MOTW: Marlon Brando Biography

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
April 5th, 2013

MOTW: Marlon Brando Biography

In the first century of film as an art form, Marlon Brando's reputation was rivaled perhaps only by his heavyweight counterpart Sir Laurence Olivier. No other actor in the history of film has more often had his name prefixed by "the great." During his career in film, Marlon Brando appeared in almost fifty films and television shows, won two Academy Awards, and accumulated an amazing fifty-five nominations for various other awards.

Marlon Brando pioneered the school of method acting, a style which swept through the community of stage and screen actors like wildfire and continues to be one of the leading influences on the art to this day. When he left the stage for movies in 1949, Brando was widely criticized for having made a bad career decision, choosing as he did a less regarded form. He went on to redefine that form and make it his own.

Brando was not born to greatness; he was born in Omaha. The sources say his father "dealt in calcium carbonate," which is a high-flown way of saying that Marlon Sr. sold chalk. His mother's aspirations were more appropriate for the parent of a future acting giant. An actress herself, Dorothy Brando participated in amateur theater and even briefly mentored a young Henry Fonda when he appeared regularly at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where she directed.

The young Marlon Jr. distinguished himself at an early age by the length and breadth of his failures. A high school dropout, he was dispatched to his father's old military school, Shattuck Military Academy, where he went on to fail at football, quickly acquiring a disabling knee injury. Eventually, the injury to his knee would keep him out of the military during the largest war humanity has ever fought, and he decided to leave behind the disapproving responsible adults of his hometown, his school, and his family. Brando arrived in New York in 1943 at the age of nineteen.

Upon his arrival in New York, Brando began taking part in summer stock productions in Sayville, on Long Island. His difficult and erratic behavior cost him his place with the troupe, but not before his notices brought him to Broadway. In 1944, he performed in "I Remember Mama" and was voted Broadway's Most Promising Actor for his role in "Truckline Cafe." In 1946, Brando accepted Actor's Equity pay to star in "A Flag is Born," a show supporting creation of a new Israeli state. By 1947, Brando was appearing in the Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Elia Kazan.

Brando's first part in a movie was in the 1950 film "The Men," in which he played an embittered paraplegic. According to his biographers, Brando prepared for the role by spending an entire month in bed at an Army hospital in Van Nuys. It has been speculated that his role in "The Men" was the proximate reason for the change in his draft status from 4-F to 1-A, despite his knee injury.

On reporting to the induction center, Brando was given a questionnaire to fill out that asked, among other things, his race and color. "Human" and "Seasonal-oyster white to beige" were his answers, and before long he was meeting with the Army's psychiatrist. He confessed-that is to say, boasted-that he had severe problems with accepting authority, and he was exempted from service through the war in Korea.

Bringing Stanley Kowalski to life in the movie version of "A Streetcar Named Desire" made Brando a household name in 1951. The hits kept coming with "Viva Zapata" in 1952, "Julius Caesar" in 1953, and "On the Waterfront," which took Best Picture in 1954.

Brando would go on to star in dozens of films before landing his iconic role as Don Vito Corleone in Martin Scorsese's 1972 epic "The Godfather." Such was his prestige at this point that he was reportedly paid $3.7 million for approximately two weeks of work as Jor-El, Superman's father in the 1978 film "Superman." Similar princely sums would be paid to him for what amounted to cameo roles for the rest of his life. Brando announced his retirement from acting in 1980, but he would continue to accept small roles here and there-and one or two leading parts-for many years after.

Marlon Brando died on July 1, 2004, at the age of eighty. He was the father of five children by three wives, and he requested his ashes be split between Tahiti and Death Valley. Today, he is remembered as a rough, difficult leading man who was born to lead a revolution in the way roles are played on stage and screen.