The maverick, reclusive 'Godfather' actor was one of the most controversial of his generation and considered one of the greatest of all time.
Marlon Brando’s father was also named Marlon Brando, and was a travelling salesman who sold calcium carbonate. Brando‘s mother was Dorothy (née Pennebaker). Dorothy was an artistically inclined woman who was fond of amateur dramatics. She is said to have mentored Henry Fonda while she was a director of the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Brando‘s family nickname was “Bud”. He was the youngest of three children, and had two older sisters, Jocelyn and Frannie. Jocelyn dreamed of becoming an actress, while Frannie aspired to a career as an artist.
Brando had a somewhat lonely childhood, since his father was often away working, and his mother was an alcoholic. After his two older sisters had left home, Brando was often left on his own in the house while his mother went out drinking. As a child, Brando developed his acting skills from a young age, as he would play-act in an attempt to amuse his drunken mother, hoping that she wouldn’t leave the house in search of alcohol. But sometimes he would have to go out and find her in one of the local bars, or even the local jail, as the police sometimes picked her up drunk. Given the neglect he suffered as a child, it was hardly surprising that young Brando “acted out” and was constantly in trouble with his schoolteachers for bad behaviour. Eventually he was expelled from school, and at the age of 19 he headed off to New York to join his two older sisters.
On arriving in New York, Brando enrolled in Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at New York’s New School, where he came under the guidance of Stella Adler, who belonged to a famous Yiddish Theatre acting dynasty. Stella Adler introduced Brando to the famous acting methods pioneered by Constantin Stanislavsky, the famous Russian dramatic theorist. These revolutionary acting methods required the young Brando to think deeply about his own experiences, and to use them truthfully. Adler taught Brando that the most authentic acting relies on being able to draw on one’s own sources of emotional reality, in order to convey a truly believeable emotional experience.
Brando made his debut on the New York stage in October 1944 in a play called 'I Remember Mama', which was very well received. By the time he acted with director Elia Kazan, in a play called 'Truckline Café', he was already attracting widespread attention thanks to his magnetic stage presence. At the tender age of 20, Brando had already been spotted by several Hollywood talent scouts, but he turned these first movie offers down, since he didn’t want to be committed to the seven-year contracts that the film studios were then offering.
He went on to make his film debut in a Fred Zinnemann movie called 'The Men', where he played a paraplegic soldier. But Brando did not really burst on to America’s movie screens until 1951, when he appeared in the role of Stanley Kowalski in the film version of the Tennessee Williams play, 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. Brando based his performance as Stanley on the naturalistic techniques that he had learned from Stella Adler, and the film was widely acclaimed. Astonishingly for such a relatively inexperienced actor, 'A Streetcar Named Desire' earned Brando the first of his eight Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.
Following 'A Streetcar Named Desire', Brando appeared in a succession of highly successful films during the 1950s, which marked the first high point of his career. These early films included 'Viva Zapata!' (1952), 'Julius Caesar' (1953), and 'The Wild One' (1953), in which Brando played the quintessential rebel-without-a-cause Johnny Strabler. When asked, “What are you rebelling against?”, Johnny replies, “What have ya got?”. This movie became a cult classic, and helped create the “street rebel” image that was so widely copied by rock-n’roll stars of the Fifties, in particular Elvis Presley, who is said to have drawn the inspiration for his stage act directly from Marlon Brando. He was also reportedly the idol of 'Rebel Without A Cause' star James Dean, who imitated both his acting techniques and his image.
However, it was his next film, the iconic 'On The Waterfront' (1954), which won Brando his first Academy Award for Best Actor. In this film, Brando played a longshoreman called Terry Molloy who “coulda been a contender”. Brando reportedly improvised the most famous scene in the film with his co-star Rod Steiger, since he’d decided that the written script was unplayable. Brando was now widely recognised as a serious actor of formidable talent by acting luminaries such as director John Huston and actor John Gielgud. Huston said that watching Brando perform Mark Antony “was like seeing the door of a furnace opened in a dark room”; and Brando’s co-star John Gielgud, one of the leading Shakespearean actors of the twentieth century, was so impressed by Brando’s talent that he invited him to join his own repertory company.
Over the next few years, Brando’s career slowed down a little, although he appeared in some highly successful movies. His biggest box-office success during the 1950s was 'Sayonara!' (1957), which earned him his fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He took a singing role in 'Guys and Dolls' (1955), and even played a Nazi officer in 'The Young Lions'. Like so many actors before him, Brando decided that he would like to try his hand at directing. His chosen film was a movie called 'One Eyed Jacks', which was being produced by his own company, Pennebaker Productions. But Brando went horrendously over-budget, using up around ten times the standard amount of raw film stock during shooting, and spending so long in the editing room that he never succeeded in presenting the studio with a finished movie.
'One Eyed Jacks' bombed at the box office, and Brando promptly returned to acting. His next role was as Fletcher Christian in 'Mutiny On The Bounty', a film that was to have a profound effect on his personal life. Like many artists before him, Brando was deeply moved by Tahiti and its beauty, and the island won a permanent place in his heart. He decided to make one of his homes there, and bought a 12-island atoll called Tetiaroa, which he intended to become part resort and part environmental research station. While shooting the movie he met and married Tahitian beauty Tarita Teriipia, who had played his love interest in the film. Tarita was some 18 years younger than Brando, and she was only 20 when she and Brando were married.
Tarita was Brando’s third wife, and gave birth to two children, Simon and Cheyenne. He also had a son called Christian, by his first wife Anna Kashfi, and two children, Miko and Rebecca, by his second wife, Movita Castaneda. His maid Maria Ruiz (whom he never married) also bore him three children - Ninna, Myles and Timothy.
'Mutiny On The Bounty' was one of the top-earning movies of 1962, yet it failed to cover its production costs since it had taken so long to shoot, and had wildly exceeded its original budget. It also marked the onset of a slump in Brando’s career. As the 1960s unfolded, he starred in one box-office failure after another. In 1963, he appeared in 'Cleopatra', which also vastly overran its budget, and was tarnished by the snowstorm of publicity concerning the adulterous love affair between its two co-stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Brando was also acquiring a reputation as a difficult star, although he continued to be offered prestigious film roles throughout the 1960s.
The slowdown in Brando’s career had other, more political causes. As the civil rights movement gathered momentum in the early 1960s, Brando immediately offered his support to the black minorities, who were fighting for equality. He gave substantial amounts of money to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and also marched in their rally on Washington in 1963. But his appearance at a Black Panther rally in 1968 badly damaged his reputation, and is thought to have led to the creation of the Brando Blacklist. After 1968, Brando did not work for three years.
Brando bounced back with a vengeance, however, in the early 1970s, when he took the role of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s 'The Godfather' (1972). This film was a total triumph for Brando, who played the head of a mafia family. His “sit down” scene with rival mobsters is generally considered to be one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the second time for 'The Godfather' - but he boycotted the Awards ceremony and refused to accept the Award, sending Native American Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to state his reasons for the refusal, namely his objections to the depiction of Native Americans by the movie and TV industry.
More controversy followed with the release of Brando’s next film, 'Last Tango in Paris' (1973), which caused an uproar on account of its highly erotic subject matter. But once again, Brando’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Another masterpiece of the 1970s was 'Apocalypse Now', where Brando earned $1 million per week playing the role of Colonel Kurtz for director Francis Ford Coppola. Because Brando had gained so much weight - he now weighed over 220 lbs - most of his featured scenes in Apocalypse Now were shot in the shadows.
From now on, Brando’s weight problems largely prevented him from playing lead movie roles, and he announced his retirement from acting in 1980s. But he still continued to play a few supporting roles, such as Don Juan Demarco, where he played opposite Johnny Depp.
Brando’s later years were tinged with personal tragedy. In May 1990, his daughter Cheyenne’s boyfriend Dag Drollet was shot and killed by his son Christian, after an argument at the family’s Beverly Hills home. The 31-year-old Christian claimed the shooting was an accident, and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, receiving a 10-year sentence, of which he served five years. Before the sentence was passed, Brando spoke for an hour in the court, and said that he and his ex-wife had both failed Christian, and that he would change places with the murder victim if he could. But even worse was to come. After the trial, Brando’s daughter fell into a deep depression and committed suicide by hanging herself in Tahiti in 1995.
Brando enjoyed much notoriety in the last years of his life, on account of his obesity, his politics, his family scandals and his difficult reputation. He was a close friend of the singer Michael Jackson and visited him regularly; indeed, the last time Marlon Brando left his bungalow home in 2003 was to visit Michael Jackson at his Neverland Ranch.
On 1 July 2004, Marlon Brando died in hospital from respiratory failure, although he had also been suffering from heart failure and diabetes. He was 80. His ashes were scattered partly in Tahiti, and partly in Death Valley. He is widely considered to be the greatest film actor of the twentieth century.