Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando was born in Omaha, Nebraska on April 3, 1924. His father, Marlon Brando Sr., was a pesticide and chemical feed manufacturer. His mother, Dorthy Julia Pennebaker, was an actress and theater administer who helped Henry Fonda begin his career. She was not seen as an average mother. She smoked, drove cars, wore pants, and was overall seen as beind unconventional. She was also an alcoholic who had to consistently be dragged out of bars by her husband. Marlon Brando would later write that “The anguish that her drinking produced was that she preferred getting drunk to caring for us.”[1] About his father, Brando would say that “I was his namesake, but nothing I did ever pleased or even interested him. He enjoyed telling me I couldn’t do anything right. He had a habit of telling me I would never amount to anything.”[2] Brando’s parents had an on and off relationship throughout his childhood.

As a child, Brando was deeply attached to his governess. The teenage babysitter was known to have sexually abused Marlon when he was only four years old. The young child is said to have not known better and became extremely distraught when she left him.[3]

Between 1939 and 1941, Marlon worked as an usher in Libertyville, Illinois’s only movie theater. As a child, he became lifelong friends with Wally Cox, an actor in his own right. From an early age, Marlon would mimic the mannerisms of the children around him and create characters out of them. One of his childhood friends later said that Brando’s earliest acting involved mimicking the cows and horses on the family farm as a way of bringing distraction to his mothers life.[4]

As a young adult, Brando was expelled from high school for riding his motorcycle through the hall ways. He was then sent to Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota. He did well in school there and beganstudying theater. Nevertheless, he was put on probation in 1943 for being insubordinate to a colonel. He was ordered to stay confined to his room, was caught, and soon after found himself expelled. Instead of going back the next year, Brando instead dropped out of high school and worked as a ditch-digger. He did try to enlist in the army but was classified as unfit for military service due to a football injury to his knee.[5]

After being rejected from the military, Marlon Brando decided to follow his sister to New York City and began studying at the American Theatre Wing Professional School which was part of the Dramatic Workshop of the New School. He eventually became an avid student of Stella Adler’s. In one of his most infamous young adult moments, Stella Adler recalls instructing her class to act like chickens. She would then tell them that a nuclear bomb was about to fall on them. Well most of the class ran around wildly, Brando sat calmly and pretended to lay an egg. When asked why he did so, Brando told Adler that “I’m a chicken- what do I know about bombs?”[6]

In 1944, Brando made his Broadway debut in the drama I Remember Mama. Alfred Lunt coached him for an audition for the play. O Mistress Mine, in the hopes that he would play lunch son. However, Brando made no attempt to read the lines at the edition and was not hired. He had a part in the play Truckline Cafe, for which he was voted “Most Prominent Young Actor” by New York Drama Critics.[7]

In 1945, Brando was recommended for the co-starring role in The Eagle Has Two Heads with Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead had recently turned down Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, the role of Blanched Dubois being specifically written for her, in order to tour in The Eagle Has Two Heads. Bankhead and Brando did not get along very well. Bankhead had destain for Brando’s method acting while she reminded Brando of his mother because of her drinking. The director of the play, Jack Wilson, tried his best to tolerate Brando’s behavior but often found it taxing, especially when Brando mumbled his way through stage rehearsals. The critics of the play were not as kind as his co- workers. One critic remarked that the death scene. “Brando looked like a car in midtown Manhattan searching for a parking space.” Tallulah Bankhead would later say that ” he was a great young actor when he wanted to be, but most of the time I couldn’t even hear him on the stage.”[8]

Only a few weeks into the tour, Marlon Brando was fired. This may have been a blessing in disguise as he went on to play Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, it may have been Bankhead who helped him procure this role. She wrote a letter to Williams where she said “I do have one suggestion for casting. I know of an actor who can appear as this brutish Stanley Kowalski character. I mean, a total pig of a man without sensitivity or grace of any kind. Marlon Brando would be perfect as Stanley. I have just fired the cat from my play, The Eagle Has Two Heads, and I know for a fact that he is looking for work.”[9]

Marlon Brando’s first big screen roll was as a bitter paraplegic veteran in the 1950 film, The Men. To prepare for the role, Brando spent a month in bed at the Birmingham Army hospital in Van Nuys. Marlon would credit this role to being the potential reason why his draft status was suddenly changed from unfit for the military to 1-A status. Since leaving school, Brando and had any surgery and his injury was no longer so physically debilitating that he would be excluded from the draft. He was instructed to report to the induction center where he answered the questions by saying that his race was “human,” his skin color was ” seasonal – oyster white to beige,” and told the doctor that he was psychoneurotic. The draft board sent Brando to a psychiatrist of whom he told that he had been expelled for military school and had severe problems with authority. The psychiatrist happened to know a doctor friend of Brando’s and therefore, Brando’s successfully dodged the draft.[10]

Early on in his career, Brando began using cue cards. Although many said that it was the lazy way of doing things, Brand new argued that “if you don’t know what the words are, but you have a general idea of what they are, then you look at the cue cards and it gives you the feeling to the viewer, hopefully, that the person is really searching for what he is going to say- that he doesn’t know what to say.” By the time he got to The Godfather set, he would simply say that he had cue cards because he could read his lines that way.[11]

In 1951, Brando brought his character of Stanley Kowalski screen, his performance in this movie is considered to be one of his best.

In 1952, Brando start in Viva Zapata!, A fictionalized retelling of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s life. Brando’s co-star was Anthony Quinn. He would later go on to say that “Tony Quinn, whom I admired professionally and liked personally, played my brother, but he was extremely cold to me while we shot the picture during our scenes together, I sensed a bitterness toward me, and if I suggested a drink after work, he either turned me down or else was selling and said little.”[12] It would take years for both Brando and Quinn to learn that the director, Elia Kazan, had told Quinn that Brando was unimpressed by his work after Quinn took over as Stanley Kowalski for him on Broadway. Brando never said anything of the likes. However, the director wanted to sew tension between the two so that it could be seen on screen.

In 1961, Marlon Brando made his doctoral debut in One-Eyed Jack. The production caused problems. Initially expected to take three months to complete, the film took six months to shoot and cost more than six million. By the time it came to editing, Brando would later say that? “Paramount said it didn’t like my version of the story; I’d had. Everyone lie except Carl Malden. The studio cut the movie to pieces and made him a liar, too. By then, I was bored with the whole project and walked away from it.”[13] It is safe to say that one eye Jack’s was not a success.

Brando’s frustration with the industry continued to boil over. On the set of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, he was accused of deliberately sabotaging almost every aspect of the production. The film’s director, Lewis milestone would go on to say that executives “deserve what they got when they gave a ham. Actor, a petulant child, complete control over an expensive picture.”[14] By the time the 1960s are over, Brando’s career was thought to be gone with a decade. Critics dismissed him and production companies didn’t want him.

However, Brando got another chance at success when The Godfather was produced. Paramount’s production chief, Robert Evans, had given Francis Ford Coppola the opportunity to produce the movie after many big name directors had turned him down. As the production developed, Coppola created a list of actors for all the roles. The pair decided that, in order to attract attention to the movie, they needed to hire one of the best actors in the world. They concluded that the best actor was either Marlon Brando or Lawrence Olivier. They eventually narrowed their decision down to Brando. However, many Paramount executives did not want to hire him. Paramount’s president, Stanley Jaffe, told Coppola that as long as he was president, Brando would not be in the picture. However, he did eventually change his mind.[15]

In order for Marlon Brando to be in the godfather jaffe set three conditions. He said that Brando would have to take a fee far below what he typically received, that he would have to agree to accept financial responsibility for any production delays his behavior cost, and then he had to submit to a screen test. A video taped “makeup” test. Although still reluctant, Paramount kiddos eventually caved and Brando was hired. He threatened to walk several times from the picture but it was eventually completed. His performance was hailed by critics and he won the Academy award for best actor for his performance in the movie. It would be this award that Brando famously did not accept, he sent actress so sheen little feather due to decline the Oscar on his behalf. She said that Brando was rejecting the ward and protest of ” the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry… And on television and movie reruns and almost with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”[16]

Brando’s career would never again be as successful as he was in his early days. However, he would go on to make dozens more movies and when many more awards. Throughout his life, he was married three times and had 11 children, 8. Biological and three adopted. He was known to always have multiple girlfriends at a time and it is rumored that he had relationships with men. He once said of his friend Wally Cox, “if Wally had been a woman, I would have married him and we would have lived happily ever after.”[17]

Marlon Brando was also an activist. He participated in the March on Washington in August 1963, also known as the March on Washington for jobs and freedom led by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1967, he visited Finland through UNICEF where he spoke in favor of children’s rights and development aid and developing countries. The next year, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Brando bowed out of a leading role in order to devote himself to the civil rights movement. He later stated that “I felt I’d better go find out where it is; what it is to be black in this country; what this rage is all about.”[18] Later, his future co-star Martin Sheen would say ” I’ll never forget the night that Reverend King was shot and I turned on the news and Marlin was walking through Harlem with mayor Lindsey. And there were snipers and there was a lot of unrest and he kept walking and talking through those neighborhoods with mayor Lindsey. It was one of the most incredible acts of courage I ever saw, and it meant a lot and did a lot.”[19]

On July 1, 2004, Marlon Brando passed away of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congested heart failure. He was also suffering from diabetes and lubric cancer. He was cremated and his ashes were put in with those of his friend, Wally Cox. Together, their ashes were scattered in Tahiti and in Death Valley.

[1] Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me ( New York: Random House, 1994), p. 4.
[2] Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, p. 7.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Robert K. Elder, “Marlon Brando, 1924–2004: Illinois youth full of anger, family strife.”
[5] Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, p. 32-34.
[6] Stella Adler and Barry Paris, Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 271.
[7] Louie Kemp, “My Seder With Brando,” The Jewish Journal.
[8] Darwin Porter, Brando Unzipped, New York: Blood Moon Productions, 2006, p.129.
[9] Darwin Porter, Brando Unzipped.
[10] Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, p. 32-34.
[11] Nate Rawlings, “The Anniversary You Can’t Refuse: 40 Things You Didn’t Know About The Godfather”, Time, March 14, 2012.
[12] Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, p. 171.
[13] “One-Eyed Jacks”,, March 14, 2021.
[14] Marlon Brando and Robert Lindsey, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me.
[15] Harlan Lebo, The Godfather Legacy: The Untold Story of the Making of the Classic Godfather Trilogy, New York City: Touchstone Press, 2005, p. 47-48.
[16] “American Indians mourn Brando’s death-Marlon Brando (1924–2004),” MSNBC, July 2, 2004.
[17] Robert Sellers, Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson, New York City: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010, p. 109.
[18] Marlon Brando on the Joey Bishop Show on ABC-TV.
[19] Martin Sheen in Marlon Brando A&E Biography.

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