The turbulent life of Marlon Brando's children—Christian and Cheyenne Brando have dealt with a lifetime of drugs, neglect, alcohol, and murder

With one word—"Guilty"—the long, tragic trajectory of Marlon Brando and his family finally seemed to hit bottom. On January 4th, attorney Robert Shapiro entered a guilty plea in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of his client, Christian Brando. The result of a deal struck between the defense and prosecutors, the admission process took only 10 minutes; the defendant's father, Marlon Brando, had no role to play and stayed home. At the heart of the case was the undisputed fact that Christian fatally shot Dag Drollet, his sister Cheyenne's boyfriend, on the night of May 16, 1990, in the TV room of his father's Los Angeles home. But around that central horror, and inexorably linked with it in a large, tragic, Hollywood mosaic, are all the strange turns of these last, dark years of Marlon Brando.

Brando is, of course, not only an actor of mythic proportions but also one of the great celebrity activists of the past 25 years. In a way, he represents the conscience of his profession. Through his often misguided but always genuinely well-intentioned efforts on behalf of Native Americans, the Black Panthers, and the ecology movement, he has emerged as one of the very few who has tried to walk it like he talks it.

As an artist, Brando has performed in just two roles in the past decade, a self-imposed exile that could be crippling in a business where performance is everything. Yet during this professional absence, his personal life, far from bringing riches of other kinds, has become a downward spiral of calamity. His son's sentencing hearing begins February 26: Christian faces a maximum of 16 years, and because California law permits the prosecution to introduce information about his violent past, prosecutors are hoping he'll get as many as 10. Brando's daughter Cheyenne, 21, always given to bizarre behavior, has grown worse. She was physically scarred in a severe automobile accident in Tahiti in August of '89, and since her release from the hospital, she has often seemed out of control. She was pregnant with Dag Drollet's child, yet reportedly continued to take hallucinogenic drugs. She has attempted suicide twice in the last two months, the second time trying to hang herself with a length of dog chain after coming home from a disco at 3 a.m. After her brother entered a guilty plea to killing the father of her infant child, she was flown to Paris with her mother, her doctor, and a new boyfriend, as well as her father's Tahitian public-relations man, and was checked into one of Europe's most exclusive psychiatric clinics.

Neither professional failure nor personal tragedy are strangers to the people who make movies, but in the case of the Brandos, they have conspired to form a nightmare of epic proportions. Since the early '70s, when his acting career reached a peak with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando has been a self-caricature in films as well as a personality in turmoil. Tango seemed to snap something in him. "I was completely and utterly violated by you," he told director Bernardo Bertolucci, trying to come to grips with a bare—and largely improvised—performance that cut close to the bone of Brando-the-man. Vowing never to appear in another film that would expose his psyche so clearly, Brando beat a hasty retreat to paradise.

He had bought Tetiaroa, a 12-island atoll in Polynesia, in the '60s after filming Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti. He envisioned Tetiaroa as an ecological test tube for Third World self-sufficiency, consulting experts like Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Catalog) and Jacques Cousteau on aquaculture, solar energy, and wind power. To support this New Jerusalem, a company he set up offered tourist bungalows at $1,450 per week. But even though Brando kept a close watch on his island project's costs, Tetiaroa proved to be a bigger financial drain than anyone expected.

His political interests were escalating too. By late '75, when he reported to the set of The Missouri Breaks, the American Indian Movement was in full flower: The siege at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the subsequent trials of AIM leaders Dennis Banks and Russell Means had raised the country's consciousness about Native American issues. Brando's personal commitment was steadfast, and it coincided with the period of Arthur Penn's film.

Exactly what took place on the Billings, Mont., set has been debated within Hollywood circles for years. When the actor wasn't sitting in his motor home making mercurial contract and script changes (all of which were agreed to: Screenwriter Tom McGuane has said that "Brando could sell refrigerators to Eskimos"), he was walking alone in the countryside, both to help keep his waistline under control and his inner demons at bay by communing with nature. According to FBI files available under the Freedom of Information Act, however, Brando allegedly was sighted at this time with fugitive AIM leader Leonard Peltier at the annual Pine Ridge Reservation Sun Dance, to which he may have been flown by helicopter. Even if Brando wasn't there, and he probably wasn't, he was surreptitiously supporting AIM in other ways: When Banks and Peltier escaped a police roadblock in Oregon in the fall, they left behind Brando's motor home. According to police reports, it was full of dynamite and firearms, as well as airplane tickets charged to the actor's credit card.

Brando's relationship with AIM finally reached a turning point in 1975, during the standoff by Menominee Indians in Wisconsin. Summoned by Means and Banks, the actor arrived at the monastery in which the tribe's warrior faction had holed up against the National Guard and, in the words of one of the protesters, "acted like a damn movie star. He wanted our women to bring him coffee…and then he wanted someone to give up their bed so he wouldn't have to sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag." Brando was booted out in humiliation. Rejected by those he had sought to help, he took refuge in Tetiaroa.

There was already a dramatic deterioration in his relationship with Christian, one of at least nine children Brando has fathered by two wives, one common-law wife, and other lovers over the years (including a child by his Tahitian housekeeper born in 1989). In the mid-'70s, Christian was picked up by police in L.A. for taking potshots with his .22 rifle at an abandoned government structure (he was released without being charged). He phoned one of his father's employees instead of Brando. The woman recalls that when she drove Christian home, he pleaded, "'Just go inside and let me out, because he'll kill me.' Apparently, Marlon used to slug him with his fist, hard. Inside the gate, Christian jumped out and ran off into the night."

Enrolled at an exclusive day school in Los Angeles, Christian did the usual amount of partying for a kid in his circle. He spoke longingly about Tetiaroa: The islands seemed to offer some solace from the custody battles between his father and his mother, Anna Kashfi, that had marred his childhood. As his friend John Hormel recalled, "I got the impression the island people treated him with almost the respect that they treated his father, and that he ran the place when he was there."

But by the spring of '76, Christian had dropped out of school and taken to spending his time lazing about his father's house. "Marlon told me not to allow him in the house," remembers one of Brando's assistants. "He'd kick him out for ten days because he wouldn't get up in the morning. Of course, neither did Marlon, but his line was, 'Don't do what I do, do what I say."'

It took a drastic change in the weather to bring Brando back into films. In 1983, a hurricane struck Tetiaroa, sweeping away bungalows, piers, and even one of the smaller islands. His career had also fallen into disarray, and the financial loss from the storm dictated that he go back to work. Over the next seven years, he would spend a total of 10 weeks on film sets, including making little more than cameo appearances in Superman and Apocalypse Now. His performances in both were received as cynical jokes, all the more so because Brando waved his multimillion-dollar Superman salary in front of reporters with contempt. Although Apocalypse, in which he played the half-mad Kurtz, had some political and artistic cachet due to its director, Francis Ford Coppola, Brando didn't seem to care. When Coppola, under the gun and flat broke, was, rushing to finish the soundtrack, he phoned Brando for help. The reported reply: "Sorry, Francis. I wish you the best, but I don't do six-figure favors." Brando's performance was described by reviewer Vincent Canby as "a profoundly anticlimactic intellectual muddle."

After the next year's The Formula, a confused political thriller, nine years would pass before Brando would appear in another movie. He withdrew more and more into self-imposed isolation high atop L.A.'s Mulholland Drive. Tarita, his common-law wife, was living with another man. Brando rarely went to sleep before two or three in the morning; he passed his days and nights on the phone, calling acquaintances all over the world.

Eventually, he became bored with being bored and turned to film work again—this time, his own—and spent a decade tinkering with two projects he deemed politically significant and worth his time. One was a movie about Native Americans. The other was about what he considered to be the CIA's involvement in the narcotics crisis. Neither film ever made it before the cameras.

Christian, meanwhile, was living in the Hollywood fast lane. In '81, he had married another "Mulholland brat," Mary McKenna, but the tumultuous marriage ended after six years. Drugs, liquor, guns, and women who were attracted to his name began to take over. Distraught, Marlon Brando strong-armed his son through two detox programs, but nothing seemed to work. The CIA film was to have included a part for Christian, and many of his friends remember his bitter disappointment when the project was shelved. Matters weren't helped when Brando ruled out a job his son had been offered as a carpenter at Universal. As always, he didn't want his children in show business, even in an off-screen capacity. In 1987, in a rare show of independence, Christian took a supporting part in a low-budget Italian gangster film, The Issue at Stake. He played a hired assassin.

Things were worse for Christian's younger sister. Cheyenne was always self-destructive (several witnesses recall her eating kitchen cleanser), and her bizarre acts escalated after her accident. Early last year her father, alarmed, summoned her to Los Angeles, along with her mother and Drollet, although their four-year relationship was unraveling.

Spurred by his never-quiescent politics, by conscience, and his need for money, Brando decided to test the waters of film again, first in a stylish small part in the anti-apartheid drama A Dry White Season, then in, of all things, a comedy, opposite Matthew Broderick. The season was enthusiastically greeted as the return of a prodigal star, and The Freshman got appreciative reviews, but box office for both films was mild. Moreover, the comic flair that Brando showed as a mumbling mob boss in The Freshman was offset by the obvious and distressing fact that one of the greatest living actors was parodying himself.

By the time the second film opened, however, his career was scarcely a priority to Marlon Brando. Two months earlier, Christian had killed Dag Drollet.

The murder galvanized Brando into a rare burst of public energy. Initially flattered, he was soon personally directing the case behind the scenes: By the opening of court proceedings on January 4, he had hired private investigators, ballistics and pathology experts, and at least nine lawyers. His control was total and extended to flying family members and staff back and forth to the Brando home base in Tahiti, including dispatching son Miko, 29, across the Pacific for a family conference. It seemed like Cecil B. DeMille directing an epic; it also seemed like Don Corleone taking care of business. More than anything else, of course, it seemed like a father trying desperately to save his son.

It is an undisputed fact that Christian pulled the trigger. But beyond that nothing is clear, including the machinations that led to the Los Angeles District Attorney's office settling for a lesser plea of voluntary manslaughter. What for prosecutors looked to be a "tryable" first-degree murder case turned out to be more complicated. For one thing, the detective who arrested Christian Brando failed to read his Miranda rights correctly. Moreover, the shooting's sole eyewitness, Cheyenne, was deemed so unstable that flying her in from Tahiti was out of the question. Cheyenne has claimed that her baby is not hers, and has misdated the child's birth by three weeks to coincide with Drollet's birthday. Since the shooting, she has spent more time in hospitals than at home.

With a botched procedure and an unpredictable witness who might harm their case, prosecutors were left with circumstantial evidence. It wasn't weak: Christian's history of violence, drug use, and gunplay is established, and although the defense claims the shooting was the result of a struggle, police photos suggest another scenario. Drollet's body was calmly draped on a sofa, a TV remote control in one hand and, just as innocently, a Bic lighter, cigarette papers, and a pouch of tobacco in the other. There was a bullet hole just below his left cheekbone. Even so, the D.A.'s office decided to cut a deal. There has been speculation that powerful forces in the overlapping circles of California politics and Hollywood did not want to see Marlon Brando or his family suffer anymore.

It is rumored that many film offers have been made to Brando since the shooting. He is not wealthy by Hollywood standards, and he may again find acting a necessity. Or perhaps, for a price, he'll tell all: In a flurry of letters personally signed by Brando and postmarked the day after the court accepted Christian's plea, the actor announced to book publishers that he was offering an autobiography and that any interested parties should contact him. Cheyenne's medical and psychiatric treatments are expensive, and legal fees are estimated at between $500,000 and $1 million. A wrongful-death suit filed by Drollet's family not only threatens to further drain Brando's coffers but keeps him from returning to Tahiti: Named as a material witness, he could be detained by authorities as soon as he got off the plane.

The way Brando has grabbed the reins of his son's defense may be moving, but it is saddening, too. He's behaving passionately again, about something that really matters to him, but it may be too late—for his career, for Christian, for whatever is left of the relationship between father, son, and daughter.