Marlon Brando Biography

Born Marlon Brando, Jr., April 3, 1924, in Omaha, NE; died of lung failure, July 1, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA. Actor. In the post World War II world of cinema, no one stood out like Marlon Brando. Projecting a raw, forceful energy from the screen, Brando created a cast of characters that tugged at viewers' heartstrings like never before. Whenever Brando inhabited a character, he went beyond simply memorizing lines and delivering them eloquently; he delved into the dark corners of humanity, literally setting his emotions free in pursuit of nailing his characters. Brando's performances set a new standard, forcing other actors to follow. Over the course of his half-century career, Brando won two Academy Awards.

Brando was born on April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska, to Marlon Sr. and Dorothy Pennebaker Brando. His dad was a cattle- and chicken-feed dealer; his mother, an aspiring actress, was a founder of the Omaha Community Playhouse. Unfortunately, they were both alcoholics. Brando's tumultuous childhood at the hands of his abusive father and frustrated mother, however, gave him an emotional base to later draw from when inhabiting his roles.

When Brando was a child, his parents separated for a while and he moved to Santa Clara, California, with his mother before a reconciliation moved them to Illinois. Brando, known as "Bud" to his family, attended high school in Libertyville, Illinois, but made such meager efforts that his father shipped him off to the Shattuck Military Academy in Minnesota. He was later expelled for insubordination.

By the early 1940s, the United States was heavily involved in World War II and most of Brando's peers headed off to the military. A bad knee kept him out of the draft. Instead, the 19-year-old Brando went to New York City to live with a sister. Another sister, Jocelyn, was living in New York, too, and was enrolled in acting classes under Stella Adler at the New School for Social Research. Adler taught her students a new approach to acting called the Method, encouraging them to develop their parts by conjuring up real emotions tucked away inside from their real-life human experiences. By 1943, Brando was taking classes there and became the definitive leader at this approach to acting. Before, actors concentrated on externalized actions; Brando, however, under Adler's direction, had learned to look inward, relying on emotion over delivery.

Brando first appeared on Broadway in 1944. He captured the attention of theatergoers three years later, in 1947, for his steadfast performance as the boorish, yet sometimes comic, Stanley Kowalski in the famed Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. He became famous for the role and continued this willingness to bare his emotions in his first film, The Men, released in 1950. In this film he played a hostile hospitalized paraplegic soldier trying to come to terms with his fate. The film version of Streetcar appeared a year later, with Brando taking up his same role, which he played to almost disturbing perfection, thus establishing himself as a major star in Hollywood.

He next played a Mexican bandit in Viva Zapata! in 1952 before appearing in 1953's The Wild One, 1954's On the Waterfront, and 1955's Guys and Dolls. Brando earned his first award in 1952, a best actor award at Cannes Film Festival, for Viva Zapata!. In 1954, he captured his first Oscar for his role as washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. In this role, Brando uttered one of Hollywood's most famous lines, "I coulda been a contender." The line was still being imitated 50 years after Brando first muttered it.

Brando was clearly the scene-stealer of the 1950s. As Neal Gabler, author of Life the Movie, told the Chicago Tribune 's Mark Caro, "Marlon Brando defined American movies in the 1950s and early 1960s. He was an attitude. Brando contained an aesthetic in the way he mumbled, the way he walked, the way he grimaced and rolled his eyes . You only had to watch Marlon Brando, not even to hear him, to see the things that he stood for, which essentially was an antagonism to everything that was neat and straight and square."

The 1960s were filled with a string of bad films for Brando, including Mutiny on the Bounty, filmed on a South Seas island, which was a total flop. Producers blamed Brando's poor work habits for the movie's failure and enormous cost overruns. It was said that he put plugs in his ears so he did not have to listen to the director.

In 1972, Brando revived his career with the box office sensation The Godfather, under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola. Playing Don Vito Corleone, Brando once again displayed his acting genius. Delivering his lines in an abrasive whisper, he created a timeless portrait of patriarchal authority. Brando, in essence, was able to act between the lines of the script, creating one of the most tantalizing characters to ever fill the screen.

Brando won an Academy Award for the role, but did not attend the ceremony. Instead, he sent an actress who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather. She declined the Oscar on Brando's behalf, citing mistreatment of Native Americans in film, television, and real life. Another memorable 1970s role was his portrayal of the crazed Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

Brando's real life was as full of blistery torment as the characters he played. He married three times and had a long-term relationship with his housekeeper. In 1990, his son, Christian, was accused of killing his sister's boyfriend, the son of a prominent Tahitian banker and politician. Christian Brando alleged that his victim had been abusing his sister, Cheyenne. Christian spent five years in prison for the crime and Cheyenne later committed suicide.

In 2001, Brando made his last film, The Score, playing opposite Robert De Niro in this flick about a heist. By then, Brando was considered a crazy eccentric. In the mid-1990s he ballooned to a reported 400 pounds, driven by an unstoppable love for food. There were also bizarre interview appearances, such as the time he appeared on Larry King Live barefoot and donning heavy makeup and red suspenders, saying he wanted to look like King. During the interview, Brando was belligerent and at the end, kissed King on the lips.

Brando died on July 1, 2004, when his lungs failed; he was 80. For years he had suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease. Survivors include his son, Christian, from his first marriage to Welsh actress Anna Kashfi; two children, Miko and Rebecca, from his second marriage to Mexican actress Movita Castaneda; and a son, Teihotu, from his third marriage to Tarita Teriipaia. He also had several children with his housekeeper, Christina Ruiz, including Ninna Priscilla, Myles, and Timothy. He is also survived by Petra Barrett, whom he adopted in 1984. Brando may have more children but was generally tight-lipped about his domestic affairs during his lifetime.


Chicago Tribune, July 3, 2004, p. 1, (February 28, 2005)., (February 28, 2005).

Entertainment Weekly, July 16, 2004, pp. 24-36.

Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2004, p. A1, pp. A26-27.

New York Times, July 3, 2004, p. A1.

People, July 19, 2004, pp. 80-86.

—Lisa Frick

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