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Marlon Brando - Actor

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Marlon Brando in 1977.

Marlon Brando: American actor and icon of the 'silver screen' era of movies.

Early Life

Brando was born on 3 April, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, to a prosperous businessman and an amateur actress. However, he spent most of his childhood in Illinois. In 1940, he spent a short time at Shattuck Military Academy in Fairbult, Minnesota, from where he was expelled for insubordination. Then he went to work digging ditches for a living until his father decided to finance his education. At the age of 19 he moved to New York to study acting with Stella Adler at Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio. There he learned method acting, a form of acting using the actors' own emotions. Other people to study at the Actors' Studio included Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, Rod Steiger and Paul Newman, who once remarked: 'I'm angry at Marlon because he does everything so easily. I have to break my ass to do what he can do with his eyes closed.'

Big Break

By 1944, Brando was ready to take to the stage. His first appearance was as Jesus in the Gerhart Hauptmann play Hannele, closely followed by a two-year run in I Remember Mama, a Broadway musical adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the play by John Van Druten. Then in 1946, he was voted Broadway's Most Promising Actor by New York theatre critics after his appearance in Truckline Café, and took part in Candida and The Eagle Has Two Heads. His powerful on-stage presence brought him to the attention of many of the big names in the theatre and cinema world.

There had never been such a display of dangerous, brutal male beauty on an American stage.
- David Thomson, a critic and author

In 1947, Brando's name was put forward by director Elia Kazan as the actor best suited to play the role of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams, on Broadway. In 1949, he made his debut television performance in I'm No Hero for ABC television. He continued his appearances on television with a portrayal of an American Nazi leader called George Lincoln Rockwell in Roots: The Next Generation for the same channel and a special on the Actors Studio for American public-service TV channel PBS. This spurred him on to try to break into films and he made his first movie, The Men, in 1950. For that part, Brando prepared to play the role of a paraplegic by lying in bed for a month.

Capitalising on his success in the stage play, Brando then starred in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951, which launched his career in the film business. His next film Viva Zapata!, in which he played a Mexican revolutionary, was released in 1952; it won him critical acclaim, obtaining the Best Actor Award at Cannes and the Best Foreign Actor award in the UK. He then went on to appear in The Wild One, which was banned in the UK for several years for fear it may encourage delinquency. His performance as washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront won him an Academy Award.

If there is a better performance by a man in the history of American film, I don't know what it is.
- director Elia Kazan

Later, during the 1950s, he took roles in Désirée, Guys and Dolls and The Young Lions, and played Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. He also tried directing, making One-Eyed Jacks in 1961, and that same year starred as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando also appeared in the films The Ugly American, The Chase and A Countess from Hong Kong but these didn't fare well at the box office. He got a reputation for being difficult to work with due to his tendency to throw tantrums and try to alter the script. On more personal terms, his overindulgences like eating too much and having affairs also made things difficult, plus his habit of isolating himself made friendships awkward to maintain.

During the 1960s Brando dropped his rebellious screen image in order to play other characters. He appeared in The Fugitive Kind (1960), The Ugly American (1963), Bedtime Story (1964), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and Burn! (1969). However, many of these were flops from the start and it wasn't until The Godfather that his acting career picked up again.

The Godfather

All the great film actors since On the Waterfront are heavily influenced by Brando. And when he appeared in The Godfather, all those actors in The Godfather said he was the godfather of screen acting.
- Robert Tanitch

In 1972 Brando returned to the spotlight playing the mafia boss, Don Vito Corleone, in The Godfather. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor, but declined it as he didn't want to accept the award in person. In protest of Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans Brando sent a Native American Indian Apache named Sasheen Littlefeather to decline the award on his behalf.

To his great regret Marlon Brando feels unable to accept his award. The reasons lie in the treatment of the Indian in TV and the movies in this country, and in the recent events at Wounded Knee.

Last Tango in Paris

After his epic performance in The Godfather, Brando went on to appear in The Nightcomers and Last Tango in Paris. On filming Last Tango in Paris it was clear that Brando was hypnotic. People appeared in awe of him so much so that they had to reshoot the first shot.

I remember the first shot of the film: I shouted 'OK, that's good' but Umetelli, the camera operator, blushing with embarrassment, whispered to me: 'Sorry - as soon as I saw Brando through the viewfinder I became paralysed just watching him'. We had to shoot the shot again.
- Bernardo Bertolucci, director, Last Tango in Paris

Brando found method acting irritating and after shooting on Last Tango in Paris was completed, he didn't speak to the director Bertolucci for many years. After 12 years had passed with no contact between the two men, Bertolucci telephoned Brando, and the actor kept the director on the phone for two hours - 'Marlon was diabolically curious about everything'. Later they met up and talked until the late hours of the evening.

Later Years

The only reason I'm in Hollywood is that I don't have the moral courage to refuse the money.
- Brando

By the late 1970s Brando was repeatedly protesting that the next film would be his last. However, every time he said that he was lured back to make another. In 1976, he appeared in The Missouri Breaks, followed by a part in the seemingly- jinxed  Superman (1978). As Superman was being portrayed by then-unknown Christopher Reeve, Brando (Jor-El, father of Superman Kal-El) and co -star Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor) were given joint top billing. Brando received an unprecedented $3.7m plus a percentage of the profits, totalling $14m overall, for his ten-minute screen role.

Brando also appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now (1979). The small role as a South African lawyer in A Dry White Season led to him being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Then in 1990, he parodied his Godfather role in the film The Freshman. Other films within his repertoire were The Island of Dr Moreau, Don Juan DeMarco, in which he co -starred alongside Johnny Depp, and The Score, which featured Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, and Angela Bassett. Brando also wrote an autobiography entitled Songs My Mother Taught Me which was released in 1994.


Privacy is not something that I'm merely entitled to, it's an absolute prerequisite.
- Brando

When he wasn't acting he spent his time living a reclusive lifestyle with his wife and children in Tetiaroa, a tiny coral island 25 miles north of Tahiti. In total Brando was married three times to former actresses, and fathered 11 children. Two were with his third wife, five with former wives and another resulted from an affair. Three children were born during a six-year relationship with Guatemalan maid Maria Cristina Ruiz. Christian1, Brando's son, once said in an interview that appeared in People Magazine:

The family kept changing shape. I'd sit down to breakfast and say: Who are you?

Christian shot his pregnant half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend Dag Drollet dead at Brando's Los Angeles mansion. Brando caused a media sensation when he appeared at the trial in January 1991 and spoke on behalf of his son. Christian pleaded guilty to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years in jail. Cheyenne gave birth to a baby boy who had to be weaned off the drugs in his system thanks to his mother's substance abuse. Brando's family life was further devastated when Cheyenne hanged herself in 1995 at the age of just 25.

Health Problems

He had some real tragedies in his life and perhaps stopped looking after himself for that reason'.
- Sophia Loren

Brando had problems with controlling his weight throughout his life and by the age of 65 he weighed 23 stone (146kg), and suffered from a variety of associated health problems. Towards the end of his life he was wheelchair-bound and rarely seen in public.

Just before his death Brando was working on a film called Citizen Brando with French-Tunisian writer and director Ridha Behi, following an Arab youth's gradual disenchantment with the American dream. It was a role in which Brando was going to play himself. He was also lined up to portray himself in a film called Brando and Brando.

The Final Curtain

Brando suffered from lung failure and died at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles on 1 July, 2004. He was cremated following a private funeral. One year after his death, Brando's voice was used in the video game version of The Godfather: The Game, and archive footage from Superman meant he got a posthumous cameo in Superman II in 2006. Ridha Behi's film Citizen Brando also contains archive material and is due for release in 2008/9.

1He died in January 2008, aged 49.

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