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Marlon Brando dies at 80

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Posted: Saturday, July 3, 2004 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:13 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By PATRICK BUTTERS

Scripps Howard News Service

Movie giant Marlon Brando, widely regarded as the greatest actor of his time and a Hollywood legend since the 1950s, died at age 80, it was announced Friday.

Brando died at 6:30 p.m. PDT Thursday at UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, Calif., of lung failure, according to his doctors. Hospital spokeswoman Roxanne Moster said no further information was available from the hospital.

Funeral services will be private.

Brando single-handedly changed the course of acting in the second half of the 20th century with a raw sexuality, rebelliousness and realism that spawned generations of imitators. The eccentric, turbulent actor burst upon the Broadway stage with an unseen-before brashness, moved on to film and never lost his hold on the public.

His acting style influenced countless followers, including actors such as James Dean, Paul Newman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.

"He gave us our freedom," said actor Jack Nicholson, who co-starred with him in "The Missouri Breaks."

Recent reports and a new biography had the iconic actor living off his Screen Actors Guild Pension in a one-room house and facing $20 million in debt. According to a July 1 New York Daily News story, Patricia Ruiz's biography, "Brando in Twilight," says the actor suffered enormous legal bills because of his son Christian's manslaughter trial in 1990. His finances were further sapped by support payment to his former maid, Christina Ruiz, with whom he had three sons.

At his start, Brando epitomized the relatively new, groundbreaking Method style of acting, which relied on a total immersion into the text to the point of "becoming" the character. (Older actors decried his work as "mumbling.") Add to Brando's unquestioned acting ability his powerful, indifferent personality and he became an indelible enigma throughout his life.

Despite the ups and downs of his career, Brando twice won the Academy Award for best actor and was nominated nine times. Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Brando created memorable characters with seeming effortlessness: Stanley Kowalski was the creation of playwright Tennessee Williams, but Brando on Broadway and then on film (1951) breathed animal life into the brutish husband of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"Even today I meet people who think of me automatically as a tough, insensitive, coarse guy named Stanley Kowalski," Brando wrote in his autobiography. "They can't help it, but it is troubling."

Power and pathos poured out of Brando's Terry Malloy, the has-been boxer and stevedore from Elia Kazan's 1954 film, "On the Waterfront." The actor won his first Academy Award for his portrayal of the mob informer with a conscience. Terry's taxicab scene with his brother Charlie (played by Rod Steiger) which the two actors reportedly improvised was climaxed by Brando's soulful lines, "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contendah. I coulda been somebody." That moving scene remains one of the great film moments of all time.

Almost 20 years later, in 1972's "The Godfather," Brando defined the archetypal Mafia boss with his jowly, raspy patriarch, Don Vito Corleone. As with his other performances, this mumbling tour de force was widely lampooned, even though the role demonstrated Brando's skill in duality, imbuing a seemingly benevolent figure with coldhearted menace.

The portrayal won Brando his second Oscar. This time, however, he refused the honor, sending a woman dressed as an American Indian woman to accept his trophy as a protest of U.S. government policies toward Indians.

"I don't believe in any kind of award, no matter what it is," Brando once said. "Because I don't think I'm better than the camera operator or the boom man."

Brando immediately followed this role with that of Paul in the controversial, sexually charged "Last Tango in Paris" with Maria Schneider. The film's X rating for nudity sometimes overshadowed a disturbingly real performance by Brando that reached the point of autobiography. He was nominated for best actor for this film.

Yet Brando was known off-screen for his unpredictability and a growing, outspoken distaste for his craft as the years passed.

The pressure of owning such talent, putting in consistently solid performances, and high expectations from critics and the masses, led to inevitably less well-received films that began in the late 1950s into the early 1970s.

"Too much success can ruin you as surely as too much failure," he once said.

Brando was born on April 3,1924, the third and last child of Dorothy Pennebaker Brando and Marlon Brando, in Omaha, Neb. He was descended from Irish immigrants. The name Brando came from the Dutch name, Brandeis.

His parents separated in 1935, and with his mother and two sisters, Jocelyn and Frances, Brando moved to Santa Ana, Calif. His mother taught acting to film star Henry Fonda in Omaha. (Jocelyn, an actress, appeared with Brando in the 1963 film "The Ugly American.")

The rebellious Brando was sent to the Shattuck Military Academy in 1940, where he was expelled for insubordination. He moved to New York in 1943 and stayed with his sisters, studying acting with renowned Stella Adler. Adler used Stanislavski's Method style of acting, which required actors to draw on their emotions to perform a part.

Brando debuted on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1944 Broadway production of "I Remember Mama." The show ran two years. He did several other plays, including Ben Hecht's "A Flag is Born," about the founding of the state of Israel. This began his political activism, and Brando joined the American League for a Free Palestine.

In 1947, director Elia Kazan, with whom Brando worked on three films, suggested him for the part of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"Kowalski was always right, and never afraid," Brando once said. "He never wondered, he never doubted. His ego was very secure. And he had the kind of brutal aggressiveness that I hate. I'm afraid of it.

"I detest the character."

His 1950 film debut was "The Men." Brando prepared for the role by studying a paraplegic and by lying in bed for a month at a veterans' hospital. But Brando would capture the public in Kazan's film version of "Streetcar" in 1951.

Beginning with that part, he would be nominated for the best actor Academy Award for four straight years: "Viva Zapata!" (1952), "Julius Caesar" (1953) and "On the Waterfront" (1954). The same year Brando would reach greater acclaim as the motorcycle-gang leader in "The Wild One."

Brando proved an unexpected hit in "Guys and Dolls" (1955), when he sang the role of gangster Sky Masterson alongside fellow tempestuous titan Frank Sinatra. His Japanese character in "The Teahouse of the August Moon" (1956), with its suggestion of homosexuality, was another satisfying stretch.

"Sayonara" earned Brando another Oscar nomination in 1957. The next year, he played a tormented Nazi officer, joining Dean Martin and Montgomery Clift in "The Young Lions."

Brando directed his only film, a psychological Western, 1961's "One-Eyed Jacks." In the notoriously over-budget remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty," in 1962, Brando starred as rebellious Fletcher Christian to Trevor Howard's Captain Bligh. He earned $1.25 million for the part. Filming in the South Seas inspired Brando in 1966 to buy a private island in the Polynesian atoll known as Tetiaroa.

He continued trying to stretch, turning to bedroom comedies. "Bedtime Story" (1964) and "A Countess From Hong Kong" (1967) were both critical failures. The latter was the last film directed by Charlie Chaplin, with whom Brando had conflicts during filming.

The actor then took the ailing Clift's place and took the controversial role of a homosexual military officer, starring with Elizabeth Taylor in "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967). The 1970 film "Burn!" followed. Both films, despite their critical merits, bombed.

Brando's reputation had sunk so low that Paramount Pictures demanded that he audition for the title role of "The Godfather." The picture won the 1972 best-picture award and also the best-actor prize for Brando, re-establishing his stature.

In 1978, he gained notoriety for his brief appearance as Jor-El in "Superman," earning $4 million for 10 minutes of work, more than the film's then-little-known star, Christopher Reeve. Following his well-known habit of not memorizing his lines, Brando had them written on the diaper of his film-son, baby Kal-El, also known as Clark Kent.

Brando followed this with a staggering performance as the monolithic, bald Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now," directed by Francis Ford Coppolla, in 1979. Brando had also worked with Coppolla on "The Godfather." The actor won an Emmy the same year for television's "Roots: The Next Generations."

He appeared in "The Formula" in 1980, and waited nine years before his Oscar-nominated appearance in "A Dry White Season." By then, Brando had ballooned in weight and was never able to lose a significant amount.

He spoofed his "Godfather" role in "The Freshman" in 1990, trashing the film publicly because he wanted $50,000 for an extra day's work. Brando then appeared in the throwaway bomb "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery" in 1992, and the charming 1995 film, "Don Juan DeMarco," in which he played a psychiatrist to the deluded Johnny Depp.

In 1994, he wrote his autobiography, "Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me." His last film role was in 2001's "The Score" with Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton. In 2001, Brando appeared in a Michael Jackson video, "You Rock My World." He withdrew from a role in "Scary Movie 2" in April 2001 because of pneumonia. It would have been his final role.

His family life also had its share of turbulence.

Brando's son, Christian, was arrested for murdering his sister Cheyenne's boyfriend in 1990. The actor tearfully testified on his son's behalf. Christian Brando was sentenced to 10 years in March 1991 and released in January 1996. Cheyenne Brando committed suicide in 1995.

The actor married three times, all of which ended in divorce to Movita, Anna Kashfi and Tarita. He is survived by five other children: Miko, Rebecca, Simon Tehotu, Ninna Priscilla and Stefano (aka Stephen Blackehart). Brando also had one adopted child, Petra Barrett Brando, whose biological father is author James Clavell.

(E-mail buttersp(at)shns.com or visit www.shns.com.)

AP-NY-07-02-04 1742EDT

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