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The Method and a little Brando madness

Times Staff Writer

Marlon Brando’s early career is so identified with his portrayal of brutish Stanley Kowalski onstage and in the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” that it’s often forgotten he debuted on film the year before in “The Men,” as a paraplegic World War II veteran.

Maverick filmmaker Stanley Kramer produced “The Men,” and their collaboration led to a lifelong friendship that will be explored at the Method Fest, running today through April 8.

Among the activities will be a salute to Brando, long considered the ultimate Method actor. The festival will show the two Brando movies Kramer produced: 1953’s motorcycle gang classic “The Wild One” on Sunday and “The Men” next Thursday at the Louis B. Mayer Theatre in Woodland Hills. The filmmaker’s widow, Karen Kramer, will participate in a Q&A; at the screenings to discuss the legacy of her husband, who died in 2001, and Brando, who died last year.

Stanley Kramer first saw Brando in 1946, a year before he took Broadway by storm in “Streetcar,” during rehearsals for the pre-Broadway tryout of Jean Cocteau’s “The Eagle Has Two Heads” with Tallulah Bankhead. Though Bankhead eventually fired Brando off the production for upstaging her during tryouts in Boston, Kramer was mesmerized by the young actor during the rehearsal.

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Fast-forward to 1949 and Kramer is busy promoting his production of the boxing classic “Champion” with Kirk Douglas. One of the promotional stops was at a veterans hospital in the San Fernando Valley.

“Stanley kind of got intrigued with the paraplegics,” his wife says. “He sent Kirk to go on ahead of him and finish the promotion and he stayed behind with the paraplegics -- he loved their caustic sense of humor. He went back to his office and told his six partners, ‘This is a story that needs to be told.’ ”

When the screenplay was completed, Kramer sent the script to Brando, who was the toast of Broadway though an unknown among moviegoers.

“People were vying for him,” Kramer says. “Marlon answered within 24 hours [of receiving the script] and committed himself totally to Stanley because he admired ‘Champion’ and ‘Home of the Brave.’ ”

Brando threw himself into the role -- he stayed with the veterans, 45 of whom were employed in the film, and used a wheelchair.

But perhaps Brando’s greatest performance wasn’t captured by the camera.

One night after shooting, Brando went into a watering hole in a wheelchair with his new friends, Kramer says, where a woman came over and said: “ ‘Boys, you have given up so much for us and you know if you would just believe in God and Jesus you will walk again.’

“She went back to her table and on the count of 10, Marlon began to move his legs and screamed, ‘Oh, my God, I can walk’. He got up and began to do a little dance out the saloon. As the story goes, she fainted.”

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Marlon Brando screenings, Louis B. Mayer Theatre, Motion Picture and TV Fund, 23388 Mulholland Drive, Woodland Hills. 7 p.m. Sunday and April 7. $4 and $8. (800) 965-4827.


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