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Film legend Marlon Brando dies at age 80

Marlon Brando, who revolutionized American acting in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather,” has died at age 80.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Marlon Brando, who revolutionized Hollywood’s image of a leading man playing street-tough, emotionally raw characters in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront” and then revived his career a generation later as the definitive Mafia don in “The Godfather,” died at 80.

The reclusive Brando died of lung failure at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at UCLA Medical Center, according to hospital spokeswoman Roxanne Moster.

“Marlon would hate the idea of people chiming in to give their comments about his death. All I’ll say is that it makes me sad he’s gone,” “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola said Friday.

Brando’s attorney, David J. Seeley, said funeral arrangements would be private.

For generations of movie lovers, Brando was unforgettable — the embodiment of brutish Stanley Kowalski in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” famously bellowing “STELLA!” at his estranged love with a mix of anguish and desire.

Then came his mixed-up, washed-up boxer Terry Malloy of 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” who laments throwing fights for his gangster brother with the line, “I coulda been a contender...I coulda been somebody...”

The key to Brando’s craft was Method acting — a practice learned at Stella Adler’s renowned Actors Studio in New York. The technique eschewed grandiose theatricality in favor of a deeper psychological approach, often through near-continuous rehearsal that led many actors to behave like their characters even when offstage.

“You never stopped being the character, you never stopped being in that mode,” said Eva Marie Saint, Brando’s co-star in “On the Waterfront.”

“He WAS that fighter,” Saint said. “He was so sensitive. You just felt that when he looked in your eyes, he knew everything about you. In the beginning, it was a little uncomfortable.”

But, she said, she eventually came to regard him as “a prince.”

“He was so generous, so kind,” Saint said. “He was an original. Each take was different.” Even so, she never saw him again after the movie was finished.

Brando’s personally combative nature only increased as he grew older. It might best be defined by his line from 1953’s “The Wild One,” in which Brando, playing a motorcycle gang leader, was asked what he’s rebelling against.

“Whattaya got?” was his character’s reply.

Evolution of BrandoWhile his early roles were marked by an overt, almost predatory, sexuality that made him a rebellious film icon, Brando let his good looks fade as he gained weight and became increasingly reclusive in later years.

He was pushy, difficult, temperamental and demanding — and his preference for repeated takes came to be regarded as excessive and costly.

Even though the studios had written off the star in the early 1970s, he went on to create the iconic character of Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather,” which reinvigorated his career and earned him his second best-actor Oscar.

His first came years earlier for 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” and Brando showed up in a tuxedo and graciously accepted it.

But his stunt at the 1973 Oscar ceremony cemented his status as one of the movie industry’s most bizarre talents. Brando sent a woman who identified herself as Sasheen Littlefeather to reject his “Godfather” trophy on his behalf and read a diatribe about Hollywood’s poor treatment of American Indians.

It was roundly booed — and torpedoed much of the comeback good will his performance had earned among studio honchos.

Regardless of his personal peculiarities, nothing could diminish Brando’s reputation as an actor of startling power and invention.

He was the bridge between the heroic and upstanding screen purity of earlier stars such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and a generation of conflicted anti-heroes played by the likes of Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman.

“He influenced more young actors of my generation than any actor,” longtime friend and “Godfather” co-star James Caan said Friday. “Anyone who denies this never understood what it was all about.”

Tragic private life
Brando’s private life was tumultuous. His three wives were all pregnant when they married him. He fathered at least nine children.

His family life turned tragic with his son’s conviction for killing the boyfriend of his half-sister, Cheyenne Brando, in 1990. Five years later, Cheyenne committed suicide, never having gotten over her depression and the killing.

After a heavily publicized trial, Christian was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter and use of a gun. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Before the sentencing, Marlon Brando delivered an hour of rambling testimony in which he said he and his ex-wife had failed Christian. He commented softly to members of victim Dag Drollet’s family: “I’m sorry. ... If I could trade places with Dag, I would. I’m prepared for the consequences.”

Afterward, Drollet’s father said he thought Brando was acting and his son was “getting away with murder.”

Marlon Brando Jr. came from the American heartland, born in Omaha, Neb., on April 3, 1924. Nicknamed “Bud” to distinguish him from his father, Brando and his family moved around the country throughout his youth. He was constantly being reprimanded for misbehavior at school, and had a talent for playacting, both in elaborate pranks and in plays and recitations.

After getting expelled from military school, Brando at 19 moved to New York and stayed with his sister Frances, an art student.

Immediate impactHe took up the study of acting in the city, and appeared in such plays as “I Remember Mama,” and “Truckline Cafe.” The latter was directed by Elia Kazan, who would hire him for the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1947 and later the movie.

The Tennessee Williams play made Brando famous, but the actor was uncomfortable with the attention. He hated the clamor of fans and suffered through interviews.

At the end of his two-year contract for “Streetcar” he never appeared in another play.

His first film was director Stanley Kramer’s “The Men” in 1950. To research the story of paraplegic war veterans, he spent a month in a veterans hospital.

His impact on screen acting was demonstrated by Academy Award nominations as best actor in four successive years: as Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951); as the Mexican revolutionary in “Viva Zapata!” (1952); as Marc Anthony in “Julius Caesar” (1953); and as Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront” (1954). Besides his win for “The Godfather,” he also had Oscar nominations for “Sayonara” (1957), “Last Tango in Paris” (1973) and “A Dry White Season” (1989).

Although he remained in Hollywood, he refused to be part of it.

“Hollywood is ruled by fear and love of money,” he once said. “But it can’t rule me because I’m not afraid of anything and I don’t love money.”

Rebellious to the endHis combative reputation seemed to increase with every film.

He sometimes refused to memorize his lines and would hide them on various props or on the chests of other actors facing away from the camera. He claimed it increased the spontaneity of the line readings.

While working on the musical “Guys and Dolls,” he reportedly infuriated co-star Frank Sinatra — who was notoriously impatient with reshoots — by insisting on take after take after take, coolly and endlessly redoing scenes while Sinatra bristled.

A remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1962, with Brando as Fletcher Christian, seemed to bolster his reputation as a difficult star. He was blamed for a change in directors and a runaway budget, though he disclaimed responsibility for either.

The “Bounty” experience affected Brando’s life in a profound way: he fell in love with Tahiti and its people. Tahitian beauty Tarita, who appeared in the film, became his third wife and mother of two of his children. He bought an island, Tetiaroa, which he intended to make part environmental laboratory and part resort.

Although he remained a leading star, Brando’s career waned in the 1960s with a series of failures.

Rediscovered by CoppolaCoppola, then a relatively new filmmaker with little Hollywood sway, wanted him for Mafia leader Corleone in “The Godfather” in 1972, but Paramount studio chiefs vowed never to hire the troublesome actor. They finally relented on the condition that Brando would consent to the indignity of a screen test, something usually reserved for newcomers.

They thought Coppola would be too embarrassed to ask or the request would sour Brando’s interest in the role. But Coppola manipulated the politics to his own benefit, persuading Brando with the white lie that it was a “makeup” test for the cameras, not an acting test.

The film was an overwhelming critical and commercial success. Brando’s jowly, raspy-voiced don became a film icon, down to the subtlest mannerisms: the Mafia chief stroking a cat sweetly as he plotted violence, the contemplative brush of fingers against his bulldog jaw.

But Brando knew how to bite the hand that fed him. Aware of his mistreatment by the studio and reportedly sore about his earnings for “The Godfather,” he refused to show up to shoot a brief flashback scene at the end of the sequel.

He did maintain a working relationship with Coppola, who chose him for another memorable role, the insane Col. Kurtz in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now.”

In the early ’70s, one of his greatest performances was overshadowed by an uproar over the erotic nature of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.” In his memoir, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” Brando wrote of being emotionally drained by “Last Tango,” an improvised film that included several autobiographical speeches.

Most of his later films were undistinguished. A hundred pounds heavier, he hired himself out at huge salaries for such commercial enterprises as “Superman” and “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.”

But the ceaseless spotlight never made him conform.

“I am myself,” he once declared, “and if I have to hit my head against a brick wall to remain true to myself, I will do it.”