Screen legend Marlon Brando in 1953's The Wild One.
The 1950s were a time when movie stars were expected to look glamorous while appearing in a public eye. One star who had no interest in that was Marlon Brando. Rather than formal wear, Brando went out in jeans and T-shirts. During many of his drives down Sunset Boulevard in a convertible he could be seen wearing a fake arrow that had seemingly pierced his head. It wouldn't be the last time Brando was at odds with conventional Hollywood.
Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Neb., on April 3, 1924. His 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me described a troubled early life. He said his father, Marlon Brando Sr., was an abusive alcoholic who demeaned his only son. His mother, Dorothy Pennebaker Brando, was also an alcoholic and put little effort into raising her children. When his parents separated in 1935, Brando's mother took him and his two older sisters with her to Orange County, Calif. The Brandos reconciled two years later, and the family moved to the northern Chicago suburbs. More interested in pranks than schoolwork, Brando was sent to the Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota by his father. The military setting didn't improve his behavior, and he was expelled in his senior year.
Brando's mother had been a frustrated actress, and by the time of his expulsion from military school his sisters, Florence and Jocelyn, had moved to New York to pursue their own acting careers. After a stay in Libertyville, Ill., Brando moved to New York himself and enrolled in the Dramatic Workshop of the New School for Social Research. He studied under famous acting teacher Stella Adler, who needed only a week with him to be convinced that within a year he would be America's best young actor. Brando made his stage debut at the New School in 1944, playing Jesus in a production of Hannele, and later that year began a two-year stint in the Broadway cast of I Remember Mama. He appeared in several plays in 1946 and then was recommended by director Elia Kazan for the role of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway.
Playing Kowalski in 1947 was a breakthrough in Brando's career. Streetcar focused mainly on the neurotic Blanche DuBois, but it was Brando who stole the show. His performance also marked an important milestone in acting history. In a tribute to Brando, Roger Ebert wrote that a difference could be seen in the acting before and after 1947. Brando's performance, Ebert wrote, "broke through some kind of psychic barrier" and allowed actors of both his and future generations to display emotions that most previous actors had been unable or unwilling to express. Ebert listed Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Robert DeNiro, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp as being among those indebted to Brando and argued that Charlize Theron's performance in 2003's Monster was "almost literally made possible" by the acting legend.
After three years of offers from Hollywood, Brando made his film debut playing a paraplegic veteran in 1950's The Men. To prepare for the role, Brando spent weeks living at a veterans hospital. His performance was so convincing that many of the early audiences thought he was an actual soldier hired for the film. The following year, he returned to his role as Stanley Kowalski in the film version of Streetcar and received his first Oscar nomination. He went home empty-handed, although co-stars Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden all won. Brando received his second Oscar nomination for 1952's Viva Zapata! but lost again. 1953's Julius Caesar brought him a third nomination, but he once again lost.
The losing streak ended with Brando's performance as boxer Terry Malloy in 1954's On the Waterfront, but the next few years would be professionally disappointing. His image suffered further when an unflattering profile written by Truman Capote was published in The New Yorker in 1957. He starred in 1961's One-Eyed Jacks, his first and last directorial effort. Blame for the box office disaster of 1962's enormously expensive Mutiny on the Bounty was directed almost solely at Brando, whose weight had swelled from 170 to 210 pounds.
While filming Bounty, Brando became enchanted with the island of Tahiti. In 1966, he bought Tetiaroa, an atoll approximately 30 miles north of Tahiti. Brando would divide most of the rest of his life between the atoll and his 12-room residence on Mulholland Drive over Beverly Hills. Although he had found a new home, Brando seemed increasingly out of place in Hollywood. Film Comment posed an ominous question in 1969: "Is Brando Necessary?"
But Brando's career was about to enjoy a resurgence, although that could hardly have been predicted as the 1970s began. Paramount Pictures was adapting Mario Puzo's novel Godfather into a film and was considering actors for the role of Don Vito Corleone. Director Francis Ford Coppola wanted Brando for the role, but Paramount officials, wary of Brando's reputation, refused. Brando agreed to do a "makeup test" for Coppola, and the director took his film crew to Brando's home one day. When studio officials saw Brando transform into Corleone - stuffing Kleenex into his cheeks, slicking back his hair and speaking in a raspy voice - they agreed to hire him. The Godfather was a smash hit when it was released in 1972 and would go on to be considered one of the greatest films ever made. Shortly before Brando's death, a Premiere magazine poll named Don Corleone the most memorable character in movie history. Brando won his second Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather, but he sent an American Indian actress named Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony on his behalf. Littlefeather announced that Brando was refusing the award because of the way Hollywood had treated American Indians.
Brando followed his Godfather triumph with the X-rated drama Last Tango in Paris. It would be his last great film role. Tired of emotionally torturing himself for roles, after Last Tango he began taking parts for money. One famous example was 1978's Superman, in which he earned more for a small role than Christopher Reeve did as the title character. He received his last Oscar nomination for 1989's A Dry White Season. The 1990 comedy The Freshman saw Brando parody Don Corleone. Ebert praised his performance, but Brando told an interviewer the movie was "trash" - only to release a statement a few days later saying he may have been wrong.
With three wives and allegedly at least 11 children, Brando's personal life was as unsteady as his career. His coping method - eating - resulted in his massive weight during the final decades of his life. He suffered perhaps his greatest tragedy in 1990 when his son Christian was arrested for murdering his daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend, Dag Drollet. Testifying during Christian's trial, Brando claimed he had done his best as a father. Christian pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and spent nearly five years in prison. After two prior suicide attempts, Cheyenne Brando hung herself in the bedroom of her mother's home in Tahiti in 1995.
Brando returned to the big screen in the mid-'90s. Production on 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau was a nightmare, and the movie was a critical and cultural failure. Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton co-starred with Brando in his last feature film, 2001's The Score. He refused to be on the same set as director Frank Oz, whom he called "Miss Piggy." Brando died of pulmonary fibrosis at a Los Angeles hospital on July 1, 2004. Print stories claimed that his only sources of income at the time of his death were Social Security and residuals from old movies.