An Offer You Can’t Refuse: Inside the Madcap Life of Marlon Brando
Matthew Broderick waited to deliver his lines with nervous excitement. Sitting across from him, on the set of “The Freshman,” was the legendary Marlon Brando, one of the best actors of his generation. The director yelled “action,” and the two started delivering their lines.
“I can’t…I can’t hear what you’re saying,” Brando mumbled. Broderick, knowing that Brando liked to improvise, kept going. Brando interrupted him. “Are you eating tuna fish?”
Broderick, not knowing what this might have to do with the scene, but trusting Brando’s instinct, he kept on going.
“I’m telling you, I can’t understand what you’re saying! Are you eating tuna fish!?” Brando mumbled again.
Then it dawned on Broderick. This was not a master class in improvisation. Brando had an earpiece in his ear. The person who was supposed to be reading him his lines was munching away on a tuna sandwich. Brando had ignored Broderick the entire time.
So goes just one story about Marlon Brando, one of the most revered and mercurial actors of the past century. His life is absolutely fascinating, with several biographies and documentaries attempting to chronicle his strange behavior and riotous lifestyle. Here, we’re taking a look at Brando’s early life and some of the most outrageous exploits of his career.
As a Boy, He Carried a Pillow for Safety
Marlon Brando was born on April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents nicknamed him “Bud” and he was the youngest of three children.
As a boy, he carried “a tiny pillow around everywhere, a talisman of childhood,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” “I went to sleep at odd times and off places, and as I grew older, I even carried it when I started climbing trees and laying claim to empty lots in our neighborhood as my own private kingdom.”
Given his harsh childhood, it makes sense that a young Brando was looking for comfort in places outside the home, which his little pillow could provide.
His Mother Was an Alcoholic and His Father a Bully
Brando’s early life was fraught with conflict. His father, Marlon Brando Sr., worked as a traveling calcium carbonate salesman in an era where “a salesman slipped $5 to a bellboy, who would return with a pint of whiskey and a hooker…My pop was such a man.” He remembered his father as an authoritarian “bully who loved to give orders and issue ultimatums — and he was just as tough as he talked.”
Brando did not like Brando Sr. But he loved his mother, even though she had a bad drinking problem. She had a good sense of humor and an inquisitive personality, although she was emotionally distant. Both parents were often absent from Marlon’s life, for various reasons, but both often having to do with drinking.
His Bucking of Authority Came Early
With Brando’s father being a stickler for rules and Marlon’s disdain for him, it’s sensible that he would come to despise authority.
“There’s a line in the picture [“The Wild One”] where he [Johnny] snarls, ‘Nobody tells me what to do,’ That’s exactly how I’ve felt my whole life. I’ve always resented authority,” Brando muses in his book. (It’s questionable why Brando would later take that philosophy onto film sets for movies which paid him millions of dollars.)
This resentment started early. He flunked out of kindergarten for being rebellious (and also because he had dyslexia, which wasn’t diagnosable then). Later, after moving to a farm in Evanston, Illinois, when he was six, he frequently skipped school and spent his days getting into trouble.
“I shot birds, burned insects, slashed tires and stole money…. With my BB gun, I accidentally shot a chauffeur, and also shot the big bay window in our house and cracked it, which brought a ferocious reaction from my father,” he wrote.
He Never Finished High School
Brando completed two years at Libertyville High School but never finished. There’s a rumor that he rode his motorcycle through the halls and was expelled, but there is no corroboration for that factoid. Instead, Brando claims he was held back for being “truant and generally incorrigible” and, by his sophomore year, his father enlisted him in Shattuck Military Academy.
He was expelled before his senior year. Although he was invited back a couple of weeks later, he opted to drop out, instead working for $35 a week at a construction company.
He Was a Hardcore Method Actor
For his first film role, Brando played a paraplegic WWII veteran in “The Men.” To get himself acquainted with the part, he spent three weeks in a veteran’s hospital, roleplaying as a paralyzed veteran. It was his first role, so he went unnoticed and only a few people knew he wasn’t a real patient.
As Brando tells it, one night he and other, actual paralyzed veterans went out for dinner on Ventura Boulevard in California. Still in his wheelchair, a woman came over and doted over them, telling them to have faith in God and believe they could walk.
The guys were getting sick of her. So Brando yelled, “I do believe! I do believe! I feel the Lord has come right into this room and into my body. I feel it…” and then jumped to his feet, danced around the restaurant and ran screaming “Hallelujah!” out the front door.
He Dodged the Draft
Brando had tried to enlist in the army in 1943 during the height of WWII, but was denied service due to a trick knee. But now, after having spent three weeks in a veteran’s hospital, the realities of war were no longer an abstract notion. When the draft office, working to fill ranks for the Korean War, came calling in 1950 his knee had been surgically repaired and his draft status changed from 4-F to 1-A.
He was given a questionnaire. When asked his race, he wrote “Human.” When asked his skin color, he wrote “oyster white to beige.” He told an army doctor he was psychoneurotic, said he was seeing a psychiatrist, and was allowed to stay at home and act.
He Thought Memorizing the Script Was for Suckers
In 1958, during the making of the WWII drama “The Young Lions,” Brando discovered a way to make his life much easier: cue cards. At first, they weren’t the big, behind-the-camera poster boards used for late-night talk show hosts. Brando would write them on a piece of paper and pin them to an actor’s clothing, out of view. Brando insisted he did this because memorization takes away from “the importance of spontaneity” in acting.
“When an actor knows what he’s going to say, it’s easy for the audience to sense that he’s giving a writer’s speech. But if he hasn’t memorized the words, he not only doesn’t know what he’s going to say, he’s not rehearsed how he’s going to say it or how to move his body or nod his head when he does,” wrote the actor.
During the filming of “The Godfather,” he had notes and cue cards “everywhere — on my shirtsleeves, on a watermelon and glued to the scenery.” While filming “The Freshman,” he used an earpiece with someone reading him lines. Sometimes he even had lines written on another actor’s face, if they’d let him.
His First Film Was a Flop
By the age of 23 he was chosen for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which he performed on Broadway for several years for $550 a week (about $5,800 today), culminating in the 1951 film of the same name. The film came out a year after “The Men,” which Brando earned some critical praise. But it was a box office failure, according to “Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando” by Stefan Kanfer (box office actuals aren’t available).
“A Streetcar Named Desire” was different, grossing $8 million on a $1.8 million budget. The film catapulted Brando from obscurity into the public spotlight.
He Was Often Terrible to Work With
Unfortunately for those on set with him, Brando’s contempt for authority extended to anyone who might exert control over him. And sometimes he was just a jerk.
During 1962’s “Mutiny on the Bounty,” which filmed in Tahiti, Brando and director Carol Reed repeatedly butted heads, with Brando sometimes just wandering off set or arriving on set hours late. He had a binge-eating problem, too. Before filming, his second wife, Movita Casteneda — soon to be his second ex-wife, after he found someone else in Tahiti — claimed that she would lock the fridge to stop him from raiding it at night, but would find the lock broken by morning.
He Almost Bankrupted MGM
According to Robert Seller’s book, “Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson,” Brando’s weight fluctuated enough during filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” that he regularly tore his pants, causing the costume department to jerry-rig his trousers with stretch fabric.
The “Mutiny on the Bounty” budget ballooned from $9 million to $19 million and bombed at the box office, almost causing MGM to go bankrupt. The director quit, the script had to be re-written and bad weather caused further delays.
Brando was paid $500,000 against 10 percent of the picture’s grosses, plus $5,000 per day it went over time — a 1962 article from the Saturday Evening Post claimed he had been paid $1.25 million before the film even hit theaters.
For his death scene, Brando insisted on being placed on a block of ice so he would shake and chatter. He read his last lines off of an actress’ forehead.
He Broke a Paparazzo’s Jaw
In 1973, Brando sucker-punched paparazzo Ron Galella in New York City after the famed celeb stalker followed him after a taping of “The Dick Cavett Show.” The blow knocked out five teeth and broke Galella’s jaw. He sued Brando and won $40,000 out of court.
The next time Galella photographed Brando, he wore a football helmet.
He Loved Fart Jokes. A Lot.
Once, Johnny Depp brought a fart machine to meet with Brando. For an entire half-hour, Depp made farting noises and pretended like he had eaten something foul. After laughing the entire time, Brando became concerned and went for the phone to call a doctor, but Depp stopped him. He revealed the device. He held it up to the light and shouted, “I’ve found God!”
He Refused an Academy Award
Brando was a huge human rights advocate. In 1973, for his work in “The Godfather,” he was given an Academy Award for Best Actor. He didn’t show. Instead, he chose to send Sacheen Littlefeather, an apache actress who refused to accept the award for him in protest of how Native Americans were portrayed in the media. The audience both booed in cheered. Here’s the speech.
He Wanted Superman’s Parents to Be Green Bagels
When Brando was cast for 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” director Richard Donner was in for a big surprise. First, Brando’s agent told Donner that he wanted to play the role as a green suitcase, with Brando providing voice over from home. Befuddled, Donner went to meet with Brando. During that time, Brando switched gears. He didn’t want Jor-El to be a suitcase. He wanted to play the character as a green bagel.
“‘Who’s to say what Krypton looks like? Who’s to say what they look like up there? ... I’ll be a bagel,’” Brando said, as told by Donner. Brando also suggested they speak in electronic sounds, with subtitles. Donner told him that the comics had been around since 1939 and people did, in fact, know what Kryptonians look like. Whether he was joking or not, Brando relented and was fully on board.
He was paid $3.7 million plus an 11.75 percent profit for his 13 days of work. He didn’t read the script, though. He just used some cue cards.
He Horrified Francis Ford Coppola in ‘Apocalypse Now’
Francis Ford Coppola had a hellish time making “Apocalypse Now,” which included literal dead bodies being used as props on set. While we’re not saying Brando’s actions were worse than that, it’s still an amusing story.
Brando was hired for “Apocalypse Now” for a role of an AWOL Green Beret general. Picture a Green Beret who has been AWOL in the woods of Vietnam for weeks.
That’s not what Brando looked like.
Brando showed up on set weighing somewhere around 300 pounds. “You couldn’t see around him,” producer Gray Fredrickson told The Independent. And of course, Brando hadn’t learned any of his lines, or read the “Heart of Darkness” source material. He didn’t know who he was or what he was doing. Coppola was horrified. Coppola read Brando the script out loud while the entire crew, numbering around 900 people, sat around and waited. Brando also insisted on dressing in black and and to be filmed in shadow to hide his corpulent frame.
His Partners Were Numerous, and May Include Richard Pryor
Marlon Brando’s sexual partners were numerous. They, allegedly, include:
- Marilyn Monroe
- Rita Moreno
- Pier Angeli
- Shelley Winters
- Nancy Kwan
- Katy Jurado
- Anna Kashfi
- Movita Castanada
- Yachiyo Tsubaki
- Maria Cristina Ruiz
- Jackie Kennedy
Brando was also bisexual and is quoted as saying, “Homosexuality is so much in fashion, it no longer makes news. Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed.”
The most recent news about Brando’s sex life, some 14 years after he died, is that he and Richard Pryor had an affair. The news comes from a Vulture interview with Quincy Jones, who insinuated he had sex with Pryor, James Baldwin and Marvin Gaye. ‘He’d **** anything. Anything! He’d **** a mailbox,” Jones said.
Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard’s widow, said the allegation was true (about Pryor, not the mailbox), although Pryor’s’s daughter denies the claim.
He and Frank Sinatra Hated One Another
Frank Sinatra was peeved that Brando had gotten the lead in “On the Waterfront,” (Sinatra actually sued over it, saying he had been promised the part) and when the two met on set for “Guys and Dolls,” tensions were high. It was Brando’s first (and last) musical, so he asked Sinatra to go over the lines beforehand. Sinatra snapped, “Don’t give me any of that ‘Actors Studio’ s***.”
Their acting styles clashed. Brando needed multiple takes and didn’t learn his lines; Sinatra could recall his lines perfectly and only wanted to do one take. During one scene, Sinatra had to eat cheesecake while Brando acted. After eight takes, Sinatra threw the plate and screamed at the director, “How much cheesecake do you think I can eat?” His nickname for Brando was “mumbles.”
Brando said, “Frank is the kind of guy, when he dies, he's going to heaven and give God a hard time for making him bald."
He Was Broke by the 1960s
Brando had a run of 19 box office flops by the 1960s. Yet while he was one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood, it was his constant, lecherous behavior which left broken hearts, suicides and alimony payments in his wake that left him strapped for cash, according to Stevan Riley, who made the film “Listen to Me, Marlon.”
Luckily, his success with “The Godfather” brought him back to his feet.
He Wanted to Run His House On … Electric Eels?
The average monthly electric bill in California is about $103. But why pay that when you can have eels charging your ports for free?
In one story, as related by actor Ed Begley Jr., Brando summoned him to his mansion on Mulholland Drive. Thinking that the actor was wanted to collaborate on a film, Begley was a bit stunned to hear what Brando was proposing: to harness the power of thousands of eels and use them as some kind of battery.
“‘We’re going to run the house on eels,’” Begley intoned in Brando’s voice. “I don’t know if he was kidding,” Begley told the New York Times. “To the day he died he never let on.”
I’ll Show You a Moon You Can’t Refuse
During the filming of the wedding scene in “The Godfather,” Brando mooned the audience.
“I was bombed,” Brando told Connie Chung in 1989. “It was a long day. Everybody was drinking. I really got ripped, completely snockered. So I mooned the audience.”
Other cast members also participated.
“During the wedding scene, we all were mooning each other,” Robert Duvall told Vanity Fair. “Some woman turned to me and said, ‘Mr. Duvall, you’re fine.’ She turned to her friend and then said, ‘But did you catch the balls on that Brando?’”
This gives a whole new meaning to that “Pop Goes the Weasel” bit from “The Godfather Part II.”
He Was a Complete Jerk During His Last Film
Most people mellow out with age and become kinder. That was not the case with Brando. At least, not on set.
His last movie was 2001’s “The Score,” a movie starring Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, where he had only a cameo but was paid $3 million for three weeks’ work. He was a terror on set. He mocked director Frank Oz for his previous job as puppeteer on the “Muppet Show,” allegedly calling him “Miss Piggy” and saying “I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my ass and make me do what you want,” according to the Guardian.
At one point, Brando insisted De Niro step in and direct a scene because he wouldn’t work with Oz.
Brando was 77 years old. He passed away at 80 on July 1, 2004. He left a hell of a legacy behind him.