Back Stage West Remembers Marlon Brando

There are only a handful of actors who can command immediate respect and awe with only one name. Olivier. De Niro. And, of course, Brando. Marlon Brando is the name that most commonly arises when actors both new and experienced are asked who they most hope to emulate. It's no overstatement to say that in a field of imitators, Brando was a true original. When he first burst on the scene with his raw, physical characterization of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, it was unlike anything audiences had seen. There were no predecessors who could have prepared viewers for his visceral yet nuanced portrayals throughout his career. His legacy of talent and inspiration will live on, although the man himself died of pulmonary fibrosis on July 1, at age 80.

Unfortunately, Brando also leaves another legacy, one of squandered talent and wasted opportunities. It's tragic to think that most of his press in recent years came from his strange behavior and personal tragedies. There were lawsuits waged by ex-employees and former girlfriends, oddball TV appearances where he kissed Larry King and ranted against the Hollywood establishment, and well-publicized fights with directors. His family life was equally full of strife. In 1990 his son Christian went to prison for shooting and killing Dag Drollet, the boyfriend of Christian's sister Cheyenne. She had committed suicide in 1995, devastating her father. Just days before Brando's death, reports emerged from the upcoming biography Brando in Twilight, by Patricia Ruiz, that the actor was surviving on his Social Security pension, approximately $20 million in debt.

But those who knew Brando remember an actor whose skill was equaled only by his generosity. Robert Osborne, primetime host and anchor of the Turner Classic Movies cable network, recalled sneaking onto the set of the 1958 film The Young Lions and being surprised by Brando's kindness toward co-star Maximilian Schell. Wrote Osborne in a recent column for The Hollywood Reporter, "At that point, Schell was brand new to America and not yet comfortable speaking English. Brando treated him like a cherished kid brother, protecting Max from an irritated director when Schell's English failed him, encouraging him and protecting him through the minefields of moviemaking; it seemed especially striking considering Brando's reputation for being a tough combatant with most of those in his wake." Eva Marie Saint, Brando's co-star in On the Waterfront, had a similar experience. The film, which won both actors Oscars, starred Brando as a former prizefighter named Terry Malloy and Saint as the idealistic young woman who sees potential in him. "Playing those scenes with him was something I shall always treasure," Saint has said. "He was one of the most generous and talented actors."

And one of the most inspirational. Actor James Earl Jones recalled the effect Brando had on every struggling actor when he burst on the scene in the 1950s. "When Marlon did his work, when he did his Stanley Kowalski, every truck driver in New York said, 'Hey, I could do that! That's me, I could do that!' And that was very important," Jones has said. "And I think that's what sort of opened life up for me, opened up that artistic life up for me." Brando's Godfather co-star James Caan said in a statement, "He influenced more young actors of my generation than any [other] actor. Anyone who denies it never understood what it was about. I loved him."

Brando might have seemed an unlikely candidate for superstardom. His beloved mother, Dorothy, was an alcoholic and his father, Marlon Sr., a chronic womanizer. After young Brando's frequent attempts to run away from home, his father sent him to a military school where his behavior did not improve. He was expelled in his senior year and went to join his sister in New York. He studied at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, became active in the Group Theatre alongside luminaries that included Clifford Odets, and soon found himself a pupil of the legendary acting teacher Stella Adler, who once called him "the most keenly aware, the most empathetic human being alive." During this time Brando began to perfect his style of Method acting, derived from the Stanislavsky technique that concentrated on emotion and spontaneity instead of memorizing lines. "I taught him nothing," Adler once said. "I opened up possibilities of thinking, feeling, experience, and I opened the doors. He never needed me after that."

Only a year after arriving in New York, he made his Broadway debut in I Remember Mama. But it was the role of Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 Broadway version of Streetcar, when Brando was only 23, that cemented his status as a new voice in acting. Film historian David Thomson was prompted to write, "There had never been such a display of dangerous, brutal male beauty on an American stage--its influence can still be felt, in fashion photography and sport as well as acting." When Brando reprised the role in the 1951 film version, his iconic status was sealed.

And, for a time, deserved. His frequent collaborations with Streetcar director Elia Kazan yielded some of the greatest performances in film history. In Kazan's On the Waterfront, Brando is mesmerizing as a beaten man who begins to develop a conscience. His famous "I could'a been a contender!" speech has become part of movie history for a reason and ranks right up there with the "Stella!" balcony scene from Streetcar. His aggressive rebel in The Wild One inspired countless brooding imitators, and it was a part Brando identified with. The actor once said, "There's a line in the picture where he snarls, 'Nobody tells me what to do.' That's exactly how I've felt all my life."

Indeed, Brando was probably an agent's nightmare. Not content to be a pretty-boy movie star, the actor set out to stretch his limits. He tackled Shakespeare, playing Antony in a 1953 film version of Julius Caesar. He sang and danced in the 1955 musical Guys and Dolls. And in later years there was the controversial and uncompromising Last Tango in Paris, a film whose sexuality earned it an X-rating. He won his second Oscar for The Godfather, a role he is still closely associated with more than 30 years after its release.

Brando famously turned down that second Oscar, sending a woman who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather (later revealed to be actor Maria Cruz) to make a speech on his behalf about Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. It was one in a long list of erratic stunts from the actor, who entered semi-retirement. Still, he remained an influence among his peers. "He gave us our freedom," Jack Nicholson once said. Indeed generations of bad boys from Nicholson and Robert De Niro to Sean Penn owe a debt of thanks to the actor who made the brutish antihero so appealing. Al Pacino recently said in an interview, "It was incomprehensible just how good Brando was. I'll be imitating him until the day I die."

Brando might have retired completely, having never seemed to hold Hollywood in much esteem. In his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, he noted, "The power and influence of a movie star is curious: I didn't ask for it or take it; people gave it to me. Simply because you're a movie star, people empower you with special rights and privileges." However, Brando was equally frank about his reasons for continuing to work. "The only reason I'm in Hollywood is that I don't have the moral courage to refuse the money," he once said. He was paid enormous salaries for brief appearances in films such as Superman and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.

But there were some gems in the twilight years. He played a baffled psychiatrist to Johnny Depp's legendary lover in Don Juan DeMarco, a role Depp took only on the condition Brando was cast. In addition to pulling off the lighthearted comedy, Brando shares a sweet chemistry with his on-screen wife, played by Faye Dunaway. He proved equally adept at poking fun at his own image in The Freshman, a comedy that relied heavily on the pop culture value of The Godfather films. Much was made of Brando's willingness to laugh at himself and to try anything--including an ice skating scene in which the rotund actor looked remarkably commanding while being completely ungraceful.

And actors still lined up to work with him. In 2001's The Score, Brando found himself sharing top billing with De Niro and Edward Norton for what was essentially a standard heist flick. Norton confessed to being nervous about the prospect of acting alongside such a venerated co-star but found Brando a joy to work with. "He's incredibly funny and he's a practical joker," Norton told Entertainment News Daily while promoting the film. "Meeting him brought home for me what he has been saddled with on some levels. He's the kind of person, personality-wise, who's least suited to being venerated by others. And it must be so frustrating for him, because it walls you off from just the pure experience of people and things. He'd love to sit in a cafe and watch people walk by on the street."

Brando was working up until the end, preparing to voice a character in the animated film Big Bug Man and about to start work on a low-budget feature titled Brando and Brando. According to writer/director Ridha Behi, Brando would have played himself in the film, about a young Tunisian boy who travels west to pursue the American dream. "I will nevertheless make the movie to pay homage to him," Behi told the Associated Press, adding he would not recast the role. "No one will take his place. Brando is Brando."

With Brando now gone, generations of artists feel the loss. But one wonders what the man would have made of all the fuss. Francis Ford Coppola, who canonized Brando in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, has his own theory. "Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give their comments about his death," he has said. "All I'll say is that it makes me sad he's gone." BSW