More than a contender: Brando the rebel, his method, his life of joy and tragedy

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The Independent Culture

The circumstances of Marlon Brando's final act contained a suitably mysterious twist for such an enigmatic career.

The circumstances of Marlon Brando's final act contained a suitably mysterious twist for such an enigmatic career.

His lawyer said yesterday that the cause of his death at a Los Angeles hospital was being withheld. David Seeley noted that Brando, a two-time winner of the Academy Award (for On the Waterfront and The Godfather) and who influenced some of the best actors of the generation that followed him, was "a very private man".

While that may have been true, Brando will be remembered not only for his revolutionary method-acting in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and The Godfather, in which he created the unforgettable character of Don Vito Corleone, but also for his unpredictable behaviour and a private life that contained family tragedy as well as joy. He married three times and was the father of 11 children.

"Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give their comments about his death. All I'll say is that it makes me sad he's gone," said Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather.

He created a naturalism that was sometimes derided for its mumbling, grungy attitudes. But audiences were electrified.

Brando is credited with having influenced some of the best actors of the generation that emerged in the 1970s, among them Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson.

"He influenced more young actors of my generation than any actor," his longtime friend and Godfather co-star James Caan said yesterday.

"Anyone who denies this never understood what it was all about."

Some critics yesterday went as far as to say that in real life he was the embodiment of the characters he played in those three most famous films ­ the brutish Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, the confused Terry Malloy in Waterfront and the wily Corleone, always thinking not just of the present but of his legacy.

From the point of view of the studios he worked for, Brando's image was not always an asset. Often, instead of focusing on his films, critics would write more about Brando's weight problem, his arguments with directors, his many romances and his tireless support for Native Americans. At other times they would write about Brando's decision to seek refuge on a Tahitian island.

His most famous act of real-life rebellion was his refusal in 1973 to accept the best actor Oscar for The Godfather.

Instead, he sent a woman who called herself Sasheen Littlefeather to read a diatribe about Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. It was roundly booed.

But the act of rebellion for which he will be forever remembered will be his line from The Wild One, in which Brando, playing a motorcycle gang leader, is asked what he's rebelling against.

"Whattaya got?" came his now legendary reply.

Suitably enough, Brando was from the American heartland, born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1924. He was a distant, conservative man of French, English and Irish stock, and the family's original name was Brandeau.

He grew up a pudgy, mischievous boy who was called Bud to distinguish him from his father. His sister Jocelyn was charged with getting Bud to kindergarten, a difficult task. She solved it by leading him on a leash.

Perhaps as a result, Brando grew up with an independent streak, always looking not to conform.

At 19, he moved to New York and studied acting with Stella Adler. After a week, Adler declared: "Within a year, Marlon Brando will be the best young actor in the American theatre."

It took a bit longer. He appeared in such plays as I Remember Mama, A Flag is Born and Truckline Cafe before the Tennessee Williams play that made him famous, A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1947.

The media made much of his motorcycle, leather jackets and T-shirts, his bongo drum playing. The image of Stanley seemed to have fallen on Brando, and the first signs of discomfort emerged. He once told an interviewer: "I detest the character."

When his private life was marred by ill-fortune in later years, Brando strove to remain his own person, never a fully signed-up comfortable member of the elite club that is Hollywood. "Hollywood is ruled by fear and love of money," he once told a reporter. "But it can't rule me because I'm not afraid of anything and I don't love money."

And there was plenty of tragedy. In May 1990, Brando's first son, Christian, shot and killed Dag Drollet, 26, the Tahitian lover of Christian's half-sister Cheyenne, at the family's hilltop home above Beverly Hills. Christian, 31, claimed the shooting was accidental.

After a heavily publicised trial, Christian was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years. Before the sentencing, Brando delivered an hour of rambling testimony in which he said he and his ex-wife had failed Christian.

Afterwards, Drollet's father said he thought Marlon Brando was acting and his son was "getting away with murder".

The tragedy was compounded in 1995, when Cheyenne, said to still be depressed over Drollet's death, committed suicide. She was 25.

Still, the undying spotlight never made him conform. "I am myself," he once declared, "and if I have to hit my head against a brick wall to remain true to myself, I will do it."

Recent reports suggested that Brando had slumped into an impoverished life and was reliant on food parcels dropped off by his neighbour Jack Nicholson. The one-bedroom bungalow, called Frangipan, at 12900 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles, was said to have slipped into a shabby state of disrepair.

A new book, Brando in Twilight, written by Patricia Ruiz, reveals that the reclusive star came under financial constraint due to huge amounts he spent while defending Christian. According to Ruiz, Brando was surviving with the support of a state pension, and occasional voice-over work.

His former maid and lover Cristina Ruiz (who is no relation of the author) was also threatening to reopen a $100m "palimony" suit, claiming that Brando had broken agreements to pay $10,000 a month support for three children, including Timothy, their autistic 10-year-old.

Until the last two years, Brando could be spotted raiding ice-cream freezers at a supermarket near his Los Angeles home, having slipped away from nurses who chained his refrigerator door to prevent binge eating. However, since he was struck by pneumonia in 2002 he had regularly been in a wheelchair breathing through an oxygen mask.


"An actor's a guy, who if you ain't talking about him, he ain't listening."

"The only thing an actor owes his public is not to bore them."

"The principal benefit acting has afforded me is the money to pay for my psychoanalysis.''


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

"An angel as a man, a monster as an actor." - Bernardo Bertolucci, the director of Last Tango in Paris

"I will miss him beyond belief." - Elizabeth Taylor

"He was a great actor. We all loved him and I'll really miss him." - Robert De Niro

"He was like a godfather to many young actors worldwide but particularly in this country.'' - Robert Duvall

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