Birth: April 3, 1924
Nebraska, United States
Death: July 1, 2004
Los Angeles, United States
Marlon Brando was born into an unconventional household. His mother Dorothy Pennebaker, known as Dodie, was an actress and a very spirited woman. But during her marriage she became an alcoholic. His father, Marlon Brando Sr., was a chemical feed manufacturer and was on the road a lot. He was not a warm father; he was known for his stern character and womanizing ways. Marlon and his two sisters therefore pretty much raised themselves.
Marlon, who was called Bud as a kid, often cared for his mother when she had a bad hangover or picked her up when she was causing havoc in town.
His bad boy persona was not a made up PR story: in high school he was expelled for riding his motorcycle through the school corridors. He was sent to military academy, but in 1943 he was expelled from there as well, as he had sneaked into town while on probation. He then worked as a ditch digger for a while and tried to join the army, but was rejected because of a trick knee.
His sister Jocelyn was studying Drama in New York and Marlon decided to follow her there. As he always had had an apt for acting, his sister encouraged him to study with acting teacher Stella Adler. Her lessons would change his life. Stella was a student of Stanislavsky, whose teachings were the inspiration for The Method, and immediately recognized Marlon’s raw talent. She helped him to perfect his talent and he loved it.
A Gifted Actor
Marlon got his first part on Broadway in the 1944 play I Remember Mama, but he got his big break when he got the leading role in Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire. Audiences were riveted by his performance and soon he was asked to do a screen test for Warner Brothers. Stella Adler advised him to steer clear of the studio system contracts, so it was not until 1950 that he got his first role in a film. It was called The Men and he played a bitter paraplegic veteran. He surprised everyone by living in a veteran’s hospital and using a wheelchair to prepare for the part.
But the film that really made him a star was the screen adaption of A Streetcar Named Desire, co-starring Vivien Leigh. He followed this performance with roles in, Viva Zapata!, Julius Cesar and On The Waterfront. He received Oscar nominations for all four films and won Best Actor for On The Waterfront. Marlon became an icon and a sex symbol practically overnight and he had a hard time dealing with it. He shunned publicity and rarely gave interviews. He liked to do the very thing people did not expect from a Hollywood star and did not necessarily go for the most commercial films. But still, Marlon had changed Hollywood with his intense acting style and ‘devil may care’ attitude. For a long time he could do no wrong.
In 1956 he started dating actress Anna Kashfi and in 1957 they got married. Marlon became a father for the first time in 1958 when Anna gave birth to their son Christian. But things turned sour quickly and in 1959 the pair got divorced and fought a bitter custody battle over the young boy for years after.
Marlon decided it was time to make a film of his own now: One-Eyed Jacks. Marlon directed, produced and starred in it, but he went over budget and the studio was not happy with the film’s ending. He had to re-shoot a lot and was very disillusioned with the experience.
A Complicated Life
Meanwhile, he had met actress Movita Castaneda and they got married in 1960. In 1961 their son Miko was born, but the couple separated a year later. That same year, Marlon met Tahitian actress Tarita Teriipia, who was eighteen years his junior, on the set of Mutiny on The Bounty. They got married almost immediately and in 1963 Tarita gave birth to their son Simon. In 1970 she gave birth to their daughter Cheyenne. Meanwhile, in 1966, his second wife Movita had given birth to their daughter Rebecca. During this time Marlon is believed to have had three children by three other, unknown, women as well. Needless to say, Marlon’s personal life was becoming more and more complicated. According to several accounts, he was not a very involved father and his children would suffer from this as the years went by.
By the end of the 60’s Marlon had earned a reputation for being difficult on set and his career suffered. But Marlon never saw acting as the most important aspect of his life and he had found another passion. During the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty he had not only fallen in love with Tarita, but with Tahiti as well. He bought a 12-island atollcalled Tetiaroa, which he loved dearly. Meanwhile Marlon was starting to approach 50 and his bad eating habits were starting to show. His career was at an all-time low.
1972 proved to be a turning point for him. Although he divorced Tarita, he also accepted the acting role that would re-launch his career: that of Don Corleone in The Godfather. Although he was reluctant at first, as he did not want to show any support to the mafia, Frances Ford Coppolla and writer Mario Puzo were convinced that he was right for the part. Eventually he agreed to a very successful screen test and after everybody involved persuaded the reluctant studio to hire him, he filmed his iconic scenes for The Godfather. That same year the daughter that he would adopt was born: Petra Brando-Corval, the daughter of his assistant Caroline Barret and writer James Corval. Marlon won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather, but he turned it down. He sent American Indian Rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, to state his reasons, which were based on his objection to the depiction of American Indians in film. A subject that had become close to his heart over the years.
Marlon quickly went on to film A Tango in Paris, but during filming he was often distracted by the custody case surrounding his oldest son Christian, whose mother Anna Kashfi had become an alcoholic. In the end, Marlon got custody off the boy. Still, the film earned him another Oscar nomination. The Last Tango in Paris had been a hard film to shoot however, Marlon as well as his co-stars felt manipulated and violated by director Bernardo Bertalucci.
He vowed never to appear in another film that would expose his psyche so much and make him so vulnerable. For the rest of his life he would only accept roles for the money, not caring what kind of film he was in. He was expected to reprise his role in The Godfather II, but did not show up on set.
Personally, he remained a big supporter of civil rights, he even appeared before the California Assembly in support of a fair housing law and personally joined picket lines in demonstrations.
Although he and his ex-wife Tarita had been divorced for some years, he adopted two of her children during this time: Maimiti in 1977 and Raiatua in 1982. Marlon was not good with money and all the alimony bills did not help. He accepted highly paid acting jobs to stay afloat. In 1978 he played Superman’s father, for 3,7 million dollars. In 1979 he played in Apocalypse Now for 1 million dollars. In all of these films he refused to remember his lines, demanding that he would be able to read his lines from a teleprompter or use a hearing aid.
During the eighties, Marlon withdrew into seclusion more and more. He would stay in bed for hours, calling friends, eating and thinking of projects that would never materialize. Meanwhile, his oldest son Christian was causing problems, relying on alcohol and drugs to get by. Marlon forced him into two detox programs, but with little result. In 1988 Marlon got romantically involved with his housekeeper Maria Cristina Ruiz. They would have three children together: Ninna Priscilla in 1989, Myles Jonathan in 1992 and Timothy Gahan in 1994. In 1989 his daughter Cheyenne crashed her jeep and Marlon let her stay with him in Los Angeles to have reconstructive surgery. Nevertheless her modeling career was over and the already troubled, and pregnant, Cheyenne spiraled into a depression. In 1989 Marlon had small roles in A Dry White Season and The Freshman. But during the release of the latter, Marlon had other things on his mind.
Cheyenne, Christian and Dag
Cheyenne’s boyfriend Dag Drollet had decided to go to Los Angeles to be with Cheyenne. On the evening of May 19th 1990 Cheyenne went to dinner with her half-brother Christian. She told him that Dag physically abused her and, according to Christian, ‘went off on this bizarre tangent’. Christian had a lot to drink that night. When they got home, he went into the den of Marlon’s home where Dag was watching television and shot him. Christian went straight to his father’s room and told him he had shot Dag. When Marlon got to the den he tried to resuscitate Dag, but it was no use, Dag had passed away instantly.
Christian told the police that he and Dag had struggled for possession of the weapon and that it accidentally went off. Police reports showed that this was impossible, Dag was still sitting on the couch with a remote control in one hand and a tobacco pouch in the other when he was shot from behind.
Marlon went out of his way to save his oldest son. He hired the best attorney, Robert Shapiro who had defended Erik Menendez, and even put up his house for collateral to pay for bail. Cheyenne’s already unstable mental health, could not handle this final blow. Marlon feared that his daughter could not handle testifying and he secretly sent her to Tahiti, which, under French jurisdiction, prevented U.S. authorities from subpoenaing her to testify. In Tahiti Cheyenne gave birth to son Tuki and tried to kill herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
Meanwhile, the trial had turned into a media spectacle. Something that was very hard for the notoriously private Marlon. Especially since it was suggested that Christian’s parents, and their lack of parenting skills, were to blame. The press was also shocked to see the once so handsome and revered Marlon Brando as an overweight old man. He told the press that he had become so reclusive to preserve his sanity, saying ‘Hollywood is a false world’.
Eventually Marlon took the stand. Some say he gave the performance of a lifetime, sobbing and yelling, others say it was a sincere plea for mercy. Eventually Christian got a ten-year sentence, given time off for good behavior plus the time he had already served. The sentence was so low mostly because the only witness, Cheyenne, was not able to testify.
After the trial, Marlon tried to help Cheyenne, who was now diagnosed with schizophrenia. He paid for her to get treatment in one of Europe’s most exclusives psychiatric clinics and bought her a home in Los Angeles. Even so, Cheyenne’s mental health was deteriorating and she was denied custody of her son, who now lived in Tahiti with his grandmother. His lifestyle, the expensive legal bills and Cheyenne’s treatment gave Marlon financial problems. So in 1992 he took on a role in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery for which he received 5 million dollars for ten minutes of screen time.
He was also writing his autobiography, for which he would receive a large sum of money, but rejected every ghostwriter the publishing company came up with. Ultimately the book would never materialize. Back in Tahiti, for good now, Cheyenne was saying to friends that she wanted to be with Dag. She tried to hang herself several times and on April 16th, 1995 Cheyenne’s lifeless body was found by her brother. Marlon did not attend the funeral because he could not handle it, even though he reportedly had not seen her in years.
He got some distraction from his grief while filming Don Juan DeMarco, one of his first films in many years that was received positively. But still, Marlon was heartbroken and his weight gain reached an all time high. By the mid nineties he weighed over 300 lbs. and suffered from diabetes. He played small roles in a handful of mediocre films, only for the money. He rarely left his house and gave Maria Cristina the house he had once bought for Cheyenne, to live in with their three children. Nonetheless, she sued him for 100 million dollars in damages in 2002, but it soon became clear that Marlon had no money to give. While his health was deteriorating, he had signed up for a small role in Scary Movie 4 for 2 million dollars, but fell ill with pneumonia.
In his last years he had several patents issued in his name from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, all of which involve a method of tensioning drum heads, drumming was one of his favorite pastimes. In 2004 he began pre-producing a project titled Brando and Brando, which was released after his death under the name Citizen Brando. But mostly, he stayed in bed, dependent on his respirator, sleeping and calling up friends.
On July 1, 2004, Brando died of respiratory failure from pulmonary fibrosis with congestive heart failure at the UCLA Medical Center.
See Marlon’s life in pictures in the Marlon Brando Gallery.