Marlon Brando: Stories, Bio, And Facts You Didn't Know About The Legendary Actor
Marlon Brando on the set of The Wild One, directed by Laslo Benedek. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
In A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On The Waterfront (1953), and The Wild One (1954), Marlon Brando established himself as one of the great acting talents of the 20th century. With Brando, the facts and stories of his real life often mirror those of his best characters. He was a brooding, smoldering, menacing presence in person and moreso on screen, from the beginning through later work like The Godfather (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979). From his early life as a grave digger to wearing cotton balls in his cheeks during his audition for The Godfather, Brando never made the obvious choice. Throughout a career that can only be described as quixotic Brando had massive highs and deep lows. He was essentially kicked out of Hollywood after becoming one of its biggest stars and then clawed his way back in the 1970s with a series of huge films, and on each one he acted weirder and weirder.
He was like Holden Caulfield as a young man
Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1924, Marlon Brando spent much of his early years on the move. His family moved to Evanston, Illinois when he was just a boy and after his parents separated when he was 11 his mother moved with Brando and his two siblings to Santa Ana, California. Two years later, in 1937, his parents reconciled and they reconvened in Libertyville, Illinois, a small town north of Chicago. It was here that Brando, known as “Bud,” began mimicking the people around him and developing his character work.
As a teen he was sent to the Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota but military life wasn’t for him. He didn’t like his teachers and he didn’t like his fellow students. He snuck out hung out in town until he was kicked out of school. When he was offered a chance to return he decided to drop out of school and become a gravedigger instead. As World War II got under way he attempted to enlist in the Army but a bad knee left him with a 4-F classification so he went to New York City instead.
He studied acting under Stella Adler
After moving to New York, Brando studied the Stanislavski system with Stella Adler. In doing so he learned to use the internal and external aspects of a character in order to create a fully realized version of whatever he was creating. Brando also studied with Lee Strasberg, but was reluctant to give the teacher any credit for his success:
After I had some success, Lee Strasberg tried to take credit for teaching me how to act. He never taught me anything. He would have claimed credit for the sun and the moon if he believed he could get away with it. He was an ambitious, selfish man who exploited the people who attended the Actors Studio and tried to project himself as an acting oracle and guru. Some people worshipped him, but I never knew why. I sometimes went to the Actors Studio on Saturday mornings because Elia Kazan was teaching, and there were usually a lot of good-looking girls, but Strasberg never taught me acting. Stella (Adler) did—and later Kazan.
The more famous Brando became the harder he was to deal with
Marlon Brando was always a bit of a rake, but as he became a box-office draw with roles like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire he also began to act out. His disgust with the Hollywood system led him to acting out on set and essentially not taking his directors or producers seriously. While on the set of what was meant to be Brando’s crowning achievement, Mutiny on the Bounty, he took to hanging out with the Tahitian extras, speaking in a bizarre English accent, and rewriting the script from day to day or just ad-libbing whenever he felt like it.
According to director Lewis Milestone, Brando was happy to bring the filming to a halt if it wasn’t going his way. The film was a disaster on set and at the box office, it put a stop to Brando’s career in Hollywood for a full decade. In the meantime he acted in films that were far below his talents and became a laughing stock of mainstream Hollywood.
The Godfather was his comeback but he almost blew it
After 10 years acting on the fringes of Hollywood Brando was brought into a major picture, The Godfather, but there were conditions to his hiring. The film’s producer, Robert Evans, thought Brando was “unbankable” so he had to jump through hoops to play Vito Corleone. Not only did he have to give an on camera makeup test where he famously placed cotton balls his mouth in order to look like an aging Italian mobster.
After he was hired Brando had to accept a lower fee than what he normally accepted and he had to accept financial responsibility if there production delays based on his behavior. On set, Brando was weird but he wasn’t anywhere near as poorly behaved as he was on Mutiny on the Bounty. One of the strangest things about his performance were the cue cards that he used on set. He taped them to on walls and even Robert Duvall is holding a cue card in one of their scenes together. Brando said that the reason he used the cards wasn’t because he couldn’t memorize his lines, but that they made his line readings sound more off the cuff.
For all the oddities behind the scenes, Brando's performance was hailed as brilliant, and won him an Oscar (which he turned down).
He was the highest paid actor on Superman
After The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris Brando was once again a wanted commodity. In 1976 he was tapped by executive producers Ilya Salkind & Alexander Salkind in order to help Superman get financing when the production looked like it was going to go downhill during pre-production. Brando agreed to appear in the film as Superman’s father for $3.7 million and an 11.75% backend on the profits. Keep in mind Brando only worked for 13 days on the picture and he appears onscreen for 20 minutes. The star of the film, Christopher Reeve, made $250,000 and he’s in just about every frame of the movie.
Brando did whatever he wanted on Apocalypse Now
The only person that Francis Ford Coppola had in mind to play Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in the surreal Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now was Marlon Brando. Coppola and his producers agreed to pay Brando $1 million a week for three weeks of work. Brando’s barely in the movie so it shouldn’t have been a big deal but from the moment he arrived on set things got weird. Brando showed up overweight, he hadn’t read the source material, and he didn’t want to be filmed as a big character because, as Coppola says, he was embarrassed about his weight:
He was already heavy when I hired him and he promised me that he was going to get in shape and I imagined that I would, if he were heavy, I could use that. But he was so fat, he was very, very shy about it ... He was very, very adamant about how he didn't want to portray himself that way.
As the clock ticked on the production Brando continued to hold things up to talk them over with Coppola. Days went by while they worked on his character’s motivation for a brief scene. He nearly bankrupted an already over budget production with his constant conversations.
The Island Of Dr. Moreau was Brando’s crazy pièce de résistance
By the time he was hired onto Richard Stanley’s The Island of Doctor Moreau in the early ‘90s he was long beyond caring about what people thought of him. When he arrived on set in Australia he completely turned the shoot upside down. After Stanley was replaced by John Frankenheimer Brando started showing up at to set at 9am so where he’d go to his trailer for a private meeting to discuss the film. There were rewrites, new ideas, and Brando basically just messed around to keep delaying the film. Even so, when the movie came out it was full of the strange stars ideas like Moreau’s ice bucket hat, the small person who looks just like him, and covering himself in completely in sunscreen. It’s miraculous that this film was made.
He spent his final years hanging out at Neverland Ranch
Brando never stopped working but as he got older but as his health began failing he started scaling back his work and writing the film Brando and Brando with Tunisian director Ridha Behi. When he was home he hung out at Neverland Ranch with Michael Jackson. Brando’s son Miko explained:
Dad had a hard time breathing in his final days, and he was on oxygen much of the time. He loved the outdoors, so Michael would invite him over to Neverland. Dad could name all the trees there, and the flowers, but being on oxygen it was hard for him to get around and see them all, it’s such a big place. So Michael got Dad a golf cart with a portable oxygen tank so he could go around and enjoy Neverland.
On July 1, 2004, Brando passed away from respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure at the UCLA Medical Center. His ashes were mixed with those of his friends Wally Cox and Sam Gilman before they were scattered in Death Valley.
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