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Behind the Scenes of Brando’s Life

Times Staff Writer

More than a year before he died, Marlon Brando traveled north to the Santa Ynez Valley. The destination was a familiar one for the aging movie legend: Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, where Brando settled in for a long stay at the home of the pop star who, improbably, had become one of his closest friends.

“The last time my father left his house to go anywhere, to spend any kind of time, it was with Michael Jackson,” Brando’s son Miko, a longtime Jackson employee, recalled. “He loved it.... My father had a 24-hour chef, 24-hour security, 24-hour help, 24-hour kitchen, 24-hour maid service. Just carte blanche.”

Though Brando was a famed recluse in his later years, interviews with his family, friends and associates in recent days offer a glimpse of unexpected ways in which the legendary Hollywood figure lived out his days. Their comments come as executors for the estate chronicle Brando’s holdings and craft a strategy for preserving his legacy.

By the final months of his life, friends and family said, Brando needed a portable oxygen tank most of the time to aid his breathing, which had been impaired by pulmonary fibrosis. He had shed 85 pounds from his once-enormous frame.

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But one longtime friend, Joan “Toni” Petrone, said Brando took pains to keep his flagging health quiet, so that producers in Hollywood would not consider him too great a risk to hire.

It wasn’t until shortly before his death, at age 80 on July 1, that the truly grim prognosis became clear to his friends and family -- and to Brando himself.

“I don’t think he knew he was that ill,” said Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, named by the actor as co-executor of his estate two weeks before Brando’s death at UCLA Medical Center in Westwood.

After his death, the two-time Oscar winner, who starred in such films as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather,” was placed on view at a local mortuary, his body dressed in a Japanese robe and his favorite red scarf, said Petrone, who knew Brando since 1952 and had worked for him for 12 years as an assistant.

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Brando’s memorial service was held at Medavoy’s house and attended by Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Sean Penn, among others. Miko Brando said his father’s ashes were divided between Tahiti, where Brando owned an idyllic atoll, and California’s Death Valley.

Now Brando’s family and executors are moving on to the next phase: determining how his estate will be divided.

Brando’s will, filed July 9 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, estimated the value of his estate at $21.6 million. The estate includes Brando’s home on Mulholland Drive above Beverly Hills and the Polynesian island of Tetiaroa, which Brando purchased after making “Mutiny on the Bounty” in the 1960s.

“I think there’s talk about developing half of it, because at the end, my father wanted to develop it and have a hotel franchise take it over and develop it as a resort,” said Miko Brando, 43. “He was talking with a big hotel franchise that would set it up as a luxury resort, hotel and spa. He never got around to it, so you know, if it comes up, that’s an option we have. But we’re keeping our business options open.” The hope is to keep it in the family, he said.

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In his will, signed Aug. 28, 2002, in Beverly Hills, Brando named nine of his children as beneficiaries. Left out was a 10th -- his adopted daughter, Petra. She is currently employed as an attorney at a London law firm. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful Tuesday. Brando also made provisions for Alice Marchak, his longtime personal assistant, and Blanche Hall, a household cook in the 1970s who now lives at a Los Angeles retirement home.

A looming question is how the star’s legacy will be controlled.

To that end, Medavoy -- who co-founded Orion Pictures and served as chairman of TriStar Pictures before becoming a full-time producer -- said the estate is in the process of obtaining trademarks on the actor’s name and likeness, so that his heirs can exercise control over the marketing of his celebrity image.

“We probably won’t do what they have done with Marilyn Monroe because that is not him,” said Medavoy, who met Brando at the wedding of Penn and Robin Wright and said he remained in daily contact with the actor until his death.

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Also underway is the cataloging of hundreds of pencil drawings that Brando sketched over his lifetime.

And the family is preparing a set of DVDs based on unreleased footage, shot within the past three years, of Brando teaching the finer points of the acting craft to young performers and interviewing prominent fellow professionals.

Petrone, who worked on the project, said it took several weeks to film and includes Brando talking to other actors such as Penn, Nick Nolte, Jon Voight and Edward James Olmos.

During the filming, Brando would “get up and entertain a little bit” and then ask students to get up and improvise, and the audience would critique them, she said.

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But while making the video, Petrone noticed that Brando coughed a lot. “He was working while he had this lung condition. I didn’t like that he was working at the time. He was coughing pretty badly. They had to edit all that out.”

Miko Brando -- Brando’s son with his second wife, Movita Castaneda, whom he met on the set of “Viva Zapata!” -- has become something of an informal spokesman for the family.

In a wide-ranging conversation this week, Miko Brando touched on many subjects, painting a portrait of a warm, doting father -- with some high-profile and eccentric touches.

“He met Michael through Quincy Jones back in the 1980s,” said Miko Brando, who began working for Jackson more than two decades ago as a security guard. He said Jackson even bought a plasma television set for his father’s bedroom. When Brando moved the set to another room, Jackson bought him another.

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In Miko Brando’s memory, his father is more regular guy than film legend. Father and son watched boxing matches and football games on TV -- sometimes keeping each other on the phone while they watched from their respective homes.

“He’d go, ‘I bet you the next play will be a pass.’ So, we’d go back and forth. He loved the phone.”

Brando’s 9-year-old granddaughter, Prudence -- whose godfather is Michael Jackson -- said the legendary actor wasn’t above pulling a prank on kids. She said he once told all the children at the house to go hide while he counted to 100. They climbed up onto the roof of Brando’s house, convinced they would never be found. But after a few minutes, they realized he wasn’t coming.

“The joke was on them,” Miko Brando said at the end of his daughter’s story, “because he never came and found them.”

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The Brando stories end with an eccentric twist, naturally.

After Brando’s death, his family took his cremated remains and drove to Death Valley, where a portion of his ashes was scattered in the stark desert landscape.

“It was a place he really loved and we took many trips out there,” Miko Brando said. “It was a place he really cherished.”

Curiously enough, along for the ride were the ashes of Brando’s late friend, actor and comedian Wally Cox (“Mr. Peepers”), who died in 1973. How the ashes had come into Brando’s possession is something of a mystery.

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But somehow, scattering their ashes together seemed like the right thing to do.

“He was his best friend,” Miko Brando said.


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