Marlon Brando dies. The legendary, two-time Oscar winning actor was 80

By Gary Susman
Updated July 02, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Marlon Brando
Credit: Marlon Brando: Ralph Dominguez/Globe Photos

Marlon Brando, generally regarded as one of the greatest actors in movie history, died Thursday at age 80, the Associated Press reports. Brando’s attorney David J. Seeley told AP that Brando died at a Los Angeles hospital on Thursday but declined to disclose the cause of death, noting that the actor ”was a very private man.”

Brando revolutionized screen acting with his psychologically penetrating and deeply emotional performances in the early 1950s. Along with stage and screen director Elia Kazan and other artists associated with New York’s Actors Studio, Brando changed the face of American acting, first in the 1947 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ ”A Streetcar Named Desire,” and again in the 1951 film version, which earned Brando the first of four consecutive Best Actor nominations. Through his performances, Brando popularized the Method, the Stanislavsky-derived technique taught at the Actors Studio that emphasized raw emotion and spontaneity over rote recitation of dialogue. Brando had made a promising screen debut as an embittered paraplegic veteran in 1950’s ”The Men,” but it was with his second film, ”Streetcar” — as brutish Stanley Kowalski, shirtless and bellowing ”Stella!” — that he became an instant touchstone for virtually all actors who followed.

He cemented his status as Hollywood’s top rebel (and as a pre-rock ‘n’ roll teen style icon) as a motorcycle gang leader in ”The Wild One” (1953), where he responded to the question ”What are you rebelling against?” with the famously insolent retort, ”Whaddaya got?” In 1954, he finally won an Oscar as boxer-turned- dock worker Terry Malloy in ”On the Waterfront,” the source of his much quoted ”I coulda been a contender” speech, which he later claimed to have improvised. Other 1950s Best Actor nominations came for 1952’s ”Viva Zapata!”, 1953’s ”Julius Caesar,” and 1957’s ”Sayonara.”

Brando’s fortune began to turn in the 1960s, with the box-office failures of his sole directing project, the underrated 1961 Western ”One-Eyed Jacks” and the expensive flop remake of ”Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962). Though he continued to do fascinating work in movies like ”Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967) and ”Burn!” (1970), he was considered such box-office poison that he had to do a screen test to earn the starring role in 1972’s ”The Godfather.” The result, however, was one of the most enduring classics in film history, another Best Actor Oscar win, and the creation of what may be Brando’s best remembered role, as the aging mob boss Don Vito Corleone. He followed it up with another Oscar-nominated performance in ”Last Tango in Paris” (1973), surely the most sexually daring and emotionally harrowing turn of his career.

In later years, Brando’s outsized legend and outsized life overshadowed his performances. He became known for bizarre stunts, like sending an actress in full Indian garb who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather to the Academy Awards to accept his ”Godfather” Oscar as a protest against the plight of Native Americans. His increasing girth left his leaner, sexier, younger self a distant memory. He had a notoriously messy family life — he was married three times, fathered eight children, and adopted two others. In 1990, son Christian notoriously shot and killed the lover of half-sister Cheyenne at Brando’s home in Los Angeles; Christian would then serve five years in prison, and Cheyenne would commit suicide in 1995. In the last two years, Brando settled two palimony suits filed by former employees, one settlement coming just last week.

But he never really retired from acting. Even his later performances, where he was often clearly in it for the money (he reportedly crowed about receiving a seven-figure paycheck for 12 days of work on 1978’s ”Superman”) were arresting and unpredictable. Some were distinctly odd, like his powdered, flamboyant turn in 1997’s ”The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which inspired parodies from ”South Park” to ”Austin Powers.” Others were sly and cheeky, like his fey turn in his final screen appearance, 2001’s crime drama ”The Score,” where he essentially passed his torch to two subsequent generations of Method actors, represented by Robert De Niro and Edward Norton. And yet, he clearly remained capable of great work, whether as an anti-apartheid lawyer in 1989’s ”A Dry White Season” (which earned him his final Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor), or his hilarious send-up of his own ”Godfather” persona in ”The Freshman” (1990), which treated moviegoers to the improbably graceful sight of Brando on ice skates.

Just last month, he was in talks to play himself in ”Brando and Brando,” a low-budget independent movie about an immigrant boy with a Brando fixation, and he was to voice the role of an old woman in the animated feature ”Big Bug Man.” Another recent project, a DVD of an acting seminar Brando taught called ”Lying for a Living,” fell apart over disputes between the actor and director Tony Kaye. Nonetheless, Brando still felt he had something to teach, and actors everywhere would have been eager to learn.