Marlon Brando changed acting forever. That's not just flattery, it's a fact. Director Martin Scorsese said of him, "He is the marker. There's 'before Brando' and 'after Brando'."
Even for those of us who weren't around in the 1950s to see the change take place, there's no arguing with Brando's impact. He wasn't the only actor to use "The Method," but he was the one who made it undeniably sexy. Montgomery Clift and James Dean may have set us on fire, but neither had a moment like Brando's shirt-tearing scene in 'A Streetcar Named Desire,' where he drops to his knees and bellows his wife's name. In that film, he played a brute, but one we couldn't take our eyes off.
There's also no denying that the same intensity and spontaneity he brought to his craft also made him a difficult to work with. Even at the peak of his career, he was always a Hollywood outsider, forever that gang leader from 'The Wild One,' saying, "Whatta ya got?" when asked what he was rebelling against. He refused higher-than-equity wages in his first big Broadway job, just as he'd refused during his big comeback with 'The Godfather,' in the 1970s, to accept his Oscar.
Marlon Brando was born April 3, 1924 in Omaha, Nebraska, to Marlon Brando, Sr. and his wife, Dorothy. The Brandos relocated to Evanston, Illinois and soon older sister Jocelyn went to New York. At the time, she was the actress and young Marlon was better known for being a troublemaker. That rebellious streak wasn't just an image for films like 'The Wild One,' he actually got expelled from his high school for riding his motorcycle in the halls. He also ran into trouble in military school. Good thing for the future of American theater that he was declared 4-F by the Army, for a trick knee.
After getting turned down by Uncle Sam, he followed Jocelyn to New York, where he soon began studying with Stella Adler, who taught the now-famous Stanisvlaski System, aka "The Method." In 1944, he was voted Broadway's Most Promising Actor, but it wasn't until 1947 that a star was born when he electrified Broadway in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'
He'd go on to recreate his raw 'Streetcar' performance in the 1952 film (and be the only major player who didn't win an Oscar), but his first screen role was actually in the 1950 drama 'The Men,' as a war veteran.
He went from sadistic brute Stanley Kowalski to tenderhearted ex-boxer Terry Malloy in 'On the Waterfront.' Even if you've never seen the film, you know the part where he tells his older brother, Rod Steiger, "I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender," a scene that Brando and Steiger improvised. If you actually watch the whole film, you see Brando at his peak, somehow shy and bursting with bravado at the same time. Now, the Academy had no choice but to hand Brando the Best Actor Oscar.
The B-movie 'The Wild One,' was a bit of a step backwards, but gave us the iconic image of a leatherclad, badass Brando straddling a motorcycle.
If playing a sneering tough guy was a no-brainer after 'Streetcar,' Brando's subsequent choices were as eclectic as they were puzzling. He was a method Marc Antony in 'Julius Ceasar' surrounded by the elite of British theater actors, then he took on a musical, bumping co-star Frank Sinatra aside for the role of Sky Masterson in 'Guys and Dolls.' He may not have been able to sing like Ol' Blue Eyes, but his swagger and charm got him over any rough spots. (Watch his big number, 'Luck be a Lady,' in the clip below.)
Despite being a huge star, Brando made some odd, even foolish choices, seemingly designed to undermine his leading man status. He was Japanese in 'The Teahouse of the August Moon,' then a conflicted Nazi officer in 'The Young Lions.'
The 1960s found him first as another outsider in another Tennessee Williams project, the overlooked gem 'The Fugitive Kind,' carrying a guitar, wearing a snakeskin jacket and throwing a whole town into turmoil, still raw, still sexual, but more misunderstood poet than brute, now almost as much Blanche as Stanley.
Perhaps his last truly conventional leading role was in 1962's 'Mutiny on the Bounty.' The movie filmed in Tahiti and quickly fell behind schedule and went over its budget. Brando, likely, didn't care. He fell in love, both with his 20-year-old Tahitian co-star, who became his third wife, and the location, buying up a twelve-island atoll that became his oasis away from Hollywood.
He directed his one and only film in 1961, the western 'One-Eyed Jacks,' which may not have done much for him at the time, but holds up very well today. He stepped in to replace the late Montgomery Clift in 'Reflections in a Golden Eye' (1967). The role of the closeted Southern army officer recalled 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' but dealt with repressed desire in a more graphic way. Brando was as intense as ever, but now that intensity seemed almost scary, uncontrollable, on screen as well as off. By the end of the decade, he was regarded, like many mavericks before him, as unemployable.
In 1972, Coppola had to fight Paramount tooth and nail to cast Brando as Don Corleone, a part that required exactly Brando's powerful stillness and ability to transform himself completely into someone else. Brando won the part, with Mario Puzo's blessing and the rest is cinema history: That raspy voice, those slightly stooped shoulders of age and responsibility, the ability to appear ruthless and compassionate in the same moment, Brando seemed born to play the role.
Brando then essentially spit in Hollywood's face by refusing to accept his Oscar for his big comeback performance. Nevertheless, he was nominated again the following year for his role in the controversially sexual 'Last Tango in Paris.'
You'd think that the height of his eccentricity would be demanding, and getting over $3 million for a small role as The Man of Steel's father Jor-El in the 1978 'Superman.' But the strangest was yet to come: In 1996, Brando appeared in the title role in the remake of 'The Island of Dr. Moreau,' and his bizarre, overly pancaked appearance (chosen by the actor himself) set new levels.
But first, there was 1979 and another iconic role for Coppola, that of Colonel Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now.' The film follows a young Martin Sheen as he heads up river to eliminate Kurtz, who's succumbed to the "heart of darkness" in the Vietnam jungle and gone completely barbaric. The entire film leads up to the reveal of Kurtz, and Brando doesn't disappoint. Darkly lit to hide the fact that he was uncomfortably overweight, the camera focuses on his bald head, the blank eyes, and that hypnotic voice speaking Kurtz's final line, "The horror, the horror."
He announced his retirement from acting in 1980, but returned for roles in 'A Dry White Season' (1989), a 'Godfather' send-up in 'The Freshman,' (1990) and a role opposite the very simpatico Johnny Depp in 'Don Juan DeMarco.' Depp would go on to direct Brando in the film, 'The Brave,' in 1997, which was never released in the U.S.
His last film was 'The Score,' which teamed him with two generations of method actors he'd heavily influenced: Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. (In a 2007 documentary, Scorsese revealed that De Niro's "You talkin' to me?" in 'Taxi Driver' was inspired by Brando talking to himself in a mirror in 'Reflections in a Golden Eye.') Sadly, it doesn't live up to its lineup. Reports from the set detailed Brando's clashes with director Frank Oz (whom he never let forget about his past as Miss Piggy) and rewrites from the equally difficult Norton.
Brando's personal life was the stuff of tabloids. He had 12 children with various mothers, including three with his Hollywood housekeeper in the '80s and '90s. In 1990, his son, Christian, shot and killed the allegedly abusive boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne. By then, Brando was painfully overweight and had become a virtual recluse; his presence at the trial was one of his few public appearances in years. Christian avoided jail, but the story had a tragic ending: Cheyenne hung herself and Christian died of pneumonia.
Like Orson Welles, another maverick genius who never meshed well with Hollywood and died an outsider, Brando is better appreciated now in retrospect. Yes, he was eccentric. He owned a small island and had grown practically to the size of an island himself. He was difficult. He was also brilliant.
James Dean and Montgomery Clift didn't live to be old, they didn't suffer the indignity of getting out-of-shape and out of favor. But it's not just dying young that makes you an icon. It's being a trail blazer, being so far ahead of your time that even after all these years, everyone else is still catching up.