Born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska. Brando grew up in Illinois,
and after expulsion from a military academy, he dug ditches until
his father offered to finance his education. Brando moved to New
York to study with acting coach Stella Adler and at Lee Strasberg's
Actors' Studio. Adler has often been credited as the principal
inspiration in Brando’s early career, and with opening the actor to
great works of literature, music, and theater. While at the Actors'
Studio, Brando adopted the "method approach," which emphasizes
characters' motivations for actions. He made his Broadway debut in
John Van Druten's sentimental I Remember Mama (1944). New
York theater critics voted him Broadway's Most Promising Actor for
his performance in Truckline Café (1946). In 1947, he played
his greatest stage role, Stanley Kowalski—the brute who rapes his
sister-in-law, the fragile Blanche du Bois—in Tennessee Williams's
A Streetcar Named Desire.
Hollywood beckoned to Brando, and he made his motion picture
debut as a paraplegic World War II veteran in The Men (1950).
Although he did not cooperate with the Hollywood publicity machine,
he went on to play Kowalski in the 1951 film version of A
Streetcar Named Desire, a popular and critical success that
earned four Academy Awards. His next movie, Viva Zapata!
(1952), with a script by John Steinbeck, traces Emiliano Zapata's
rise from peasant to revolutionary to president of Mexico. Brando
followed that with Julius Caesar and then The Wild One
(1954), in which he played a motorcycle-gang leader in all his
leather-jacketed glory. Next came his Academy Award-winning role as
a longshoreman fighting the system in On the Waterfront, a
hard-hitting look at New York City labor unions.
During the rest of the decade, Brando's screen roles ranged from
Napoleon Bonaparte in Désirée (1954), to Sky Masterson in
1955's Guys and Dolls, in which he sang and danced, to a Nazi
soldier in The Young Lions (1958). From 1955 to 1958, movie
exhibitors voted him one of the top 10 box-office draws in the
nation. During the 1960s, however, his career had more downs than
ups, especially after the MGM studio's disastrous 1962 remake of
Mutiny on the Bounty, which failed to recoup even half of its
enormous budget. Brando portrayed Fletcher Christian, Clark Gable's
role in the 1935 original. Brando's excessive self-indulgence
reached a pinnacle during the filming of this movie. He was
criticized for his on-set tantrums and for trying to alter the
script. Off the set, he had numerous affairs, ate too much, and
distanced himself from the cast and crew. His contract for making
the movie included $5,000 for every day the film went over its
original schedule. He made $1.25 million when all was said and done.
Brando's career was reborn in 1972 with his depiction of Mafia
chieftain Don Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather,
a role for which he received the Academy Award for Best Actor. He
turned down the Oscar, however, in protest of Hollywood's treatment
of Native Americans. Brando himself did not appear at the awards
show. Instead, he sent a Native American Apache named Sacheen
Littlefeather (who was later determined to be an actress portraying
a Native American) to decline the award on his behalf.
Brando proceeded the following year to the highly controversial
yet highly acclaimed Last Tango in Paris, which was rated X.
Since then, Brando has received huge salaries for playing small
parts in such movies as Superman (1978) and Apocalypse Now
(1979). Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for
A Dry White Season in 1989, Brando also appeared in the
comedy The Freshman with Matthew Broderick. In 1995, he
costarred in Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp. In early
1996, Brando costarred in the poorly received The Island of Dr.
Moreau. Entertainment Weekly reported that the actor was
using an earpiece to remember his lines. His costar in the film,
David Thewlis, told the magazine that Brando nonetheless impressed
him. "When he walks into a room," Thewlis noted, "you know he's
It has been observed that Brando has perhaps loved food and
womanizing too much. His best acting performances are roles that
required him to show a constrained and displayed rage and suffering.
His own rage may have come from parents who did not care about him.
Time magazine reported, "Brando had a stern, cold father and
a dream-disheveled mother—both alcoholics, both sexually
promiscuous—and he encompassed both their natures without resolving
the conflict." Brando himself wrote in his autobiography, "If my
father were alive today, I don't know what I would do. After he
died, I used to think, `God, just give him to me alive for eight
seconds because I want to break his jaw.'"
Although Brando avoids speaking in details about his marriages,
even in his autobiography, it is known that he has been married
three times to three ex-actresses. He has at least 11 children. Five
of the children are with his three wives, three are with his
Guatemalan housekeeper, and the other three children are from
affairs. One of Brando's sons, Christian, told People
magazine, "The family kept changing shape. I'd sit down at the
breakfast table and say, `Who are you?'" Christian is now at a state
prison in California serving a 10-year sentence for voluntary
manslaughter in the death of his sister's fiancee, Dag Drollet. He
claimed Drollet was physically abusing his pregnant sister,
Cheyenne. Christian said he struggled with Drollet and accidentally
shot him in the face. Brando, in the house at the time, gave
mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to Drollet and called 911. At
Christian's trial, People reported one of Brando's comments
on the witness stand, "I tried to be a good father. I did the best I
Brando's daughter, Cheyenne, was a troubled young woman. In and
out of drug rehabilitation centers and mental hospitals for much of
her life, she lived in Tahiti with her mother Tarita (one of
Brando's wives, whom he met on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty).
People reported in 1990 that Cheyenne said of Brando, "I have
come to despise my father for the way he ignored me as a child."
After Drollet's death, Cheyenne became even more reclusive and
depressed. A judge ruled that she was too depressed to raise her
child and gave custody of the boy to her mother, Tarita. Cheyenne
took a leave from a mental hospital on Easter Sunday in 1995 to
visit her family. At her mother's home that day, Cheyenne, who had
attempted suicide before, hanged herself.
Brando's years of self-indulgence are visible—he weighed well
over 300 pounds in the mid-1990s. To judge Brando by his appearance
and dismiss his work because of his later, less significant acting
jobs, however, would be a mistake. His performance in A Streetcar
Named Desire brought audiences to their knees, and his range of
roles is a testament to his capability to explore many aspects of
the human psyche.
In 2001, Brando starred as an aging jewel thief in pursuit of one
last payoff in The Score, also starring Robert De Niro,
Edward Norton, and Angela Bassett.
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