Marlon Brando was born April 3, 1924, in Omaha, Nebraska. Brando grew up in Illinois, and after expulsion from a military academy, he dug ditches until his father offered to finance his education. Brando moved to New York to study with acting coach Stella Adler and at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio. He made his Broadway debut in John Van Druten’s sentimental I Remember Mama (1944).
New York theatre critics voted him Broadway’s Most Promising Actor for his performance in Truckline Caf (1946). Brando followed that with Julius Caesar and then The Wild One (1954), in which he played a motorcycle-gang leader in all his leather-jacketed glory.
Next came his Academy Award-winning role as a longshoreman fighting the system in On the Waterfront, a hard-hitting look at New York City labour unions.
His oldest sister Jocelyn Brando was also an actress, taking after their mother, who engaged in amateur theatricals and mentored a then-unknown Henry Fonda, another Nebraska native, in her role as director of the Omaha Community Playhouse.
In 1995, Brando co-starred in Don Juan DeMarco with Johnny Depp. In early 1996, Brando co-starred in the poorly received The Island of Dr. Moreau. Entertainment Weekly reported that the actor was using an earpiece to remember his lines.
His co-star in the film, David Thewlis, told the magazine that Brando nonetheless impressed him. “When he walks into a room,” Thewlis noted, “you know he’s around.” Brando signed on to Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) after turning down the lead in the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) because he didn’t want to spend a year in the desert riding around on a camel.
He received another $1-million salary, plus $200,000 in overages as the shoot went overtime and over budget. During principal photography, highly respected director Carol Reed (an eventual Academy Award winner) was fired, and his replacement, two-time Oscar winner Lewis Milestone, was shunted aside by Brando as Marlon basically took over the direction of the film himself.
The long shoot became so notorious that President John F. Kennedy asked director Billy Wilder at a cocktail party not “when” but “if” the “Bounty” shoot would ever be over.
Brando’s political activism, starting in the early 1960s with his championing of Native Americans’ rights, followed by his participation in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s March on Washington in 1963, and followed by his appearance at a Black Panther rally in 1968, did not win him many admirers in the establishment.
In fact, there was a de facto embargo on Brando films in the recently segregated (officially, at least) south-eastern US in the 1960s. Brando took a long hiatus before appearing in The Missouri Breaks (1976).
After this, he was content to be a highly paid character actor in parts that were glorified cameos, such as in Superman (1978) and The Formula (1980), before taking a nine-year break from motion pictures.
Brando died on July 1, 2004 of respiratory failure, he was 80 years old. He was one of only three professional actors, along with Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe, named in 1999 by Time magazine as one of its 100 Persons of the Century.