Testament to the power and mastery of a movie that, nearly 60 years on, still feels as modern, complex and cutting-edge as any film released…
1924: Born April 3, in Omaha, Neb., of Dutch-Irish descent, the youngest of three children of a salesman and an amateur actress.
1938: Enrolls in Libertyville High School as a freshman.
1944: Makes his Broadway debut as the teenage son in the hit "I Remember Mama."
1946: Is named Broadway's most promising actor after he plays a World War II veteran in "Truckline Cafe."
1947: Creates his landmark portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway.
1950: Makes his film debut in Fred Zinnemann's "The Men," as a paralyzed war veteran.
1952: Receives his first Oscar nomination for "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951).
1961: Makes his directorial debut on "One-Eyed Jacks," widely regarded as a disaster at the time.
1966: Buys a private island off the Pacific coast and lives there off and on for the next three decades.
1972: Is forced to audition for the role of Don Corleone in "The Godfather" because of his diminished reputation in Hollywood. It would become his defining performance.
1973: Rejects the best actor Oscar for "The Godfather" (1972) to protest the treatment of Native Americans and sends Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony to make a speech on his behalf.
1979: Wins an Emmy Award for his supporting performance in "Roots: The Next Generation."
1989: Comes out of retirement to act in "A Dry White Season," for which he receives a supporting actor Oscar nomination.
1990: His oldest son Christian is arrested for murdering Dag Drollet, boyfriend of half-sister Cheyenne.
1994: Writes his autobiography, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me, which is criticized for not revealing much of "the real Brando."
1995: In a rambling interview on CNN's "Larry King Live," Brando kisses host King on the mouth.
2004: Completes voice work in May for the character of an old lady in an upcoming animated film titled "Big Bug Man."
2004: Dies of lung failure July 1 at age 80 in Los Angeles. Sources: IMDB.com and wire reports.
He was the most influential actor in the history of the movies, and one of the most exasperating. He was instrumental in the success of some of the greatest films of all time, and cheerfully appeared in some of the worst. He was a poet and, at the end, he was a pauper, but in all the seasons of his life, he was unmistakably, defiantly, brilliantly Marlon Brando.
The great actor died Thursday in an undisclosed Los Angeles hospital, of lung failure, at the age of 80. His passing was made known Friday by his attorney David J. Seeley. Brando died as stories appeared in print claiming that he was nearly destitute, occupying a few rooms in the Hollywood Hills, living off Social Security and the residuals from some of his movies.
Look at old movies on TV, and you will sense a difference in the acting before and after 1947. That was the year Brando first played on the Broadway stage Tennessee Williams' macho, petulant Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
His performance broke through some kind of psychic barrier, freeing actors of his and later generations to tap emotions that most earlier actors were unable or willing to reveal. It was said that his style was fashioned by the famed acting teacher Stella Adler, but perhaps he possessed it all along, and Adler simply recognized and encouraged it. It took her only a week of coaching Brando, recalls the AP's Bob Thomas, before she said that within a year he would be the best young actor in America.
Much is made of the generation that followed, the Method actors, and although there is much theory and lore associated with the Method, to some degree it consisted of a lot of actors trying to do what Brando did. Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp all owe something to Brando. And a performance like Charlize Ther-on's in "Monster" (2003) is almost literally made possible by the avenues that Brando opened.
A recent Premiere magazine poll named Brando's Don Corleone, from Francis Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) as the single most memorable character in movie history. "The Godfather" is at or near the top of many lists of the greatest films, and Brando's masterpieces also include "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951), "On the Waterfront" (1954), "Apocalypse Now" (1979) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1972). In those films, he was fearless, exposing his psyche in "Last Tango" in a famous sex scene that no other major actor might have dared.
"Apocalypse Now" traded on his mystique by keeping him offscreen until the closing act of the film; he was the enigmatic Col. Kurtz, brilliant, crazy, holed up in the Vietnamese jungle, running his own operation. Even when he appeared, he was seen mostly in shadow, speaking of the horrors of war in a way that transcended the movie and the character.
Brando played all kinds of characters in all kinds of movies, and had box-office winners with "Viva Zapata!" (1952), "Guys and Dolls" (1955), "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956) and "Sayonara" (1957). He took chances with risky projects like John Huston's "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967) and his own "One Eyed Jacks" (1961).
And, increasingly, he seemed to enjoy provoking Hollywood with his unpredictable behavior. He won Academy Awards for his work in "On the Waterfront" and "The Godfather" and was nominated for six other roles, but will always be remembered for refusing to attend the Oscar ceremony for "The Godfather" and sending a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather to protest discrimination against Native Americans. That Littlefeather was later identified as Maria Cruz, an actress who was not an Indian, only compounded his notoriety. [See clarification below on Ms. Littlefeather.]
Brando's later decades were marked by personal and health problems. In 1990, his son Christian shot and killed Dag Drollet, the lover of his half-sister Cheyenne, at the family's Los Angeles home; Christian was sentenced to 10 years, and five years later Cheyenne committed suicide.
Brando, who had been so lithe and toned in early roles like his motorcycle gang leader in "The Wild One" (1953), had a dramatic weight gain in his later decades. This he disguised by vast dark costumes, or by shadow; in "Apocalypse Now," all we can usually see is his face. In perhaps his worst film, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1996), "he's only onscreen for about 15 minutes," wrote the critic James Berardinelli, "and while there, his amazing girth is far more likely to capture our attention than his acting."
Yet in the very funny comedy "The Freshman" (1990), he used his bulk as part of the joke, chomping on M&Ms while doing a parody of Don Corleone. And then what astonishing grace he exhibited in an ice-skating scene, gliding along to a Tony Bennett song. He could blindside you with something surprising like that. It was a superb comic performance, although he told an interviewer the movie was "trash" -- and then, a few days later, issued a statement saying it might be all right after all.
Most of those late roles were frankly done for the money; even with "Apocalypse Now," his salary demands were extreme, and are chronicled in "Hearts of Darkness," a documentary about Coppola's travails in making the film. Coppola got his money's worth, however, because no other actor would have been iconic enough to function as the unseen object of the hazardous river journey that occupies the movie's first two hours.
I attended the world premiere at Cannes and still remember the hushed, electric silence as we all leaned forward at the first glimpse of Brando. The joke at Cannes was that the plot showed men willing to risk death to see what Brando would come up with.
Brando's life and career were both governed by a nature that could be called arrogant or independent or free-spirited or simply eccentric. In 1995, in a notorious live hourlong TV interview with Larry King, was Brando just acting goofy, or did he know exactly what he was doing when he appeared in a garish shirt and shorts, kept talking when King tried to go to commercials, insisted the interviewer eat some organic cookies which he somehow implied contained less than savory ingredients, and then ended the interview by kissing the astonished King?
"Saturday Night Live" would not have dared to do the number Brando did on himself -- but it was brilliant television, and you had to watch, and Brando was on a tightwire while other actors of his vintage would have been statesmanlike and boring.
Of his three marriages, untidy love life and assorted children, much has been written. But in romance as in other areas, Brando marched to his own drummer. He was not a creature of trendy clubs, benefit dinners and red carpet interviews, but lived out of sight, often in a Tahitian hideaway. Martin Scorsese told me that he and De Niro flew to Tahiti to consult with Brando about a project and spent days talking about -- well, they weren't sure what, and when they returned home, they couldn't say quite what had been decided.
I had a long telephone conversation with Brando within the last year, and it happened like this. Nancy de los Santos, onetime producer of "Siskel & Ebert," was producing a documentary called "The Bronze Screen," about a century of Latino actors in Hollywood. She wanted to talk to Brando because of his role in "Viva Zapata!" and because of his support for Latinos in general.
He agreed. But when she arrived at his house for the shoot, he insisted that she join him in the shot -- so that he could interview her. "I didn't get anything I could use," she said, "but I felt like I made a friend."
He asked her for my number, but it was more than a year later before the phone rang one night, and it was Marlon Brando. I was astonished. We talked for about 45 minutes, but it wasn't an interview and I didn't ask him about any of his movies. He set the agenda. He had a project he wanted us to work on together. I would like to tell you what it was, but I have no idea.
It wasn't that he was rambling or confused. He made perfect sense, but in a way that had no paraphrasable meaning. It was a performance in which he was playing a man who wanted to pitch a project; the man and the pitch were the content, not the project.
When I got off the phone, my wife couldn't wait to find out what Brando had wanted. "I don't have the slightest idea," I told her, "but he made it sound fascinating."
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The following was received January 25, 2005:
Dear Mr. Ebert,
This law firm represents Sacheen Littlefeather. Our client has asked us to write to you and to clarify a misconception that you have about her and to set the record straight. Further, we ask that you rewrite your "Marlon Brando" piece to reflect the truth and to prevent any further misunderstanding by the public which relies on you for good research and correct information concerning matters pertaining to film and the movies.
Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather is a natural native american indian. She was born in Salinas, California to an Anglo-Saxon mother and a father who was Yaqui and White Mountain Apache. Her married name was CRUZ. She was married for a period of approximately 7 years. She adopted the stage name of "Sacheen Littlefeather" before she was married and right after she graduated from High School.
Our client met Marlon Brando through the American Indian Movement. Marlon Brando befriended the AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means. Mr. Brando wanted to make a statement about the actions at Wounded Knee and contacted the AIM leaders and requested a representative to accept the Oscar for him. The AIM leaders picked Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the Oscar for Mr. Brando because she was already Hollywood making movies as a character actress, and she indeed appeared in film "Billy Jack."
In 1999, Russell Means hosted a one-half hour program for Los Angeles Cable wherein he honored Sacheen Littlefeather for giving hope to all American Indians in 1973 by her presence at the Oscars and for highlighting the circumstances and siege happening at Wounded Knee. Her Oscar appearance together with the events at Wounded Knee in South Dakota brought the issue to the national attention of the American public.
If you like, Sacheen Littlefeather would gladly provide you with a copy of her interview with Russell Means so that you may understand her role and why she was picked by AIM and Mr. Brando to accept the Oscar for him.
We would appreciate it if you could revise your otherwise very good article of Marlon Brando to reflect the truth about Sacheen Littlefeather. Ms. Littlefeather is entitled to have the truth of the facts surrounding her appearance on the Oascars fairly related in your article.
Yours very truly, Jennifer J. Hagan, Esq.
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