could do it successfully.” Eventually, Charles Bluhdorn, the president of Paramount parent Gulf+Western, was won over to letting Brando have the role; when he saw the screen test, he asked in amazement, “What are we watching? Who is this old guinea?” Brando was signed for a low fee of $50,000, but in his contract, he was given a percentage of the gross on a sliding scale: 1% of the gross for each $10 million over a $10 million threshold, up to 5% if the picture exceeded $60 million. According to Evans, Brando sold back his points in the picture for $100,000 as he was in dire need of funds. “That $100,000 cost him $11 million,” Evans claimed.
In a 1994 interview that can be found on the Academy of Achievement website, Coppola insisted, “The Godfather was a very unappreciated movie when we were making it. They were very unhappy with it. They didn’t like the cast. They didn’t like the way I was shooting it. I was always on the verge of getting fired.” When word of this reached Brando, he threatened to walk off the picture, writing in his memoir, “I strongly believe that directors are entitled to independence and freedom to realize their vision, though Francis left the characterizations in our hands and we had to figure out what to do.” In a 2010 television interview with Larry King, Al Pacino also talked about how Brando’s support helped him keep the iconic role of Michael Corleone in the movie—despite the fact director Francis Ford Coppola wanted to sack him. Brando was on his best behaviour during filming and, buoyed by an impressive cast that included Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Diane Keaton. In the Vanity Fair article “The Godfather Wars” Mark Seals writes, “With the actors, as in the movie, Brando served as the head of the family. He broke the ice by toasting the group with a glass of wine. ‘When we were young, Brando was like the godfather of actors,’ says Robert Duvall. ‘I used to meet with Dustin Hoffman in Cromwell’s Drugstore, and if we mentioned his name once, we mentioned it 25 times in a day.’ Caan adds, ‘The first day we met Brando everybody was in awe.'”
Brando’s performance got ecstatic praise from critics. “I thought it would be interesting to play a gangster, maybe for the first time in the movies, who wasn’t like those bad guys Edward G. Robinson played, but who is kind of a hero, a man to be respected,” Brando recalled in his autobiography. “Also, because he had so much power and unquestioned authority, I thought it would be an interesting contrast to play him as a gentle man, unlike Al Capone, who beat up people with baseball bats.” Co-star Robert Duvall later marvelled to A&E’s Biography, “He minimized the sense of beginning. In other words he, like, deemphasized the word action. He would go in front of that camera just like he was before. Cut! It was all the same. There was really no beginning. I learned a lot from watching that.” Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, but turned down the Oscar, becoming the second actor to refuse a Best Actor award (the first being George C. Scott for Patton in 1970). He boycotted the award ceremony, instead sending American Indian Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who appeared in full Apache attire, to state Brando’s reasons, which were based on his objection to the depiction of American Indians by Hollywood and television.
The actor followed The Godfather with Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film Last Tango in Paris opposite Maria Schneider, but Brando’s highly praised performance threatened to be overshadowed by an uproar over the sexual content of the film. Brando portrays a recent American widower named Paul, who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young, betrothed Parisian woman named Jeanne. As with previous films, Brando refused to memorize his lines for many scenes; instead, he wrote his lines on cue cards and posted them around the set for easy reference, leaving Bertolucci with the problem of keeping them out of the picture frame. The film features several intense, graphic scenes involving Brando, including Paul anally raping Jeanne using butter as a lubricant and Paul’s angry, emotionally charged final confrontation with the corpse of his dead wife. The controversial movie was a hit, however, and Brando made the list of Top Ten Box Office Stars for the last time. The voting membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences again nominated Brando for Best Actor, his seventh nomination. Although Brando won the 1973 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, he lost the Oscar to Jack Lemmon, and the actor did not appear at the ceremony or send a representative to pick up the award if he won. Critic Pauline Kael, in her famous New Yorker review, wrote “The movie breakthrough has finally come. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.” Brando confessed in his autobiography, “To this day I can’t say what Last Tango In Paris was about” and added the film “required me to do a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when it was finished, I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and I didn’t want to suffer like that anymore…You can’t fake it.”
In 1973, Brando suffered a great personal loss with the death of his childhood friend Wally Cox. Brando appeared unannounced at Cox’s wake. As told by Patricia Bosworth to A&E, Marlon showed up and “climbed up a tree and looked down on everybody. He got the ashes away from Wally Cox’s wife, the box of ashes, and they literally fought over the ashes…He kept them first in his car and then by his bed…Mrs. Cox was going to sue for the ashes but she finally said ‘I think Marlon needs the ashes more than I do.'”
Brando’s notoriety, his troubled family life, and his obesity attracted more attention than his late acting career. He gained a great deal of weight in the 1960s and by the mid-1990s he weighed over 300 lbs. (136 kg) and suffered from diabetes. Like Orson Welles, he had a history of weight fluctuations through his career which, by and large, he attributed to his years of stress-related overeating followed by compensatory dieting. He also earned a reputation for being difficult on the set, often unwilling or unable to memorize his lines and less interested in taking direction than in confronting the film director with odd demands.
He also dabbled with some innovation in his last years. He had several patents issued in his name from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, all of which involve a method of tensioning drum heads, in June 2002–November 2004. (For example, see U.S. Patent 6,812,392 and its equivalents).
The actor was a longtime close friend of entertainer Michael Jackson and paid regular visits to his Neverland Ranch, resting there for weeks at a time. Brando also participated in the singer’s two-day solo career 30th-anniversary celebration concerts in 2001, and starred in his 13-minute-long music video, “You Rock My World,” in the same year. On Jackson’s 30th anniversary concert, Brando gave a rambling speech to the audience on humanitarian work which received a poor reaction and was unaired.
The actor’s son, Miko, was Jackson’s bodyguard and assistant for several years, and was a friend of the singer. He stated, “The last time my father left his house to go anywhere, to spend any kind of time… was with Michael Jackson. He loved it… He had a 24-hour chef, 24-hour security, 24-hour help, 24-hour kitchen, 24-hour maid service.” “Michael was instrumental helping my father through the last few years of his life. For that I will always be indebted to him. Dad had a hard time breathing in his final days, and he was on oxygen much of the time. He loved the outdoors, so Michael would invite him over to Neverland. Dad could name all the trees there, and the flowers, but being on oxygen it was hard for him to get around and see them all, it’s such a big place. So Michael got Dad a golf cart with a portable oxygen tank so he could go around and enjoy Neverland. They’d just drive around—Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, with an oxygen tank in a golf cart.”
In 2004, Brando signed with Tunisian film director Ridha Behion and began pre-production on a project to be titled Brando and Brando. Up to a week before his death, he was working on the script in anticipation of a July/August 2004 start date. Production was suspended in July 2004 following Brando’s death, at which time Behi stated that he would continue the film as an homage to Brando, with a new title of Citizen Brando.
On July 1, 2004, Brando died of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure at the UCLA Medical Center. He left behind 13 children (two of his children, Cheyenne and Dylan Brando, had predeceased him) as well as over 30 grandchildren. He was also survived by his sister Jocelyn. The cause of death was initially withheld, with his lawyer citing privacy concerns. He also suffered from failing eyesight caused by diabetes and liver cancer. Shortly before his death and despite needing an oxygen mask to breathe, he recorded his voice to appear in The Godfather: The Game, once again as Don Vito Corleone.
Karl Malden, Brando’s fellow actor in A Streetcar Named Desire, On The Waterfront, and One-Eyed Jacks (the only film directed by Brando), talks in a documentary accompanying the DVD of A Streetcar Named Desire about a phone call he received from Brando shortly before Brando’s death. A distressed Brando told Malden he kept falling over. Malden wanted to come over, but Brando put him off, telling him there was no point. Three weeks later, Brando was dead. Shortly before his death, he had apparently refused permission for tubes carrying oxygen to be inserted into his lungs, which, he was told, was the only way to prolong his life.
Brando was cremated, and his ashes were put in with those of his childhood friend Wally Cox and another longtime friend, Sam Gilman. They were then scattered partly in Tahiti and partly in Death Valley. In 2007, a 165-minute biopic of Brando for Turner Classic Movies, Brando: The Documentary, produced by Mike Medavoy (the executor of Brando’s will), was released.
- April, 03, 1924
- Omaha, Nebraska
- July, 01, 2004
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- died of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure