Indeed, Brando's film career -- he never returned to the stage after "Streetcar" -- was nothing if not a roller-coaster. From the 1950s to the end of the 1960s, Brando evolved from a wildly talented and sullenly handsome leading young actor who was offered the pick of the best movie roles to a bloated and often strident activist who made dubious choices and who openly insulted Hollywood.

"Food has always been my friend," Brando said at one point. "When I wanted to feel better or had a crisis, I'd open the icebox." He once was hospitalized for eating too much ice cream.

Brando threw himself headlong into his activism during the 1960s. He gave a speech at the funeral of a Black Panther Party member and demonstrated against capital punishment and the treatment of Soviet Jews. He donated a portion of his income to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He tried to make a documentary on starvation in India.

"Elia Kazan claimed I once told him, 'Here I am a balding middle-aged failure, and I feel like a fraud when I act,'." he once wrote. "I've tried everything and none of it means anything."

He said that he felt that "with so much prejudice, racial discrimination, injustice, hatred, poverty, starvation and suffering in the world, making movies seemed increasingly silly and irrelevant."

Brando became a recluse, staying at an island he bought in Tahiti or in his hilltop home on Mulholland Drive. A notorious womanizer, he bragged of having seduced hundreds of women. He had at least eight children, five of them by three marriages, two of which ended in divorce. He witnessed the murder trial of one of his sons, Christian Brando, for shooting the boyfriend of Cheyenne Brando, one of his daughters by another marriage. Cheyenne subsequently hanged herself. She was 25.

By the early '70s, Brando, who was not yet 50 years old, had been reduced to the point that he had to lobby for the role as Don Corleone in "The Godfather," telling producer Robert Evans, "I know a lot of people in Hollywood say I am all washed up but I can play that part, and I can do a good job." He had to do a screen test -- everyone was careful not to call it that -- to convince Evans and director Francis Ford Coppola he was serious.

In "Godfather," Brando finally found the character, the material, the director and the situation he needed to make a return.

The set was full of pros like himself, some of whom shared the prankish Brando's sense of mischievousness. (Brando, Robert Duvall and James Caan regularly mooned the cast and crew.) Coppola respected how Brando conceived the role, and he gave him the freedom to play it. And everyone on the set had the luck to be involved in a film that was far more enduring and successful than initially thought possible.

More important, Brando created an unforgettable character -- one that went far beyond the much-talked-about cheek-stuffing he used to make himself appear older and jowly.

"He is all understatement," Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel wrote of his portrayal of the Don. "He makes people lean in to hear what he says in his thin, cracked voice that is, strictly speaking, a shade older tonally than his years might dictate. And when people lean in, they usually bow their heads, assuming, perforce, an attitude of respect, obsequiousness The unstated wit of this performance is breathtaking."

Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman said, "There is no longer any need to talk tragically of Marlon Brando's career. His stormy two-decade odyssey through films good and bad, but rarely big enough to house his prodigious talents, has ended in triumph."

But even after his "Godfather" role rehabilitated his reputation within the film industry, Brando thumbed his nose at the academy by sending "Sacheen Littlefeather" (actress Maria Cruz wearing Apache garb) to decline the Oscar he won for the role, saying that he wanted to protest the treatment of Native Americans.

"The Academy Awards and the hoopla surrounding them elevate acting to a level that I don't think it deserves," he said in his autobiography.

It was a tribute to his talent that, despite his attitude, the academy nominated him again for the film following "Godfather": Bernardo Bertolucci's sexually charged "Last Tango in Paris."

Knowing his reputation with women, many thought he was playing himself in this role, but others credited him with a masterful creation in his character of Paul.

Brando himself said he was like Paul only in "a certain desperate melancholy, a gloomy regret, a hatred for oneself."

"It is a tribute to Brando's unceasing dignity that he has striven to seem a true person on film, not gilded by attractiveness or reputation," film writer Thomson said of Brando in "Last Tango." He added that the film "succeeded on many levels, but not least as an accurate and disturbing presentation of the cinema's most preoccupied actor."

Brando continued to stick his finger in the eye of the Hollywood Establishment. He crowed about earning more than $3 million for 12 days' worth of work as Superman's dad, Jor-El, in 1978's "Superman." A year later, Brando was paid a fortune to play a small -- albeit memorable -- turn as the manic Col. Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now" (1979), a hallucinogenic anti-war film.

Many who recognized his awesome talent rued his choices and the losses they caused to the art of film.