Brando in The Godfather (1972)
April 3, 1924
July 1, 2004
1944 - 2004
He was perhaps best known for his roles as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and his Academy Award-winning performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, both directed by Elia Kazan, and his Academy Award-winning performance as Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather. In middle age he also played Colonel Walter Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, also directed by Coppola, and delivered an Academy Award-nominated performance as Paul in Last Tango in Paris. Brando had a significant impact on film acting. He was the foremost example of the "method" acting style, and became notorious for his "mumbling" diction, but his mercurial performances were highly regarded and he is now considered one of the greatest American film actors of the twentieth century. Director Martin Scorsese said of him, "He is the marker. There's 'before Brando' and 'after Brando'.'" Actor Jack Nicholson once said, "When Marlon dies, everybody moves up one."
Brando was also an activist, supporting many issues, notably the American Civil Rights and various American Indian Movements.
Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska, to Marlon Brando, Sr., a pesticide and chemical feed manufacturer, and his wife, Dorothy Julia (née Pennebaker). His parents moved to Evanston, Illinois, but separated when he was eleven years old. His mother took her three children: Jocelyn (1919–2005), Frances (1922–1994) and Marlon, to live with her mother in Santa Ana, California. In 1937, Brando's parents reconciled and moved together to Libertyville, Illinois, north of Chicago.
Brando used his Stanislavski System skills for his first summer-stock roles in Sayville, New York, on Long Island. His behavior got him kicked out of the cast of the New School's production in Sayville, but he was discovered in a locally produced play there and then made it to Broadway in the bittersweet drama I Remember Mama in 1944. Critics voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" for his role as an anguished veteran in Truckline Café, although the play was a commercial failure. In 1946 he appeared on Broadway as the young hero in the political drama A Flag is Born, refusing to accept wages above the Actor's Equity rate because of his commitment to the cause of Israeli independence. In that same year, Brando played the role of Marchbanks with Katharine Cornell in her production's revival of Candida, one of her signature roles. Cornell also cast him as The Messenger in a her production of Jean Anouilh's Antigone that same year. Brando achieved stardom, however, as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. Brando sought out that role, driving out to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Williams was spending the summer, to audition for the part. Williams recalled that he opened the screen door and knew, instantly, that he had his Stanley Kowalski. Brando's performance revolutionized acting technique and set the model for the American form of method acting.
In 1947, Brando was asked to do a screen test for Warner Brothers. The screen test used an early script for Rebel Without A Cause that bears no relation to the film eventually produced in 1955. The screen test appears as an extra in the 2006 DVD release of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Brando's first screen role was as the bitter paraplegic veteran in The Men in 1950. True to his method, Brando spent a month in bed at the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys to prepare for the role. By Brando's own account, it may have been because of this film that his draft status was changed from 4-F to 1-A. He had had an operation on the knee he had injured at Shattuck, and it was no longer physically debilitating enough to incur exclusion from the draft. When Brando reported to the induction center, he answered a questionnaire provided to him by saying his race was "human", his color was "Seasonal-oyster white to beige", and he told an Army doctor that he was psycho neurotic. When the draft board referred him to a psychiatrist, Brando explained how he had been expelled from Military School, and that he had severe problems with authority. Coincidentally enough, the psychiatrist knew a doctor friend of Brando, and Brando was able to avoid military service during the Korean War.
Rise to fameEdit
Brando brought his performance as Stanley Kowalski to the screen in Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for that role, and again in each of the next three years for his roles in Viva Zapata! in 1952, Julius Caesar in 1953 as Mark Antony, and On the Waterfront in 1954. These first five films of his career established Brando, as evidenced in his winning the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in three consecutive years, 1951 to 1953.
In 1953, Brando also starred in The Wild One riding his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T motorcycle which caused consternation to Triumph's importers, as the subject matter was rowdy motorcycle gangs taking over a small town. But the images of Brando posing with his Triumph motorcycle became iconic, even forming the basis of his wax dummy at Madame Tussauds.
Brando won the Oscar for his role as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. For the famous I coulda' been a contender scene, Brando convinced Kazan that the scripted scene was unrealistic, and with Rod Steiger, improvised the final product.
In the 1960s, Brando starred in films such as One-Eyed Jacks (1961), a western that would be the only film Brando would ever direct; Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Chase (1966), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), portraying a repressed gay army officer. It was the type of performance that later led critic Stanley Crouch to write, "Brando's main achievement was to portray the taciturn but stoic gloom of those pulverized by circumstances." He also played a guru in the sex farce Candy (1968). Burn! (1969), which Brando would later claim as his personal favorite, was a commercial failure. His career slowed down by the end of the decade as he gained a reputation for being difficult to work with.
Brando's performance as Vito Corleone or 'the Don' in 1972's The Godfather was a mid-career turning point. Director Francis Ford Coppola convinced Brando to submit to a "make-up" test, in which Brando did his own makeup (he used cotton balls to simulate the puffed-cheek look). Coppola was electrified by Brando's characterization as the head of a crime family, but had to fight the studio in order to cast the temperamental Brando. Mario Puzo always imagined Brando as Corleone. However, Paramount studio heads wanted to give the role to Danny Thomas in the hope that Thomas would have his own production company throw in its lot with Paramount. Thomas declined the role and actually urged the studio to cast Brando at the behest of Coppola and others who had witnessed the screen test.
Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, but turned down the Oscar, becoming the second actor to refuse a Best Actor award (the first being George C. Scott for Patton). Brando boycotted the award ceremony, sending instead American Indian Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who appeared in full Apache dress, to state Brando's reasons, which were based on his objection to the depiction of American Indians by Hollywood and television.
Brando, along with James Caan, was later scheduled in 1974 to appear in the final scene of The Godfather Part II. However, rewrites were made to the script when Brando refused to show up to the studio on the single day of shooting, due to disputes with the studio.
Brando portrayed Superman's father Jor-El in the 1978 film Superman. He agreed to the role only on assurance that he would be paid a large sum for what amounted to a small part, that he would not have to read the script beforehand and his lines would be displayed somewhere off-camera. It was revealed in a documentary contained in the 2001 DVD release of Superman, that he was paid $3.7 million for just two weeks of work.
Brando starred as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. Brando plays a highly decorated American Army Special Forces officer who goes renegade. He runs his own operations based in Cambodia and is feared by the US military as much as the Vietnamese. Brando was paid $1 million a week for his work.
On July 1, 2004, Brando died, aged 80. He left behind eleven children as well as over thirty grandchildren. The cause of death was intentionally withheld, his lawyer citing privacy concerns. It was later revealed that he had died at UCLA Medical Center of respiratory failure brought on by pulmonary fibrosis. He also suffered from congestive heart failure, failing eyesight caused by diabetes, and liver cancer. Shortly before his death and despite needing an oxygen mask to breathe, he recorded his voice to appear in The Godfather: The Game, once again as Don Vito Corleone.
In 2007, a 165-minute biopic of Brando, Brando: The Documentary, produced by Mike Medavoy (the executor of Brando's will) for Turner Classic Movies, was released.