Hand color tinted photo of Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, from the 1953 movie, The Wild One
Marlon Brando, Jr. (April 3, 1924 – July 1, 2004) was an American actor whose body of work spanned over half a century.
As a young sex symbol, he is best known for his roles as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and his Academy Award-winning performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, both directed by Elia Kazan in the early 1950s. In middle age, his well-known roles include his Academy Award-winning performance as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, both directed by Francis Ford Coppola and an Academy Award-nominated performance as Paul in Last Tango in Paris.
Brando’s impact on film acting was seismic. He became known as the foremost example of the “method” acting style, and was initially much parodied for his “mumbling” diction, but his mercurial, often uncategorizable performances were held in the highest regard among his peers. Director Martin Scorsese said, “He is the marker. There’s ‘before Brando’ and ‘after Brando’.'” Actor Jack Nicholson once said, “When Marlon dies, everybody moves up one.”
Brando was an activist, lending his presence to many issues, including the American Civil Rights and American Indian Movements.
Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska on April 3, 1924, the son of Dorothy Julia Pennebaker Brando (1897 – 1954), an actress, and Marlon Brando, Sr. (1895 – 1965), a pesticide and chemical feed manufacturer. The family moved to Evanston, Illinois and in 1935, when he was eleven years old, his parents separated. His mother briefly took her three children Marlon, Jocelyn Brando (1919 – 2005) and Frances Brando (1922 – 1994) to live with her mother in Santa Ana, California until 1937, when the parents reconciled and moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a village north of Chicago. The family was of mixed Dutch, Irish, German, and English descent. Brando’s ancestor, Johann Wilhelm Brandau, immigrated to New Amsterdam, NY from Pfalz, Germany. Brando was raised a Christian Scientist. Contrary to what is stated in some biographies, Brando’s grandfather Eugene E. Brando was not French but was born in New York state. Brando’s grandmother Marie Holloway abandoned Eugene and their son Marlon Brando Sr. when he was five years old and used the money she received from Eugene to support her gambling and constant drinking.
Brando’s mother, Dodie, was an unconventional and talented woman. She smoked, wore trousers and drove automobiles at a time when it was unusual for women to do so. However, she suffered from alcoholism and often had to be retrieved from Chicago bars by Brando’s father. She later became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dodie was an actress and administrator in local theater and the Omaha newspapers wrote about her for her theatrical work. She helped a young Henry Fonda to begin his own acting career, and fueled Brando’s interest in stage acting. His father, Marlon Sr., was a gifted amateur photographer. Brando’s maternal grandmother, Bessie Gahan Pennebaker Meyers, to whom Brando was perhaps closer than his own mother, was also unconventional. Widowed at a young age, she worked to support herself as a secretary and later as a Christian Science healer, and was well known in Omaha. Her father, Myles Gahan, was a doctor from Ireland and her mother, Julia Watts, was from England. Brando was a gifted mimic from early childhood and developed a rare ability to absorb the tics and mannerisms of people he played and to display those traits dramatically while staying in character. His sister, Jocelyn Brando, however, was the first to pursue a career in acting, going to New York to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. She later appeared on Broadway, in movies and on television. Next, Brando’s sister Frannie left college in California to study art in New York. Brando followed.
Brando had a tumultuous youth. He was held back a year in school and was later expelled from Libertyville High School for riding his motorcycle through the school. At the age of sixteen years, he was sent to Shattuck Military Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, where his father had gone before him. At Shattuck, he excelled at theatre and got along well within the structure of the school. In his final year (1943), he was put on probation for talking back to an officer during maneuvers. A part of his probation was that he be confined to the school campus, but he eventually tried sneaking off campus into town and was caught. The faculty voted to expel him. He received support from his fellow students who thought the punishment too harsh. He was later invited back for the next year, but decided not to finish school.
Brando worked as a ditch-digger in his home town as a summer job arranged by his father, but had decided to follow his sisters to New York. One sister was trying to be a painter and the other had already appeared on Broadway. He visited his sister Frances in New York at Christmas 1942 and liked the experience. Brando was given six months of support from his father, after which his father offered to help him get a job as a salesman. Brando left Illinois for New York City, where he studied at the American Theatre Wing Professional School, at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School with the influential German director Erwin Piscator and at the Actors’ Studio. It was at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop that he studied with Stella Adler and learned the techniques of the Stanislavski System. There is a story in which Adler spoke about teaching Brando, saying that she had instructed the class to act like chickens, then adding that a 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. When Adler asked Brando to explain his action, he replied, “I’m a chicken — What do I know about bombs?”
Brando used his Stanislavski System skills for his first summer-stock roles in Sayville, New York on Long Island. His behavior got him kicked out of the cast of the New School’s production in Sayville, but he was discovered in a locally produced play there and then made it to Broadway in the bittersweet drama I Remember Mama in 1944. 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 because of his commitment to the cause of Israeli independence. Brando achieved stardom, however, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. Brando sought out that role, driving out to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Williams was spending the summer, to audition for the part. Williams recalled that he opened the screen door and knew, instantly, that he had his Stanley Kowalski. Brando’s performance revolutionized acting technique and set the model for the American form of method acting.
Afterward, Brando was asked to do a screen test for Warner Brothers studio for the film Rebel Without A Cause, which James Dean was later cast in. The screen test appears as an extra in the 2006 DVD release of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Brando’s first screen role was as the bitter paraplegic veteran in The Men in 1950. True to his method, Brando spent a month in bed at a veterans’ hospital to prepare for the role.
Rise to fame
Brando made a strong impression in 1951 when he brought his performance as Stanley Kowalski to the screen in Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for that role, and again in each of the next three years for his roles in Viva Zapata! in 1952, Julius Caesar in 1953 as Mark Antony, and On the Waterfront in 1954. These first five films of his career established Brando as perhaps the premier acting talent in the world, as evidenced in his winning the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in three consecutive years, 1951 to 1953.
In 1953, Brando also starred in The Wild One riding his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle which caused consternation to Triumph’s importers, as the subject matter was rowdy motorcycle gangs taking over a small town. But the images of Brando posing with his Triumph motorcycle became iconic, even forming the basis of his wax dummy at Madame Tussauds. Ironically, Brando’s Wild One image is now used by Triumph to advertise their motorcycles.
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 Marlon Brando turned down an offer of $10,000 per week on Broadway, in favor of working on Falk’s play in Boston. His Boston contract was less than $500 per week. It would be the last time he ever acted in a stage play.
Director Nicholas Ray took the gang image from the movie The Wild One and brought it to his movie, Rebel Without A Cause, and thus emphasized Brando’s effect on youth.
Aspects of the rebel culture that included motorcycles, leather jackets, jeans and the rebel image, which inspired generations of rebels, came thanks to that film and Brando’s own unique image and character. The sales of motorcycle-related paraphernalia, leather jackets, jeans, boots and t-shirts skyrocketed throughout the country. The film had a similar effect on overseas audiences. Local authorities and religious figures lamented the effect it was having on the youth of their respective countries.
Under Kazan’s direction, and with a talented ensemble around him, Brando won the Oscar for his role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. For the famous I coulda’ been a contender scene, Brando convinced Kazan that the scripted scene was unrealistic, and with Rod Steiger, improvised the final product.
Brando followed that triumph by a variety of roles in the 1950s that defied expectations: as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, where he managed to carry off a singing role; as Sakini, a Japanese interpreter for the U.S. Army in postwar Japan in The Teahouse of the August Moon; as an Air Force officer in Sayonara, and a Nazi officer in The Young Lions. Although he won an Oscar nomination for his acting in Sayonara, his acting had lost much of its energy and direction by the end of the 1950s.
In the 1960s, Brando starred in films such as Mutiny on the Bounty (1962); One-Eyed Jacks (1961), a western that would be the only film Brando would ever direct; a star-studded but unsuccessful potboiler The Chase (1966), in which he played an uncorrupted Texas sheriff; and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), portraying a repressed gay army officer. It was the type of performance that later led critic Stanley Crouch to write, “Brando’s main achievement was to portray the taciturn but stoic gloom of those pulverized by circumstances.” Burn! (1969), which Brando would later claim as his personal favorite, was a commercial failure. His career had gone into almost complete eclipse by the end of the decade, thanks to his reputation as a difficult star and his record in over-budget or marginal movies.
Brando’s performance as Vito Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather was a mid-career turning point. Director Francis Ford Coppola convinced Brando to submit to a “make-up” test, in which Brando did his own makeup (he used cotton balls to simulate the puffed-cheek look). Coppola was electrified by Brando’s characterization as the head of a crime family, but had to fight the studio in order to cast the temperamental Brando, whose reputation for difficult behavior and demands was the stuff of backlot legend. Mario Puzo always imagined Brando as Corleone. However, Paramount studio heads wanted to give the role to Danny Thomas in the hope that Thomas would have his own production company throw in its lot with Paramount. Thomas declined the role and actually urged the studio to cast Brando at the behest of Coppola and others who had witnessed the screen test.
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 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). Brando boycotted the award ceremony, sending instead American Indian Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who appeared in full Apache dress, to state Brando’s reasons, which were based on his objection to the depiction of American Indians by Hollywood and television.
The actor followed with one of his greatest performances in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1973 film, Last Tango in Paris, but the performance was overshadowed by an uproar over the erotic nature of the film. Despite the controversy which attended both the film and the man, the Academy once again nominated Brando for the Best Actor.
Brando’s career afterward was uneven. He was paid one million dollars a week to play the iconic Colonel Kurtz in 1979’s Apocalypse Now. He was supposed to show up slim, fit, and having read the novel Heart of Darkness, but instead arrived weighing around 220 pounds (100 kg) and had not read the book. As a result, his character was shot mostly in the shadows and most of his dialogue was improvised. After his week was over, director Francis Ford Coppola asked him to stay an extra hour so that he could shoot a close up of Brando saying, “The horror, the horror.” Brando agreed for an extra $75,000. After this film his weight began to limit the roles he could play.
Brando then portrayed Superman’s father Jor-El in the 1978 Superman: The Movie. He agreed to the role only on assurance that he would be paid a large sum for what amounted to a small part, that he would not have to read the script beforehand and his lines would be displayed somewhere off-camera. It was revealed in a documentary contained in the 2001 DVD release of Superman, that he was paid $3.7 million for just two weeks of work.
Brando also filmed scenes for the movie’s sequel, Superman II, but after producers refused to pay him the same percentage he received for the first movie, he denied them permission to use the footage. However, after Brando’s death the footage was reincorporated into the 2006 re-cut of the film, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.
Two years after Brando’s death, he “reprised” the role of Jor-El in the 2006 “loose sequel” Superman Returns, in which both used and unused archive footage of Brando as Jor-El from the first two Superman films was remastered for a scene in the Fortress of Solitude, as well as Brando’s voice-overs being used throughout the film.
Despite announcing his retirement from acting in 1980, he subsequently gave interesting supporting performances in movies such as A Dry White Season (for which he was again nominated for an Oscar in 1989), The Freshman in 1990 and Don Juan DeMarco in 1995. In his last film, The Score (2001), he starred with fellow method actor Robert De Niro. Some later performances, such as The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), earned Brando some of the most uncomplimentary reviews of his career.
Brando conceived the idea of a novel called Fan-Tan with director Donald Cammell in 1979, which was not released until 2005.
Brando became well known for his crusades for civil rights, Native American rights, and other political causes. He also earned a “bad boy” reputation for his public outbursts and antics. On June 12, 1973, Brando broke paparazzo Ron Galella’s jaw. Galella had followed Brando, who was accompanied by talk show host Dick Cavett, after a taping of the Dick Cavett Show in New York City. He reportedly paid a $40,000 out-of-court settlement and suffered an infected hand as a result. Galella wore a football helmet the next time he photographed Brando at a gala benefiting the American Indians Development Association.
In Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando claimed he met Marilyn Monroe at a party as she played piano, unnoticed by anybody else there, and they started an affair that lasted many years until her death, receiving a telephone call from her several days before she died. He also claimed numerous other romances, although he did not discuss his marriages, his wives, or his children in his autobiography.
Brando married actress Anna Kashfi in 1957. Kashfi was born in Calcutta and moved to Wales at the end of British rule in India in 1947. She is said to have been the daughter of a Welsh steel worker of Irish descent, William O’Callaghan, who had been superintendent on the Indian State railways. However, in her book, Brando for Breakfast, she claimed that she really is half Indian and that the press incorrectly thought that her stepfather, O’Callaghan, was her real father. She said her real father was Indian and that she was the result of an “unregistered alliance” between her parents. In 1959, Brando and Kashfi divorced after the birth of their son, Christian Brando, on May 11, 1958.
In 1960, Brando married Movita Castaneda, a Mexican actress seven years his senior; they were divorced in 1962. Castaneda had appeared in the first Mutiny on the Bounty film in 1935, some 27 years before the 1962 remake with Brando as Fletcher Christian. Brando’s behavior during the filming of Bounty seemed to bolster his reputation as a difficult star. He was blamed for a change in director and a runaway budget, though he disclaimed responsibility for either.
The Bounty experience affected Brando’s life in a profound way. He fell in love with Tahiti and its people. He bought a twelve-island atoll, Tetiaroa, which he intended to make partly an environmental laboratory and partly a resort. Tahitian beauty Tarita Teriipia, who played Fletcher Christian’s love interest, became Brando’s third wife on August 10, 1962. She was 20 years old, 18 years younger than Brando. A 1961 article on Teriipia in the fan magazine Motion Picture described Brando’s delight at how naïve and unsophisticated she was. Because Teriipia was a native French speaker, Brando became fluent in the language and gave numerous interviews in French. Teriipia became the mother of two of his children. They divorced in July 1972. Brando eventually had a hotel built on Tetiaroa. It went through many redesigns due to changes demanded by Brando over the years. It is now closed. A new hotel, consisting of thirty deluxe villas, was due to open in 2008.
In an interview with Gary Carey, for his 1976 biography The Only Contender, Brando said, “Homosexuality is so much in fashion it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me. But if there is someone who is convinced that Jack Nicholson and I are lovers, may they continue to do so. I find it amusing.” On his death in 2004, the ashes of his childhood friend Wally Cox, which Brando had kept with him since 1973, were mingled and scattered together with Brando’s own ashes in Tahiti and Death Valley.
by Anna Kashfi:
Christian Devi Brando (aka Gary Brown) (born May 11, 1958 – (died January 26, 2008), died of pneumonia
by Tarita Teriipia:
Simon Teihotu Brando (b. 1963) – the only inhabitant of Tetiaroa
Tarita Cheyenne Brando (b. 1970 – d. 1995), committed suicide
by unknown mother
Stefano Brando (AKA) Stephen Blackehart (b. 1967)
by his long-time housekeeper, Maria Christina Ruiz: Ninna Priscilla Brando (born May 13, 1989)
Myles Jonathan Brando (born January 16, 1992)
Timothy Gahan Brando (born January 6, 1994)
Miko Castaneda Brando (b. 1961)
Rebecca Brando Kotlizky (b. 1966)
Petra Brando-Corval (b. 1972), daughter of Brando’s assistant Caroline Barrett and novelist James Clavell (aka Charles Edmund DuMaresq de Clavell)
Maimiti Brando (b. 1977)
Raiatua Brando (b. 1982)
Shooting involving Brando’s son, Christian
In May 1990, Dag Drollet, the Tahitian lover of Brando’s daughter Cheyenne, died of a gunshot wound after a confrontation with Cheyenne’s half-brother Christian at the family’s hilltop home above Beverly Hills. Christian, then 31 years old, claimed he was drunk and the shooting was accidental.
After heavily publicized pre-trial proceedings, Christian pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and use of a gun. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. Before the sentence, Brando delivered an hour of testimony, in which he said he and his former wife had failed Christian. He commented softly to members of the Drollet family: “I’m sorry… If I could trade places with Dag, I would. I’m prepared for the consequences.” Afterward, Drollet’s father said he thought Brando was acting and his son was “getting away with murder”. The tragedy was compounded in 1995, when Cheyenne, suffering from lingering effects of a serious car accident and said to still be depressed over Drollet’s death, committed suicide by hanging herself in Tahiti. Christian Brando died of pneumonia at age 49, on January 26, 2008.
Final years and death
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 1980s and by the mid 1990s he weighed over 300 lbs. (136 kg) and suffered from diabetes. Not unlike Orson Welles or Elvis Presley, his weight fluctuated throughout his career, attributed to his years of stress-related overeating. 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 and childish demands. On the other hand, most other actors found him generous, funny, and supportive.
Brando also dabbled with some innovation in his last years. Brando had several patents issued in his name from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, all of which involve a method of tensing 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 thirtieth-anniversary celebration concerts in 2001, and starred in his 15-minute-long music video, “You Rock My World”, in the same year. 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.” On Jackson’s 30th anniversary concert, Brando gave a speech to the audience on humanitarian work which received a poor reaction from the audience and was unaired.
On July 1, 2004, Brando died, aged 80. The cause of death was intentionally withheld, his lawyer citing privacy concerns. It was later revealed that he had died at UCLA Medical Center of respiratory failure brought on by pulmonary fibrosis. He also suffered from congestive heart failure, failing eyesight due to diabetes, and liver cancer.
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, Brando 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, after being mingled together with those of Wally Cox, were scattered partly in Tahiti and partly in Death Valley.
In 2007, a 165-minute biopic of Brando, Brando: The Documentary, produced by Mike Medavoy (the executor of Brando’s will) for Turner Classic Movies, was released.
In 1946, Brando showed his dedication to the Jewish desire for a homeland by performing in Ben Hecht’s Zionist play “A Flag is Born”. Brando’s involvement had an impact on three of the most contentious issues of the early postwar period: the fight to establish a Jewish state, the smuggling of Holocaust survivors to Palestine, and the battle against racial segregation in the United States.
Brando attended some fundraisers for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election.
In August 1963, Brando participated in the March on Washington along with fellow celebrities Harry Belafonte, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, and Sidney Poitier. Brando also, along with Paul Newman, participated in the freedom rides.
In the aftermath of the 1968 slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Brando made one of the strongest commitments to furthering Dr. King’s work. Shortly after Dr. King’s death, Brando announced that he was bowing out of the lead role of a major film (The Arrangement) which was about to begin production, in order to devote himself to the civil rights movement. “I felt I’d better go find out where it is; what it is to be black in this country; what this rage is all about”, Brando said on the late night ABC-TV Joey Bishop Show.
The actor’s participation in the African-American civil rights movement actually began well before King’s death. In the early 1960s Brando contributed thousands of dollars to both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) and to a scholarship fund established for the children of slain Mississippi N.A.A.C.P. leader Medgar Evers. By this time, Brando was already involved in films that carried messages about human rights: “Sayonara”, which addressed interracial romance, and the “The Ugly American”, depicting the conduct of US officials abroad and its deleterious effect on the citizens of foreign countries. For a time Brando was also donating money to the Black Panther Party and considered himself a friend of founder Bobby Seale. However, Brando ended his financial support for the group over his perception of its increasing radicalization, specifically a passage in a Panther pamphlet put out by Eldridge Cleaver advocating indiscriminate violence, “for the Revolution”.
At the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony, Brando refused to accept the Oscar for his performance in The Godfather. Sacheen Littlefeather represented Mr. Brando at the ceremony. She appeared in full Apache clothing. She stated that owing to the “poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry” Mr. Brando would not accept the award. At this time the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee occurred, causing rising tensions between the government and Native American activists. The event grabbed the attention of the US and the world media. This was considered a major event and victory for the movement by its supporters and participants.
Outside of his film work, Brando not only appeared before the California Assembly in support of a fair housing law, but personally joined picket lines in demonstrations protesting discrimination in housing developments.
Comments on Jews and Hollywood
In an interview in Playboy magazine in January 1979, Brando said: “You’ve seen every single race besmirched, but you never saw an [unfavorable] image of the kike because the Jews were ever so watchful for that—and rightly so. They never allowed it to be shown on screen. The Jews have done so much for the world that, I suppose, you get extra disappointed because they didn’t pay attention to that.”
Brando made a similar allegation on Larry King Live in April 1996, saying “Hollywood is run by Jews; it is owned by Jews, and they should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of — of people who are suffering. Because they’ve exploited — we have seen the — we have seen the Nigger and Greaseball, we’ve seen the Chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we have seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything but we never saw the Kike. Because they knew perfectly well, that that is where you draw the wagons around.” King replied, “When you say — when you say something like that you are playing right in, though, to anti-Semitic people who say the Jews are — ” at which point Brando interrupted, “No, no, because I will be the first one who will appraise the Jews honestly and say ‘Thank God for the Jews.'”
Jay Kanter, Brando’s agent, producer and friend told Daily Variety, “Marlon has spoken to me for hours about his fondness for the Jewish people, and he is a well-known supporter of Israel.”