From the Archives: Marlon Brando, A Hollywood Iconoclast Who Transformed the Art of Acting
Marlon Brando, a two-time Academy Award winner who spent much of his career shunning the Hollywood establishment yet earned its enduring admiration through muscular, naturalistic performances that transformed the craft of acting and led peers and critics alike to hail him as the finest actor of his time, has died. He was 80.
Brando died at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at UCLA Medical Center, a spokeswoman for the hospital announced Friday. The cause of death was lung failure.
For the record:5:00 p.m. June 20, 2016
The original version of this obituary, published July 3, 2004, erred in stating that this line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is said by Marc Antony: “Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.” It is said by Caesar.
Under the guidance of director Elia Kazan, Brando first became a star on stage – as Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” – and then on screen, again as Kowalski in “Streetcar,” released in 1951. He received his first Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role in “Streetcar.”
Brando was nominated seven times for best actor, receiving his first Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy in 1954’s “On the Waterfront” and his second for Don Vito Corleone in 1972’s “The Godfather.” His other nominations were for “Viva Zapata!” (1952), “Julius Caesar” (1953), “Sayonara” (1957) and “Last Tango in Paris” (1973).
His eighth and last Oscar nomination was for best supporting actor in the 1989 anti-apartheid film “A Dry White Season.”
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Brando so astonished other actors that even those who had brought acting to its highest level were taken aback.
The late Laurence Olivier, considered among the greatest actors of all time, thought Brando was the best American actor. He once said that Brando’s secret to greatness was that he acted “with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match.”
Film critic Pauline Kael called Brando “our greatest living actor,” and the curators at the American Museum of the Moving Image described him this way: “With animal intensity and insolent charm, he embodied a new and distinctly American on-screen style. Most significantly, he expressed the inner poetry of inarticulate working-class characters.”
Brando’s acolytes number among the greatest actors of the last half-century.
Jack Nicholson, who starred opposite Brando in “The Missouri Breaks,” on Friday called his longtime neighbor and friend “a monumental artist like Michelangelo or Picasso.”
“He was the beginning and end of his own revolution,” Nicholson told The Times. Although many actors tried to copy Brando, Nicholson said, “There was no way to follow in his footsteps. He was just too large and just too far out of sight. He truly shook the world, and his influence will be there long into the future.”
Actor Robert Duvall, who appeared with Brando in “The Chase,” “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” told the Times Friday that Brando was “certainly one of the most unique actors of our time. He had an innate shrewdness, finding ways to do things better than everyone else.
“One of the great tragedies is that Brando never developed his tremendous potential,” Duvall said. “He didn’t think acting was a great way to make a living. He didn’t bring his kids to the set. I always told him he should play ‘Othello’ on stage. But he didn’t want to hear about theater, either. Maybe he had so much adulation so young that he just got bored with it all.”
Filmmaker Warren Beatty noted that Brando was more than a “uniquely gifted and influential” actor.
“He was also an aroused citizen with broad social perspectives. Generous with his friendship and candid personal insights, he was an endlessly entertaining good neighbor. Annette and I will miss him very much,” Beatty said, referring to his wife, actress Annette Bening.
Others’ reactions to the death of the film icon were more simple and to the point.
“He influenced more young actors of my generation than any actor,” fellow “Godfather” actor James Caan said in a statement. “Anyone who denies this never understood what it was all about.”
“Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give their comments about his death,” director Francis Ford Coppola said in a statement. “All I’ll say is that it makes me sad he’s gone.”
Brando was born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, the son of a traveling salesman and homemaker. Both were alcoholics: “One ... whom I loved but who ignored me, the other ... who tortured me emotionally and made my mother’s life a misery,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Still, his mother, an amateur actress, was able to give him “a love of nature and animals, and the night sky, and a sense of closeness to the earth.”
After a series of unhappy school experiences, Brando was kicked out of military school, where he had been sent by his father because, Brando admitted, he was “a bad student, chronic truant and all-round incorrigible.” He was rejected by the military because of a trick knee and ended up in New York City, where his sister, Jocelyn, was beginning an acting career.
By then, Brando too was interested in acting, having won praise for a few roles he had played in military school, where he had come under the wing of an English teacher who introduced him to Shakespeare.
Brando wrote of his arrival in New York City: “As I got out of the cab delivering me from Pennsylvania Station to my sister’s apartment in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1943, I was sporting a bright red fedora that I thought was going to knock everybody dead.” He would, but it would take a few years.
Working as an elevator operator and at other odd jobs, he finally took an acting class at the New School for Social Research. He ultimately met Stella Adler, one of the major proponents of the Method approach, a psychologically oriented acting technique. Brando would soon be considered by many the foremost Method actor of his day.
Prior to the Method, most stage actors read their lines clearly, in service of the text, and rarely in a natural way. Film actors, for the most part, adopted the same approach.
Then came Brando as Stanley Kowalski.
“The whole thing up until then was proper – Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Van Johnson – and along comes Brando,” actor Anthony Quinn said later. “The character of Stanley [stuck it to] them all.”
Lyall Bush, writing in Film Comment in 1996, said, “The whole notion of the character who is driven by excess rather than control, heat rather than cool reserve, is almost impossible to imagine before ‘Streetcar.’ ... Brando didn’t give a damn for the theatrical tradition that came before him.... He ripped it up.”
Through his involvement with Adler and alumni of the Group Theater – especially, Kazan – Brando turned acting on its head. His work gave others permission to explore a role from the inside out, tapping into observation and personal experience rather than merely reciting lines.
Adler “taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn’t personally experience during a performance,” Brando said.
But Adler once said, “I taught him nothing.... I opened up possibilities of thinking, feeling, experience, and I opened the doors.... He never needed me after that.”
Brando was 23 with a few stage roles to his credit, including a two-year run on Broadway as Nels in 1944’s “I Remember Mama,” when he came to the attention of Kazan. The director decided that, despite his youth, the actor would be a compelling Stanley opposite veteran stage actress Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois in “Streetcar.”
But it was a risky choice, and Kazan left the decision up to the playwright, who was living in Cape Cod. Kazan lent Brando $20 for a train ticket, but Brando spent it and had to hitchhike.
When he arrived there, he found Williams in an agitated state because his toilet was overflowing. Brando fixed it, but that was “not what determined me to give him the part,” Williams later joked. The playwright said that when Brando read for the role, “He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans.... And in addition to his gifts as an actor, he has great physical appeal and sensuality.”
The play opened Dec. 3, 1947. And though Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times barely noted Brando’s performance the next morning – commenting that, along the other actors supporting Tandy, Brando acted “not only with color and style but with insight” – nothing would ever be the same in acting after that.
“There had never been such a display of dangerous, brutal male beauty on an American stage,” film writer David Thomson said. “Its influence can still be felt, in fashion photography and sport as well as acting.”
“I made a study for guys like Stanley Kowalski,” Brando told one writer. “You know, guys who work hard and have lots of flesh, having nothing supple about them. They never open their fists, really.... They grip a cup of coffee like an animal would wrap a paw around it. They’re heavily muscled in body and manner of speech.”
The late Kim Hunter, who played Stella opposite Brando’s Stanley in both the stage play and the movie of “Streetcar,” said Brando was her all-time favorite actor to work with. “Anything you do that may not be true shows up immediately as false with him,” she said. “He yanks you into his own sense of reality.”
For example, she said, in the stage version of “Streetcar,” Brando constantly changed the way he played the scene in which Stanley goes through Blanche DuBois’ trunk and Stella tries to stop him. The scene is important because it is the one in which Stanley gathers evidence for his cruel opinion of Stella’s sister.
“He had a different sort of attitude toward each of the belongings every night,” Hunter said of her co-star. “Sometimes it would lead me into getting into quite a fight with him, and other times I’d be seeing him as a silly little boy.” That kept “Streetcar,” which ran for 855 performances, fresh for her, she said.
So real was his portrayal of the boorish Kowalski that people confused the man with the role – as they did throughout his career, especially with brooding or rebellious characters.
Brando resisted this transference, insisting in the case of Kowalski that the actor and the character had little in common – that he “detested” him and was turned off by his “brutal aggressiveness” and absence of fear or doubt.
But like him or not, Brando’s Stanley made a mark on nearly every actor who came after. Actors were known to go night after night to see “Streetcar” to try to figure out how Brando did it.
Yet the movie version of the role, in which he starred opposite Vivian Leigh, did not win Brando an Oscar. After it was released, Brando received back-to-back Oscar nominations for his role as the Mexican revolutionary in “Viva Zapata” and as Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar.” But he is probably more remembered for his fifth film, “The Wild One,” released in 1953.
Brando played Johnny, the leader of a motorcycle gang that ran roughshod over the residents of a small town. Brando’s role as the swaggering, leather-clad biker solidified his place as the prototypical rebel. In response to the line, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Brando’s retort, “Waddya got?” was seen as an alarming sign of the times.
“His acting was so physical, so exploratory, tentative, wary – that we could sense with him, feel him pull back at the slightest hint of rebuff,” Kael said of that role. “We in the audience felt protective: We knew how lonely he must be in his assertiveness. Who even in hell wants to be an outsider? And he was no intellectual who could rationalize it, learn somehow to accept it, to live with it. He could only feel it, act it out, be ‘The Wild One’ – and God knows how many kids felt, ‘That’s the story of my life.’ ”
From the beginning of his career, Brando voiced some of the most famous lines ever spoken in films, many of which are still part of the American lexicon.
“Streetcar” introduced the animal cry “Stell-ah!” to audiences, which Brando bellowed from the stage floor up a winding staircase to Hunter. “The Godfather’s” Don Corleone issued the cold threat: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
In 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” Brando, who was cast as an ex-boxer-turned-mob-errand-boy, uttered perhaps the most repeated line of any American movie: “I coulda been a contender.”
Brando took much of the credit for the movie’s most memorable scene, in the back of a taxi in which that line was spoken. He had initially argued with director Kazan over the scene, saying it did not seem true to the relationships between the characters.
“As it was written, you had this guy pulling a gun on his brother,” Brando told interviewer Lawrence Grobel. “I said, that’s not believable. I don’t believe one brother is going to shoot the other.”
He said he persuaded Kazan to allow him and Rod Steiger, who played his brother, to improvise much of the scene. It began with Brando’s character waving away his brother’s threat in disbelief.
This dialogue made it into the final cut:
Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville!
You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money....
I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.
Kael once described Brando’s acting in “Waterfront” as “the willingness to go emotionally naked and the control to do it in character. (And, along with that, the understanding of desolation.)” (Parentheses are Kael’s.)
Brando believed that the scene resonated through the years with people because “everybody believes he could have been somebody if he’d been dealt different cards by fate.”
“On the Waterfront” was a highlight of postwar cinema and, by many accounts, Brando’s best work.
In 1955, Brando starred as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” where the pre-Brando and post-Brando worlds of acting collided.
In one famous incident, Frank Sinatra – already jealous of Brando for getting the lead in “On the Waterfront” and not that happy about Brando’s romantic lead in “Guys and Dolls” – got disgusted with Brando’s acting style.
To accommodate Brando’s obsession to get a scene perfect, the famously one-take Sinatra, who played Nathan Detroit, was forced to eat cheesecake in take after take. Finally, Sinatra exploded. “These New York actors!” he said. “How much cake do you think I can eat?”
During the 1950s and ‘60s, Brando also made “Sayonara,” “The Young Lions” and a remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” but he also had a string of more forgettable films, including “Morituri,” “The Chase,” “The Appaloosa” and “A Countess From Hong Kong.” His one effort at directing – “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961) – was considered a disaster by critics.
Indeed, Brando’s film career – he never returned to the stage after “Streetcar” – was nothing if not a roller-coaster. From the 1950s to end of the 1960s, Brando went from being a sullenly handsome young actor who was offered the best movie roles to a physically bloated and largely ignored figure who made dubious choices and delighted in insulting Hollywood.
“Food has always been my friend,” Brando said at one point. “When I wanted to feel better or had a crisis, I’d open the icebox.”
Brando threw himself headlong into his activism during the 1960s. He gave a speech at the funeral of a Black Panther Party member and demonstrated against capital punishment and the treatment of Soviet Jews. He donated a portion of his income to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He tried to make a documentary on starvation in India.
Brando said that he felt that “with so much prejudice, racial discrimination, injustice, hatred, poverty, starvation and suffering in the world, making movies seemed increasingly silly and irrelevant.”
By the early ‘70s, Brando, who was not yet 50 years old, had been reduced to the point that he had to lobby for the role as Don Corleone in “The Godfather,” telling producer Robert Evans, “I know a lot of people in Hollywood say I am all washed up ... but I can play that part, and I can do a good job.” He had to do a screen test – everyone was careful not to call it that – to convince Evans and director Coppola he was serious.
In “The Godfather,” Brando finally found the character, the material, the director and the situation he needed to make a return.
The set was full of pros like himself, some of whom shared the prankish Brando’s sense of mischievousness. (Brando, Duvall and Caan regularly mooned the cast and crew.) The director, Coppola, respected how Brando conceived the role, and he gave him the freedom to play it. And everyone on the set had the luck to be involved in a film that was far more enduring and successful than initially thought possible.
More important, Brando created an unforgettable character -- one that went far beyond the much-talked-about cheek-stuffing with tissues he used to make himself appear older and jowly.
“He is all understatement,” Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel wrote of his portrayal of the Don. “He makes people lean in to hear what he says in his thin, cracked voice that is, strictly speaking, a shade older tonally than his years might dictate. And when people lean in, they usually bow their heads, assuming, perforce, an attitude of respect, obsequiousness.... The unstated wit of this performance is breathtaking.”
Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman said, “There is no longer any need to talk tragically of Marlon Brando’s career. His stormy two-decade odyssey through films good and bad, but rarely big enough to house his prodigious talents, has ended in triumph.”
But even after his “Godfather” role rehabilitated his reputation within the film industry, Brando thumbed his nose at the academy by sending “Sacheen Littlefeather” (actress Maria Cruz wearing Apache garb) to decline the Oscar he won for the role, saying that he wanted to protest the treatment of Native Americans. Her speech was roundly booed.
“The Academy Awards and the hoopla surrounding them elevate acting to a level that I don’t think it deserves,” Brando said in his autobiography.
It was a tribute to his talent that, despite his attitude, the academy nominated him again for the film that came after “The Godfather”: Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexually charged “Last Tango in Paris,” which was Brando’s last great film role.
Knowing his reputation with women, many thought he was playing himself in this role, but others credited him with a masterful creation.
For his part, Bertolucci contended that the character of Paul was largely based on Brando.
“From the beginning he was aware of the possibility of going beyond what is normally asked of him.... I asked him to bring to the film all his experience as an actor and a man,” the director wrote in his book “Bertolucci by Bertolucci.” “To become a Paul that was not synonymous with ceasing to be Brando.”
Brando said he was like Paul only in “a certain desperate melancholy, a gloomy regret, a hatred for oneself.”
According to Bertolucci, at the end of the film Brando told him that he found the experience emotionally draining: “I will never make a film like this one again. I don’t like being an actor in the best of times, but it’s never bothered me this bad.”
Brando continued to stick his finger in the eye of the Hollywood Establishment. He crowed about earning more than $3 million for 12 days of work as Superman’s dad, Jor-El, in 1978’s “Superman.” A year later, Brando was paid a fortune to play a small – albeit memorable – turn as the manic Col. Kurtz in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979).
Many who recognized his awesome talent rued his choices and the losses they caused to the art of film.
“Hollywood’s commercial, studio-tooled projects came to represent everything Brando stood against as a performer, and he chose to give up,” film critic Peter Rainer said. “ ‘Last Tango in Paris’ and ‘On the Waterfront’ are two of the four or five greatest performances ever given, but there should have been many more.... It’s a cultural tragedy.”
There would be other bad choices, but Brando would also do “A Dry White Season.” And in “The Freshman,” released in 1990, he won critical praise for his send-up of his own “Godfather” character.
Not much of note followed those roles. But as Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan noted of the actor’s Sydney Greenstreet-style role in “The Score” (2001), a heist film that got mixed reviews, Brando was always interesting to watch.
“At this stage of the game, acting seems something of a well-paid diversion for Brando, but even when, as here, he’s only partially taking it seriously (which for himself is a lot), he’s awfully good at it. Once Brando gets in front of the camera, he can’t not act, even if he doesn’t feel like it. Even when he’s doing nothing, he’s doing something, and its always fascinating to see what that something is.”
Equally fascinating to many was Brando’s behavior while the films were being made. On the set of “The Score,” for example, he reportedly showed up on the set one day minus trousers so he could be photographed only from the waist up. He was also well known for improvising and writing his lines on cue cards and posting them around the set for quick reference.
In “Last Tango in Paris,” according to a Time magazine report some years ago, Brando offers a long monologue over the body of his wife. At one point, he rolls his eyes upward for what many thought was a soulful effect. In fact, he was just checking his lines on a cue card stuck to an overhead boom.
It was frequently reported in his later years that Brando used an earpiece to help him remember his lines. As he himself noted in a bylined article for the Guardian newspaper, an assistant read his lines to him into a microphone. He heard them in his earphones and repeated them. But occasionally the use of the earpiece led to confusion on the set.
David Thewlis, who co-starred with Brando in “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” told Entertainment Weekly that Brando would be in the middle of a scene “and suddenly he’d be getting police messages. Marlon would [repeat], ‘There’s a robbery at Woolworth’s.’ ”
It was not clear whether Thewlis or Brando was kidding.
For much of his life Brando was a recluse, staying at an island he bought in Tahiti or in his hilltop home on Mulholland Drive, where for 30 years he was Nicholson’s neighbor.
A notorious womanizer, Brando bragged of having seduced hundreds of women. He had at least eight children, five of them by three marriages, two of which ended in divorce.
In 1990, he testified at the sentencing phase of the murder trial of one of his sons, Christian Brando, for shooting the boyfriend of Cheyenne Brando, one of his daughters by another marriage. Cheyenne subsequently committed suicide by hanging herself. She was 25.
Brando wed British actress Anna Kashfi in 1957 and divorced her two years later. A 1960 marriage to Movita Castenada, whom he met on the set of “Viva Zapata,” lasted barely a year. In 1962, he met his third wife, Tarita Teriipaia, a 19-year-old former floor show dancer who played his lover in “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
Brando’s heirs are difficult to document, but it is believed he is survived by Teriipaia and children Christian (by Kashfi); Miko and Rebecca (by Castenada); Teihotu by Teriipaia (Teriipaia was also the mother of Cheyenne); Ninna Priscilla, Myles and Timothy by his former maid, Maria Ruiz; and Petra Barrett, whom he adopted in 1984. Once asked if he was afraid of death, Brando quoted Marc Antony, in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 film of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:
“Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
The funeral will be private.
Times staff writers Susan King and Dennis McLellan contributed to this report.
The Films of Brando
Marlon Brando appeared in 39 films from 1950 to 2001 and won the Academy Award for best actor twice. His filmography:
1950 The Men
1951 A Streetcar Named Desire*
1952 Viva Zapata!*
1953 Julius Caesar*
1954 The Wild
One On the Waterfront**
1955 Guys and Dolls
1956 The Teahouse of the August Moon
1958 The Young Lions
1959 The Fugitive Kind
1961 One-Eyed Jacks (also director)
1962 Mutiny on the Bounty
1963 The Ugly American
1964 Bedtime Story
1966 The Chase
1967 A Countess From Hong Kong
Reflections in a Golden Eye
The Night of the Following Day
1971 The Nightcomers
1972 The Godfather**
Last Tango in Paris*
1976 The Missouri Breaks
1979 Apocalypse Now
1980 The Formula
1989 A Dry White Season*
1990 The Freshman
1992 Christopher Columbus: The Discovery
1995 Don Juan DeMarco
1996 The Island of Dr. Moreau
1997 The Brave
1998 Free Money
2001 The Score Apocalypse Now Redux
** Oscar winner
* Oscar nominee
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