When Marlon Brando took the stand--Nine years ago, the actor came to the aid of his son, convicted of manslaughter

By Matthew McCann Fenton
Updated March 03, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

”I think that perhaps I failed as a father.” With these words, Marlon Brando stood before a California judge on Feb. 28, 1991, and asked for leniency on behalf of his son Christian. The then 32-year-old welder had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the May 16, 1990, shooting death of Dag Drollet, the boyfriend of his half sister Cheyenne. ”I’m certain that there were things that I could have done differently, had I known better at the time,” the elder Brando said, at times choking back tears. ”But I didn’t.”

Perhaps atoning for past mistakes, the famously reclusive actor willingly braved the spotlight alongside his son, putting up his home to post $2 million in bail as well as paying for a defense team led by Robert Shapiro, who would later help defend O.J. Simpson. Under questioning, Marlon recalled encountering his son: ”He said, ‘I killed Dag…. I didn’t mean to do it. He went for the gun and it went off.”’

The then 66-year-old actor’s stint on the stand was also full of Brandoesque moments: He pointedly refused to swear before God while testifying (the court accommodated him with a nonreligious oath) and lost his composure several times — at one point yelling at a phalanx of courtroom photographers to shut up.

It’s understandable why Brando was on edge: His son’s future was riding on what the judge would hear. The prosecution was asking for a maximum sentence of 16 years. The defense was asking for a three-year sentence in addition to time for a gun charge. Christian wasn’t facing a first-degree murder rap (a capital crime in California) because the police hadn’t properly advised him of his rights, and because Cheyenne — the state’s key witness — had fled to her mother’s residence in Tahiti, beyond the reach of U.S. courts. The defense also argued that Christian’s drunken state had impaired his judgment and led him to believe that Drollet was physically abusing his sister.

The judge seemed swayed, in part, by both arguments: That same day, he handed down a sentence of 10 years. The younger Brando was released on probation in January 1996 and reportedly lives in seclusion in rural Washington State. But he would never again see the half sister he said he was trying to protect. In April 1995, after several failed suicide attempts, Cheyenne hanged herself in her mother’s Tahitian home. It was one more Brando tragedy that would cast into haunting relief Marlon’s plaintive words on the witness stand, four years earlier: ”I tried to be a good father,” he said. ”I did the best that I could.”