The year was 1973, and Marlon Brando was still riding the success of his legendary performance in “The Godfather.” In a few weeks time, in fact, he would win a second Oscar.
On this particular night, though, Brando was secretly ensconced in a back bedroom in the hills above Bel-Air. In a scene that would have made Don Corleone proud, the actor quietly accepted visitors out of view of the celebrity-studded gathering just outside the door.
Many of those in attendance were never even aware of Brando’s arrival at the wake for his closest friend, actor and comedian Wally Cox. That’s because Brando had crept in through a back window at Cox’s residence and hidden out in the room where Cox had died.
Brando “was heartbroken, of course,” over the death, recalled Cox’s widow, Patricia. “Everybody was there,” she added, including celebrities from “The Hollywood Squares” game show, on which Cox was a regular, as well as Tom and Dick Smothers, Vincent Price, Ernest Borgnine and Twiggy. “But Marlon didn’t come out.”
Philip Rhodes, the actor’s longtime makeup artist and close friend since the mid-1940s, said he still remembers Brando’s unusual response when Rhodes asked Brando about his whereabouts during the wake.
“Wally was my friend,” the actor told him. “Nobody else’s.”
Marlon and Wally. Wally and Marlon.
One had been a handsome, rebellious movie icon. The other, a droll, owlish comedian. Yet the bond that existed between these physical opposites would survive decades, from their boyhoods in Evanston, Ill., and even beyond Cox’s unexpected death in February 1973 of a massive heart attack. He was 48.
In the years that followed, Brando made a practice of keeping Cox’s remains nearby, sometimes tucking the ashes in a drawer at his home on Mulholland Drive or under the front seat of his car. He did so against the wishes of Cox’s widow, who said she considered suing Brando for selfishly keeping the ashes that he had accepted under the guise of scattering them in the hills where Cox loved to hike. After Brando died suddenly of lung failure July 1 at age 80, his family scattered the men’s ashes in Death Valley, where the pair had often gone rock hunting.
The odyssey of the ashes is one of the more unusual stories to emerge since the death of the eccentric and intensely private actor. Brando had a history of stormy relationships, attributed to a troubled childhood and his upbringing at the hands of a distant father and an alcoholic mother. Much has also been made of his countless liaisons, reputed to be both heterosexual and homosexual, and failed relationships.
Some friends and family of both men insist Brando’s relationship with Cox was platonic. Regardless, their bond offers a different perspective on one of the world’s most famous, yet little known, men.
Marlon and Wally were 9-year-old boys when their parents introduced them -- Marlon’s mother and Wally’s stepfather were friends in Chicago, where the stepfather worked for NBC. The boys became fast, albeit unlikely, friends, said Eleanor Robinson, Cox’s sister.
“Marlon was kind of a rough little boy,” she said. “He tied Wally to a tree one afternoon and then left him. I’m surprised they remained friends, but they did.”
A few years later, Wally’s family moved to New York City. The Brandos, coincidentally, followed in the 1940s, and Brando began studying acting. Cox made jewelry in those days, using a pillowcase to lug his wares around to private parties. Cox would perform impromptu monologues at those parties, and people urged him to put together a nightclub act. Soon he was making appearances in New York and Hollywood and doing guest stints on Ed Sullivan’s show.
His career took off in 1952, when he starred as the bookish high school science teacher Robinson Peepers in the TV series “Mr. Peepers.” The series ran until 1955. Years later, he was a regular on “The Hollywood Squares” and also provided the voice for the animated superhero Underdog, who would famously declare, “There’s no need to fear! Underdog is here!”
Brando’s career, meanwhile, was white hot, and he was well on his way to solidifying his reputation as a legend, an actor’s actor. He had wrapped up his electrifying performance in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Still on the horizon were “On the Waterfront,” which would land him his first Oscar, and “The Wild One.” Although Brando and Cox were often the toast of New York and Hollywood, the two always returned to the company of each other.
“Marlon was fascinated with how funny Wally was, and I’m sure Wally was fascinated by how handsome Marlon was,” Robinson said. “They envied each other for what each didn’t have.”
But it was more than that, she added. “The same things amused them; there was always much laughter when they were together. And they had similar attitudes toward fame and publicity. They were among the first generation of actors who fled from the press and hid from the public. And they were both intellectuals and extremely intelligent and had lofty conversations on unusual subjects. They were birds of a feather.”
Joan “Toni” Petrone, a longtime friend of Brando’s who worked as his assistant for 12 years until 2003, said Cox and Brando each had a “mischievous sense of humor.”
“They liked to play jokes on people and also liked to explore the mental processes of personalities,” she said. “They would do imitations of people.” Cox was known for breaking into a yodel, she added. “Marlon liked him because he was fun and he would make him laugh.”
One of Cox’s favorite antics was swinging like Tarzan from the rafters of his Studio City home.
“He put brass rings all across the living room, across the garden room and into his workshop,” Patricia Cox Shapiro recalled.
Often, the men gathered at each other’s home, sometimes in the company of the late actor Sam Gilman, who appeared in a number of Brando’s films, including “The Missouri Breaks.”
There was always much game-playing when the three men got together, said Gilman’s widow, Lisabeth Hush. “The game was, Sam was to be the critic, Wally was either the good boy or bad boy, and Marlon was always the bad boy.”
To those who knew him closely, like Cox and Hush, Brando could be both a marvelous friend and a moody tyrant, gracious to a fault yet jealous and exasperating. Brando could also be temperamental and didn’t hesitate to take it out on everyone else.
“He could cause a freeze in your living room if he came in a bad mood,” Hush said recently. “He could make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. Everybody was miserable because of his misery.”
Hush recalled that Cox would fume -- privately -- whenever Brando turned his aggression on someone.
“Marlon would go do his numbers on people and Wally would be furious, but he couldn’t take Marlon on,” she said. “It was a strange, tough relationship among tough and weak people.”
Would-be breakup artist
The actor could be very possessive of his friendships and had earned a reputation for trying to bust up relationships.
“He, of course, was after my wife right away,” said Rhodes, the actor’s makeup artist. “That was part of his background. He disliked his father very much, and Marlon tried to break up his father and mother for many years. He did the same thing with other people. He’d go after somebody’s wife to break them up. That was just one of his hang-ups.”
Gilman’s widow said Brando also tried to interfere in her relationship with Sam.
“He was really mad when Sam took up with me,” she recalled. “He was furious. He’d call up at 2 in the morning and want Sam to crawl around the coffee shops with him. But Sam wouldn’t do it. Marlon also wanted to know about our sex life, and Sam just hung up on him.”
Cox, who had married three times, also struggled with Brando’s demanding nature, two of his former wives said.
Milagros Tirado “Millie” Beck, Cox’s second wife, said Brando was often “generous in spirit,” but he also could turn “totally vicious, mean, almost bitchy.”
The first time she met Brando, she recalled, he arrived with an entourage at Cox’s home in rural Connecticut: “He comes in and he doesn’t say a word. He was kind of sulky and very rude and I sensed, absolutely, that he was like a brother being jealous of an intruder.”
Cox’s third wife, Shapiro, said much the same.
“He didn’t want Wally to marry me,” Shapiro said. “He was very possessive of Wally.”
Shapiro recalled showing Brando a gold wedding ring Cox had given her in 1968.
“Wally carved a beautiful ring that I still have,” she said. “It was made of gold. It had beautiful flowers. Marlon came over and said, ‘Wouldn’t you like diamonds set in the flowers?’ I said, ‘No, this is Wally’s.’ [Marlon] loved to test everybody to see what you were made of.”
Beck recalled how Brando once became jealous after fans flocked around Cox, ignoring Brando.
Brando and a large group of friends, including Cox and actors James Coburn and Lee Marvin, had been riding motorcycles together one day in the mid-1960s when they made a pit stop in Bakersfield. A tour bus pulled up and several elderly riders got out and instantly recognized Mr. Peepers.
“They came screaming over to Wally. Then I noticed that Marlon was now posing -- doing his famous kind of Julius Caesar pose,” Beck said. “They didn’t recognize him. Marlon pouted the rest of the day.”
Beck said Brando and her husband would often wrestle like kids. It would start with arm wrestling and progress to full-on wrestling. Her husband may have looked slight and weak, but “Wally would beat [Marlon] every time, pin him down,” she recalled.
Beck and Shapiro said they are aware of the rumors that Brando and Cox had a homosexual relationship, but they never believed it.
“I never had a sense of that,” Beck said. “I had a sense of true brotherly love.”
Shapiro added that, “I never saw [evidence of] that. I saw two guys pillow fighting. First of all, I knew Wally pretty well. Even though Marlon had orgies, Wally never participated in them. I trusted Wally implicitly. They’d do all sort of athletic things together, like swimming, motorcycles, hiking, Indian wrestling.”
A final wish
At the time of Cox’s death, Brando was in Tahiti. He rushed back to the U.S. when word reached him.
“He took over as I knew he would,” Shapiro said, adding that Brando was a wonderful comfort. “I said to Marlon, ‘Can you pick up the ashes at the mortuary?’ It was an honor to him. They had been childhood friends. They loved and trusted only each other.”
Shapiro asked Brando to scatter Cox’s remains in his favorite hiking places. But three years after her husband’s death, the widow happened to be reading an article about Brando in Time magazine and came across these quotes by the actor, as he recalled Cox: “He was [like] my brother. I can’t tell you how much I miss and love that man. I have Wally’s ashes in my house. I talk to him all the time.”
“I went, ‘What?’ ” Shapiro recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt so hurt that he lied to me. I wanted to sue, but the lawyers wouldn’t do it. They laughed.”
The ashes of Brando and Cox were not the only remains scattered in Death Valley by the Brando family this year. After Gilman died at age 70 in 1985, Gilman’s widow gave Brando a portion of his remains in honor of the long friendship between the men. Miko Brando, Brando’s second-eldest son, said those ashes were also sprinkled at Death Valley.
Gilman’s widow said she has a theory why Brando kept the ashes of both friends. She recalled that although Brando wasn’t particularly religious, he was spiritual: “I think he communed with them ... I believe that. You don’t just collect ashes for ashes.”