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'Greatest actor of his generation,' Brando dies at 80

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Marlon Brando, a two-time Oscar winner whose riveting performances transformed acting from a remote craft to a naturalistic art form, has died, the Associated Press announced today. He was 80.

An actor's actor whose skill was envied by generations of performers who followed him, Brando died from lung failure at UCLA Medical Center at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, according a hospital spokesman.

Brando was nominated seven times for best actor, receiving his first Oscar in 1954 for his portrayal of Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront" and his second in 1972 for Don Vito Corleone in "The Godfather."

He received his first Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role in "A Streetcar Named Desire." His other nominations were for "Viva Zapata!" (1952), "Julius Caesar" (1953), "Sayonara" (1957) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1973).

His eighth and last Oscar nomination was for best supporting actor in the 1989 anti-apartheid film "A Dry White Season."

Under the guidance of director Elia Kazan, Brando first became a star on stage -- as Stanley Kowalski in the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" -- and then on screen, again as Stanley in "Streetcar," released in 1951. In the 1940s and '50s, Brando so astonished other actors that even those who had taken acting to its highest level were taken aback.

The late Laurence Olivier, considered among the greatest actors of all time, thought Brando was the best American actor. He once said that Brando's secret to greatness was that he acted "with an empathy and an instinctual understanding that not even the greatest technical performers could possibly match."

Film critic Pauline Kael called Brando "our greatest living actor," and the curators at the American Museum of the Moving Image described him this way: "With animal intensity and insolent charm, he embodied a new and distinctly American on-screen style. Most significantly, he expressed the inner poetry of inarticulate working-class characters, paving the way for James Dean, Al Pacino, and Robert De Niro, among others."

Indeed, Brando's acolytes number among the greatest actors of the last half-century.

Dean so badly wanted to be like Brando that Brando had to tell him to knock it off. Pacino, who played Brando's son in "The Godfather," said in an interview not long ago: "It was incomprehensible how good Brando was. He was just a phenomenon. I was acting before I ever saw a Brando picture -- I'm very proud to be able to say that -- but I'll be imitating him until the day I die."

Paul Newman once confessed he was angry at Brando "because he does everything so easily -- I have to break my [butt] to do what he can do with his eyes closed."

And Jack Nicholson has said he believes, as do many actors, that when Brando's gone, everyone moves up a place.

"With my generation," Nicholson said, "it was always Marlon Brando and always will be Brando."

Brando was born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Neb., the son of a traveling salesman and homemaker. Both were alcoholics: "One whom I loved but who ignored me, the other who tortured me emotionally and made my mother's life a misery," he wrote in his autobiography.

Still, his mother, an amateur actress, was able to give him "a love of nature and animals, and the night sky, and a sense of closeness to the earth."

After a series of unhappy school experiences, Brando was kicked out of military school, where he had been sent to by his father because, Brando admitted, he was "a bad student, chronic truant and all-round incorrigible." He was rejected by the military because of a trick knee and ended up in New York City, where his sister, Jocelyn, was beginning an acting career.

By then, Brando himself was interested in acting, having won praise for a few roles he had played in military school, where he had come under the wing of an English teacher who also introduced him to Shakespeare.

Brando wrote of his arrival in New York City: "As I got out of the cab delivering me from Pennsylvania Station to my sister's apartment in Greenwich Village in the spring of 1943, I was sporting a bright red fedora that I thought was going to knock everybody dead." He would, but it would take a few years.

He worked as an elevator operator and at other odd jobs, tried to be a dancer and finally took an acting class at the New School for Social Research's dramatic workshop, where he met Stella Adler, then one of the major proponents of Method acting. From this encounter, Brando would become the foremost Method actor of his day.

Prior to the Method, stage actors read their lines clearly, in service of the text, and rarely in a natural way, film critic Peter Rainer explained. Film actors, for the most part, adopted the same approach.

Then came Brando as Stanley Kowalski.

"The whole thing up until then was proper -- Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Van Johnson -- and along comes Brando," actor Anthony Quinn said later. "The character of Stanley [stuck it to] them all."

Lyall Bush, writing in Film Comment in 1996, said, "The whole notion of the character who is driven by excess rather than control, heat rather than cool reserve, is almost impossible to imagine before 'Streetcar.' Brando didn't give a damn for the theatrical tradition that came before him. He ripped it up."

Through his studies with Adler and his involvement with others in the Group Theater -- including Harold Clurman, Clifford Odets and, especially, Kazan -- the young actor became the front man for Konstantin Stanislavsky's psychologically oriented acting technique. Emphasis was placed on exploring a role from the inside out, tapping into personal experience rather than merely reciting lines.

Adler "taught me to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn't personally experience during a performance," Brando said.

But Adler once said, "I taught him nothing. I opened up possibilities of thinking, feeling, experience, and I opened the doors He never needed me after that."

Brando was 23 with a few stage roles to his credit, including a two-year run on Broadway as Nels in 1944's "I Remember Mama," when he came to the attention of Kazan. The director decided that, despite his youth, the actor would be a compelling Stanley opposite veteran stage actress Jessica Tandy as Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar."

But it was a risky choice, and Kazan left the decision up to the playwright, who was living in Cape Cod. Kazan lent Brando $20 for a train ticket, but Brando spent it and had to hitchhike.

When he arrived there, he found Williams in an agitated state because his toilet was overflowing. Brando fixed it, but that was "not what determined me to give him the part," Williams later joked. The playwright said that when Brando read for the role, "He seemed to have already created a dimensional character, of the sort that the war has produced among young veterans. And in addition to his gifts as an actor, he has great physical appeal and sensuality."

The play opened Dec. 3, 1947. And though Brooksv Atkinson of the New York Times barely noted his performance the next morning -- commenting that, along with the other actors supporting Tandy, Brando acted "not only with color and style but with insight" -- nothing would ever be the same in acting after that.

"There had never been such a display of dangerous, brutal male beauty on an American stage," film writer David Thomson said. "Its influence can still be felt, in fashion photography and sport as well as acting."

"I made a study for guys like Stanley Kowalski," Brando told one writer. "You know, guys who work hard and have lots of flesh, having nothing supple about them. They never open their fists, really. They grip a cup of coffee like an animal would wrap a paw around it. They're heavily muscled in body and manner of speech."

The late Kim Hunter, who played Stella opposite Brando's Stanley in both the stage play and the movie of "Streetcar," said Brando was her all-time favorite actor to work with. "Anything you do that may not be true shows up immediately as false with him," she said. "He yanks you into his own sense of reality."

For example, she said, in the stage version of "Streetcar," Brando constantly changed the way he played the scene in which Stanley goes through Blanche DuBois' trunk and Stella tries to stop him. The scene is important because it is the one in which Stanley gathers evidence for his cruel opinion of Stella's sister.

"He had a different sort of attitude toward each of the belongings every night," Hunter said of her co-star. "Sometimes it would lead me into getting into quite a fight with him, and other times I'd be seeing him as a silly little boy." That kept "Streetcar," which ran for 855 performances, fresh for her, she said.

So real was his portrayal of the boorish Stanley that people confused the man with the role -- as they did throughout his career with his roles, especially with brooding or rebellious characters.

Brando resisted this transference, insisting in the case of Kowalski that the actor and the character had little in common -- that he "detested" him and was turned off by his "brutal aggressiveness" and absence of fear or doubt.

But like him or not, Brando's Stanley made a mark on nearly every actor who came after.

The reaction of one of them, Ben Gazzara, was typical. He said that Brando's Stanley "got me terribly worked up -- I reacted strongly to the raw emotion, the animal vitality in his acting." Actors were known to go night after night to see "Streetcar" to try to figure out how Brando did it.

Yet the movie version of the role did not win Brando an Oscar. After it was released, Brando received back-to-back Oscar nominations for "Viva Zapata" and "Julius Caesar." But he is probably more remembered for his fifth film, "The Wild One," released in 1954.

Brando played Johnny, the leader of a motorcycle gang that ran roughshod over the residents of a small town. Brando's role as the swaggering, leather-clad biker solidified his place as the prototypical rebel. In response to the line, "Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?" Brando's retort, "Waddya got?" was seen as an alarming sign of the times. The film was banned in Britain for fear it would incite riots.

"His acting was so physical, so exploratory, tentative, wary -- that we could sense with him, feel him pull back at the slightest hint of rebuff," Kael said of that role. "We in the audience felt protective: We knew how lonely he must be in his assertiveness. Who even in hell wants to be an outsider? And he was no intellectual who could rationalize it, learn somehow to accept it, to live with it. He could only feel it, act it out, be 'The Wild One' -- and God knows how many kids felt, 'That's the story of my life.'."

From the beginning of his career, Brando became the mouthpiece for some of the most famous lines ever spoken in films, many of which are still part of the American lexicon.

"Streetcar" introduced the animal cry "Stell-ah!" to audiences, which Brando bellowed from the stage floor up a winding staircase to Hunter. "The Godfather's" Don Corleone issued the cold threat: "Make him an offer he can't refuse."

In 1954's "On the Waterfront," Brando, who was cast as an ex-boxer-turned-mob-errand-boy, uttered perhaps the most repeated line of any American movie: "I coulda been a contender."

Brando took much of the credit for the movie's most memorable scene, in the back of a taxi in which that line was spoken. He had initially argued with director Kazan over the scene, saying it did not seem true to the relationships between the characters.

"As it was written, you had this guy pulling a gun on his brother," Brando told interviewer Lawrence Grobel. "I said, that's not believable. I don't believe one brother is going to shoot the other."

He said he persuaded Kazan to allow him and Rod Steiger, who played his brother, to improvise much of the scene. It began with Brando's character waving away his brother's threat in disbelief.

This dialogue made it into the final cut:

"Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, 'Kid, this ain't your night. We're going for the price on Wilson.' You remember that? 'This ain't your night!' My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville!

"You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money

"I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it."

Kael once described Brando's acting in "Waterfront" as "the willingness to go emotionally naked and the control to do it in character. (And, along with that, the understanding of desolation.)"

Brando believed that the scene resonated through the years with people because "everybody believes he could have been somebody if he'd been dealt different cards by fate."

"On the Waterfront" was a highlight of postwar cinema and, by many accounts, Brando's best work.

In 1955, Brando starred as Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls," where the pre-Brando and post-Brando worlds of acting collided.

In one famous incident, Frank Sinatra -- already jealous of Brando for getting the lead in "On the Waterfront" and not that happy about Brando's romantic lead in "Guys and Dolls" -- got disgusted with Brando's acting style.

To accommodate Brando's obsession to get a scene perfect, the famously one-take Sinatra, who played Nathan Detroit, was forced to eat cheesecake in take after take. Finally, Sinatra exploded. "These New York actors!" he said. "How much cake do you think I can eat?" Sinatra started calling Brando "Mumbles" and said he was "the most overrated actor in the world."

During the 1950s and '60s, Brando also made "Sayonara," "The Young Lions" and "Mutiny on the Bounty," but he also had a string of more forgettable films, including "Morituri," "The Chase," "The Appaloosa" and "The Countess from Hong Kong." His one effort at directing -- "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961) -- was considered a disaster by critics.

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.

"Bad advice? Bad instincts? Bad karma?," Time magazine's Schickel asked in his 1991 book "Brando." "Or just plain bad pictures -- a run of them without precedent in the annals of stardom?"

Whatever the causes, the loss to films, said film critic Peter Rainer, was "incalculable."

"Hollywood's commercial, studio-tooled projects came to represent everything Brando stood against as a performer, and he chose to give up," Rainer said. ".'Last Tango in Paris' and 'On the Waterfront' are two of the four or five greatest performances ever given, but there should have been many more It's a cultural tragedy."

There would be other bad choices and other failures -- "The Score" (2001) comes to mind -- but Brando would also do "A Dry White Season." And in "The Freshman," released in 1990, he won critical praise for a send-up of his own "Godfather" character. As Michael Sragow, writing in the Baltimore Sun, put it, "The Freshman" has "one of those moments that sends a thrill up the spines of moviegoers: the sight of Brando, as an Italian mobster named Carmine Sabatini, skating across a rink like an improbably graceful ice boat."

Not much of note or quality followed those roles.

There were plans afoot for him to star as an aging Latin dictator in a film of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Autumn of the Patriarch," which Sean Penn wanted to direct, but the project never came together. Brando was quoted as saying it was the "role I wish to bow out on."

Brando wed British actress Anna Kashfi in 1957 and divorced her two years later. A 1960 marriage to Movita Castenada, whom he met on the set of "Viva Zapata," lasted barely a year. In 1962, he met his third wife, Tarita Teriipaia, a 19-year-old former dishwasher and floor show dancer who played his lover in "Mutiny on the Bounty."

Brando's heirs are difficult to document, but it is believed he is survived by Teriipaia and children Christian (by Kashfi); Miko and Rebecca (by Castenada); Teihotuv by Teriipaia (Teriipaia was also the mother of Cheyenne); Ninnav Priscilla, Myles and Timothy by his former maid, Maria Ruiz; Stefano, and Petra Barrett, whom he adopted in 1984.

Once asked if he was afraid of death, Brando quoted Marc Antony, whom he played in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 film of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar":

"Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."

Times staff writers Claudia Eller and Susan King contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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